When the supply of local fruit is scarce in autumn and winter, pineapple, mango, papaya and the like are popular alternatives. So that we can enjoy exotic fruits cheaply, plantation workers suffer from lousy working conditions. German supermarket chains are also responsible for this. What can we as consumers do?
Whether mango, pineapple, kumquats, papaya: exotic fruits are affordable for us and available almost all year round. On the other hand, the plantation workers in the cultivation countries pay a high price. As early as 2008, the development organization Oxfam pointed out serious abuses in pineapple cultivation in Costa Rica: increased cancer rates and miscarriages due to the use of highly toxic pesticides, low wages and the disregard for labor and trade union rights.
Franziska Humbert, Oxfam’s business and human rights officer, traveled to Costa Rica again in 2016. In the report “Sweet Fruits, Bitter Truth” (read here) she soberly summarizes her experiences: “After eight years [i.e. since 2008], the conditions on site have hardly improved.”
Exotic fruits are often grown in monocultures
The study also took Oxfam staff to banana plantations in Ecuador. Many workers complained that pesticides are being sprayed even when they are working in the fields, or that they have to go back to the plantations soon after the poisonous rain. Bananas are mostly grown in monocultures and operators use pesticides suspected of being carcinogenic.
Despite her criticism, Franziska Humbert from Oxfam also sees little progress: “Many of those who used to work as day laborers are now employed.” Even subcontractors paid the minimum wage. “And some workers are so brave that they speak openly and even allow themselves to be photographed.”
German supermarkets are complicit
Nevertheless, trade unionists still have to reckon with sanctions. In many places there are no workers’ organizations at all: Oxfam examined 20 companies in Ecuador – according to which there was no such independent representation in any of them. At the Lidl supplier Matías, 93 percent of respondents said they did not want to form a union for fear of reprisals, the report says.
Oxfam blames German supermarket chains – Aldi, Edeka, the Schwarz Group, which includes Lidl, and Rewe – for people’s difficult situation. They have market power and set prices by putting pressure on producers and suppliers. So they have to be as cheap as possible. According to the French research organization Basic, import prices for pineapples fell by almost half between 2002 and 2014, despite rising production costs.
Exotic fruits: Lidl repeatedly criticized
Lidl in particular is repeatedly criticized by Oxfam, although the organization and the discounter are in talks and Lidl has given them access to one of the cultivation farms. This was emphasized by the supermarket chain’s press office when asked by TEST. An Oxfam employee from Costa Rica verbally confirmed that the company Finca Once, a Lidl supplier, “is one of the significantly better ones compared to the more than 1,500 farms in Costa Rica”.
Nevertheless, the Oxfam report contains numerous allegations: According to this, trade union rights were also violated on this farm. The legal minimum wage was paid. “However, this refers to a working time of eight hours. Many of the workers surveyed, on the other hand, are paid according to performance and then work up to twelve hours to receive the minimum wage.” The conditions have now improved somewhat, Franziska Humbert attests to the discounter Lidl months later. But that is far from enough.
Workers work up to 12 hours on plantations
According to the company, Lidl’s producers of bananas and pineapples are either certified by Fairtrade or by the organization Rainforest Alliance. The company emphasizes: “In several independent follow-up checks, Rainforest Alliance found no evidence for the allegations made by Oxfam on the farms Finca Once in Costa Rica and Matías in Ecuador, which work for Lidl.”
The Rainforest Alliance is an international organization whose certification is used by supermarket chains in Germany for pineapples and bananas. However, the criteria are far from strict enough, especially when it comes to working conditions. The organization responded to the Oxfam allegations and checked plantations.
Banana & pineapple farms de-certified
“Some of the allegations are outside the areas covered by the SAN standard for sustainable agriculture – the basis for awarding the seal. Other facts could not be confirmed,” said a spokesman for the Rainforest Alliance when asked by TEST.
According to its own statements, however, from January to June 2017 it withdrew its certificate from 18 banana and pineapple farms, nine of them in Costa Rica and Ecuador. And in the spring of 2017, the certification body responsible for Ecuador was temporarily suspended “due to quality deficiencies in audit processes, among other things”.
Oxfam is not alone in its commitment to fair working conditions. The Banafair organization brings several thousand boxes of fairly traded organic bananas from Ecuador onto the market every week and has been committed to ecologically compatible and humane cultivation conditions for over 25 years. There are bright spots, says Banafair Managing Director Rudi Pfeifer. “But my impression is that we are repeatedly dealing with the same problems.”
Banafair wants to improve trade in exotic fruit
Some agreements aren’t worth the paper the signatures are on: “There are still permanent violations of labor law.” A dialogue takes place, there are action alliances and round tables at which importers and dealers also sit. However, according to Pfeifer, the danger is that the talks drag on for a long time without anything changing for the people affected on site. He finds it particularly important that they are heard. “We can’t talk about them, we have to talk to them.”
Making the trade in exotic fruits more social and environmentally friendly is also the aim of the international “Make Fruit Fair” campaign, in which 17 other organizations are involved alongside Oxfam and Banafair. The campaign calls on consumers to disseminate material on the subject on the Internet, provides information about the conditions with a traveling exhibition or initiates petitions and urgent actions to support partner organizations, for example in the case of human rights violations, on the plantations.
Buy regional instead of exotic fruits
Otherwise, fruit lovers have little choice but to buy mainly seasonal and regional fruit and organic products, which, however, do not necessarily guarantee good working conditions.
At least when it comes to Fairtrade bananas, consumers can expect social working conditions and fair payment. After all, in 2016 a good 72,000 tons of fair trade bananas went over German shop counters, all of them organic, according to information from the Transfair association, which awards the Fairtrade logo in Germany. For the first time in 2016 there were also limes and oranges with a Fairtrade label, but only in small individual campaigns.
Why don’t more exotic fruits bear the seal? The association explains that large quantities are required for the German market. These are not yet available under Fairtrade conditions. There is a chicken-and-egg problem here, regrets spokeswoman Edith Gmeiner. The question is: “Does trade have to be guaranteed reliable demand so that more producer organizations can be certified, or should there first be a larger number of certified producers in order to persuade the trade to convert?”
Fairtrade not widespread in exotic fruit
The federal association “Die Verbraucher Initiative” also sees customers in a dilemma when buying fruit – apart from fair trade bananas: “There is almost never just good fruit,” says Laura Gross. “Diversity has its price. There are always social and ecological issues involved. And consumers hardly have a chance to understand the conditions.”
It is important that they know about these problems, then they can weigh them up when shopping. According to Franziska Humbert from Oxfam, consumers “unfortunately have little power here. Above all, politics and companies must bring about change.”
Exotic Fruits: What Consumers Can Do
Here are some tips on what to look out for when shopping:
At least bananas can be bought with a Fairtrade seal. Fair trade bananas are now available in almost every supermarket.
Bananas from Banafair are available in most world shops in Germany and in many organic shops.
The Rainforest Alliance label, on the other hand, does not offer optimal orientation, because it neither guarantees the workers a minimum price, nor are all toxic pesticides on the banned list. In any case, the Rainforest seal is better than no label at all.
With papaya, pineapple & co., it is difficult to find fair trade fruit. Therefore, pay particular attention to designations of origin: Sometimes, for example, papayas or limes can be found from the Canary Islands – and thus from Europe, where fair working conditions apply.
And: When in doubt, organic fruit is better fruit, also for the producers, because fewer pesticides are used during cultivation. In Germany you can get organic pineapples, which sometimes even come from fair trade, for example in organic and world shops or in fruit subscription boxes.
Anyone who buys more regionally and seasonally avoids the problems with exotic fruits by enjoying them primarily on vacation – in the countries where they are native.