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Overemphasis on aesthetics in quality standards of bananas is harmful to workers
Posted on behalf of: Sussex Sustainability Research Programme
Last updated: Friday, 22 July 2022
Ever walked along a supermarket aisle and thought why bananas bunched together look pretty much identical? Did you know that bananas sold in the supermarket here in the UK are the result of decades of manufacturing quality standards which have been designed to produce a recognisable and standardised commodity? A recent project jointly funded by the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP) and the International Development Challenge Fund (IDCF) explores the impacts that these quality definitions have on growers and workers at the production end.
As with many other crops, banana quality guidelines have a hierarchy that categorises the fruit in various classes. Naturally, each type has different requirements and a price range. The current international banana trade classifies bananas as first- and second-class fruits, with lower prices paid for the latter. However, the distinction between the two is based on purely aesthetic reasons. An article on ‘The cost of quality: the effects of banana quality standards on workers’ wellbeing’, which Research Fellow Dr Layla Zaglul Ruiz (School of Global Studies) is currently working on, explores the consequences that quality standards constructed and established in consumer countries in the Global North have on workers and small producers.
The most severe effects that quality demands have on the production workforce are health risks posed by agrochemicals and physical work undertaken in the packing plants and on plantations as well as economic hardship due to the price difference between banana types. Dr Zaglul Ruiz’s research demonstrates that small changes in our perceptions of what a desirable, appealing commodity is (in this case bananas) could immensely improve people’s lives at the tail end of the supply chain.
The study also shows how prioritising and (over)emphasising aesthetics in quality standards have severe consequences for employees in this sector, resulting in dangerous working conditions. Agrochemicals used to control the fruit’s appearance and growth are extremely harmful to workers’ health and wellbeing – both for those directly and indirectly exposed to these toxic products. For instance, many factory workers in the banana sector complain about suffering from skin diseases, and shoulder, chest and wrist pain. Katia, who is employed at a Costa Rican banana packing plant, describes what she does to ease this pain and discomfort: ‘I wrap a tape around my wrist and put baby oil on my arms before work. The tape reduces the pain in the wrist and the oil decreases the itching from the rashes in the skin. But there is nothing I can do about the shoulder and chest pain, I just got used to living with pain.’
In addition, the arbitrary focus on appearance negatively impacts small growers who cannot afford the infrastructure and resources necessary to produce first-class fruit all year round and who are unable to sustain their business exclusively on second-class products due to lower market prices.
These consequences that quality criteria afflict on workers have been largely ignored by the international banana trade, including certifications such as Fair Trade and the Rainforest Alliance. Consequently, the study argues that the hierarchy of quality guidelines is politically motivated and not driven by consumer needs. First-class quality does not prioritise food safety, nutrition or flavour but rather aesthetics. Conversely, this quality hierarchy significantly impacts small producers’ and banana industry workers’ livelihoods, health and wellbeing.
The article is based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork conducted by Dr Layla Zaglul Ruiz over a period of six years in banana farms in the South Pacific of Costa Rica. The soon-to-be published article is based on the project ‘Quality and inequality in Costa Rica: the effects of quality standards on producers’ livelihoods in global food chains’, jointly funded by the International Development Challenge Fund (IDCF) and Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP).