A Day in the Life of a Bananero
The alarm sounds at 5:30 a.m., and Juan Palacios rolls his tired body out of bed for another nine-hour day at the Del Monte banana plantation, near Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. Palacios is one of 60,000 employees at the three banana plantations in the region: Chiquita, Del Monte and Dole. He is a carrero, a person in charge of picking bunches of fruit from the field and transporting them to the packing plant, one of the toughest and most physically demanding jobs on the farm.
Palacios and most of the other bananeros, or plantation employees, arrive at the farm between 6:00 a.m. and 6:15 a.m. for briefing. There, managers tell them what type of fruit to harvest; today they are looking only for grade 32 bunches that have been bagged and bound with black tape. These immature bananas have already been treated with insecticides and, because they won’t spoil en route, will likely end up as far away as Europe. He selects reams of undamaged fruit and speed walks them three to five miles to the packing plant (running is now prohibited to protect from heat exhaustion). At least 80% of the bananas in each load must be blemish free, or he gets paid at a reduced rate.
From 8:15 to 8:30 a.m., Palacios eats breakfast. He looks for his wife Manuela, who will be on her feet all day washing bananas in the plant. They have exactly 15 minutes to rest their legs between 6 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., when the 30 minute lunch break begins.
“The breaks are short, and we have to eat very quickly,” Palacios said. “I think it is cruel to give less than 40 minutes for lunch.”
Other than that, he doesn’t complain.
The day goes on. Depending on how much work is required, Palacios goes home between 2 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. His wife must stay up to several hours more, until the last of the day’s crop is towed in and processed. Palacio spends the rest of the afternoon at the cantina, where he can buy beer and liquor on credit. He is careful not to overspend – many of his peers drink so much that they often owe the boss money at the end of the month instead of the other way around. “There is a lot of alcohol abuse among us,” says Palacios. “Especially among the single guys.”
Because Palacios is not salaried, he never knows how much he’ll earn on a given day, or how many hours he’ll work – profits are based entirely upon the number of banana containers he is asked to fill – up to four per day. He works long and hard, Monday through Saturday and occasional Sundays when a shipment must go out (although by Costa Rican law, this overtime must be compensated for over the course of the following week).
The fruit of Palacios’ labor (no pun intended) is particularly low, even in today’s tough economy: between $300 and $400 per month. Without wives to cook for them, most unmarried workers must spend $85 (roughly 25% of their salary) on a monthly food plan and bunk up dorm-style to save on rent. After three months, workers are eligible to live for free on the company compound – those with families can dwell in cuadrantes, or small, cinderblock homes. The community is modeled like a rural town, equipped with living quarters, a church, soccer field, school, store and pub.
Nearly all laborers are here for one of two reasons: they have exhausted all other job possibilities and need money; or they were born in the region and don’t want to leave their tight-knit families. Educated workers come and go, but the majority of them don’t have a high school diploma to fall back on.
To upper management, dependable employees are more valuable than gold (although the low salaries do not reflect this) – and there are strategies designed to keep them around. According to former laborer Joiner Garcia, shuffling good workers around is a common method to keep them feeling complacent and lucky to have any job at all. For example, if Palacios works in one town for over a year, he will receive a small raise. Then one day management might send him to Colombia. If he declines to move, he’ll have to start all over again with another company at base salary.
“Many times new people would come to work, but couldn’t even make it through one day,” Garcia said. “Workers have to get up early, work in the heat, work in the rain. The work is very heavy and the salary is not enough. The people look burned out. They never rest.” Although this lifestyle is physically exhausting, bananeros remain stoic, and a general sense of optimism pervades at the plantation.
With the rise of tourism in Tortuguero and the region, more and more alternative career paths are emerging for locals in this area. Courses and workshops offered by the National Institute for Learning (INA) train Costa Ricans to work in the tourism industry and carve out a brighter financial future. Countless residents in Tortuguero have already made the switch, and are now working as bartenders, chefs, receptionists, hotel managers and tour guides. This former banana republic is becoming one of the top vacation destinations on the planet.
But what effect does all this have on consumers? Thousands of miles away in the United States, Americans purchase 6.4 billion pounds of bananas each year at a mere 19 cents each, completely unaware of the diligent work of the planters, pickers, runners, washers, inspectors and packers involved in the harvesting process. During your stay in Costa Rica, plan to stop at a local plantation. Just knowing that tourists are paying attention puts pressure on companies to strive for better working conditions. When you do, you'll appreciate the true value of a banana.