From the top of a rusting observation tower, the leaves stretch out in every direction: thick, glossy, utterly uniform, as far as the eye can see.
It is silent at the centre of the plantation. No birds calling, no hum of insects, only the low whine of planes dumping their loads of pesticide in the distance. Banana bunches wrapped in blue plastic hang like alien egg sacs from the branches. The plantations cover around 10,000 hectares, encircling small villages, networks of roads, and the entire lives of the growers, who work, eat, sleep, live and die among the trees.
Francisco B. Milallos, 65, has worked here his whole life, but this season he was too old to be granted a contract. He helps his wife with her work, and today has taken it upon himself to act as guide. Pausing to scuff the ground, he spits, and sweeps out an arm to gesture at the trees.
“So! This is where your bananas come from.”
Stacked in bright supermarket aisles, sliced over Weet-Bix, and left to turn soft, brown and fragrant in the bottom of schoolbags; New Zealanders spend more on bananas than any other fruit.
With the country’s climate making it impossible to grow them commercially, New Zealand imports more bananas per capita than any other developed country, and we are the second-largest importers globally.
But it comes at a terrible human cost: Filipino workers forced to work 18 hour days, paid as little as 30 cents per hour, constantly exposed to toxic chemicals, and threatened with violence or death when they campaign for better conditions.
This is the true story of New Zealand’s bananas.
Video credit: Luke McPake
It is still dark when Francisco rises at 3am, up from the woven floor mat, still aching from the work of the previous day. The sky is just starting to grey as he lights the fire, boils the kettle, brews charred corn grits to make coffee. He is silent, scuffing over the dust in grey rubber Crocs, playing with his dogs as the sky grows pale.
A little after 5am, the workers begin their walk to the plantation to sign in for the start of the day. As the sun lifts and the first heat of the day starts to set in, around 30 men lean on motorbikes and smoke, assigning blocks of the plantation for picking, spraying, planting and pruning.
This group often work for around 12-14 hours a day, in 35 degree heat. It’s tough, physical work for those out in the fields. Men carry the bananas through the plantations to the packing houses, lengths of plastic looped around their hips. They drag the 40 kg banana bunches, roped together in sets of up to fifty, on rails to the packing houses. For the workers in the packing houses, mostly women, the days are longer. Some start at 6am, and work through until midnight - then it’s home for a few hours of sleep before they return to do it all again.
Bananas are big business. New Zealand imports 72 million kilograms per year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation. Around 70 percent of that comes from this region in Mindanao, the southernmost island of the Philippines.
Each New Zealander eats an average of around 18kg of bananas annually, at a cost of around $88 per household, or more than $142 million every year.
But while the banana companies and exporters report billions of dollars in revenue, the workers on the plantations face a very different picture.
“The truth is I work 18 hours,” says Janet Gorgio, who spends her days labouring in the packing plants.
“But when we got the payslip I hid it from my husband! I know that my husband will be hurt, because I work for how many hours and that’s what we get.”
Gorgio has spent around 20 minutes trying to communicate the structure of her pay, and her eyes are now filling with tears with frustration.
She works in one of the packing plants - and rather than being paid by the day, she is often paid by the box. She and her team work 15 to 18 hours per day to meet their packing targets of around 800 boxes. For that they are paid 200 pesos, the equivalent of NZ$6.
“Last year we packed for New Zealand,” she says.
“When we processed the bananas, there was a selector who checked the bananas carefully, all the good quality bananas were sent. Our selector said, ‘You should be careful with that because it’s going to New Zealand, it’s valuable.’
But little of that value makes its way into the hands of Janet, or her fellow packers.
While her wage is enough to cover rice and meals, there’s none left over for education, transport or health costs, let alone unexpected bills. She can get by because her husband, as well as working on the banana plantation, earns additional income from running a barbershop.
“My husband has other income... so if I don’t have enough money then how much are my colleagues suffering?”
She begins to cry.
“If I’m hurting, then how much worse is it for those who rely on the banana plantation?”
“Life in banana plantation for workers in the Philippines is very hard,” sighs Ebenezer Tan.
A thin, tall man clad in a loose grey-stripe polo shirt, he has worked in the unions for banana workers for years.
“Some receive as little as 200 pesos, 120 pesos [NZ$3.60 per day]. It really cannot suffice the basic needs of the families.
“In the Philippines, government has calculated a family of five has to earn 1088 pesos a day to meet the basic needs of the family - if we compare below 200 pesos to that, it is very difficult.”
But not everyone on the banana supply chain is losing.
Labourers spoken to for this story worked on plantations supplying bananas to Sumifru and Dole - two of the largest banana corporations operating in New Zealand. In the Philippines, they can sell 8kg box for around 160 pesos, or 27 cents a kilogram. By the time that box reaches New Zealand supermarkets, its retail value has increased by around 1100 percent, to $3-4/kg.
Sumitomo, the Japanese corporate which owns banana subsidiary Sumifru, reported gross profits of almost NZ$12 billion for the 2015 financial year. The company does not break down of how much of those profits come from bananas.
Dole Foods does not provide public profit figures, but its revenue last financial year was more than NZ$6.9 billion.
“It’s definitely unfair,” says Tan. “It’s very exploitative for the workers because they are the ones who toil from the very beginning in caring for the bananas, but they are just paid a meagre amount for their labour.
“That’s why the banana companies here rake in huge profits from the workers’ labour - that is the situation.”
Tan works with Joel Maglunsod, a short, muscular man with dark jeans belted high at his waist and black leather boots incessantly drumming the floor. He was imprisoned for two years under the Marcos dictatorship for his involvement in trade unions.
“The situation is much worse today,” he says.
“While Mindanao is rich in natural resources, is considered the promised land, the food basket of the south, people are very poor - we have so many unemployed workers here.
“Not just Mindanao - the whole Philippines in general is rich in natural resources - yet the people are very poor. Why? Because our resources were exploited, our people oppressed by the ruling elites in our country, in cahoots with the foreign multinational corporations. We call that ‘imperialismo’.”
At the plantation, Jerome scuffs ahead through the trees. The air here is sweet with the smell of bananas. It’s thick and pungent - the smell of fruit ripened to the very edge of rot. Walk further and the smell becomes so strong, so sweet, it catches in the throat and leaves a bitter taste at the back of the tongue - until you realise it’s not fruit at all, it’s spray: pesticides descending in a fine mist to cover the plants, the ground, the men at work.
The sprays are a deep source of anxiety for the workers, Tan says.
“They feel itchiness; their skin is irritated, some get blinded, some have infertility, some get allergies from the chemicals.” He says they want to be given paper masks to wear while they are spraying, to have their gloves replaced when they are ripped, and boots provided.
“They don’t have any necessary goggles, masks, boots, they are usually just wearing like slippers, no gloves, t-shirts. So they are exposed to various chemicals applied in the plantations.”
Many of the workers live in small villages within the borders of the plantations. Their nights, as well as days, are spent amongst the fine mists of chemicals that coat the trees.
Rovelyn Selda is serving a chicken soup and rice for breakfast when the men start spraying. You can see them moving through the trees just a few metres away, faces wrapped in t-shirts and torn gloves, one man wearing a motorcycle helmet for protection. The men spray twice a week, every week.
She says when the chemicals touch their skin, it itches, then all the skin peels off.
Her son has 5 months old when he started coughing. When she took him to a doctor in the city, he was diagnosed with pneumonia.
“He [the doctor] asked us, ‘Where do you live?’” she says.
“He told us to take him miles away from the sprays, that he should not breathe in the spray.” She looks around at the men tramping through the bush. “But you can see the reality is this: we live here.”
Her son is six now, but he still coughs.
An 2014 report by Oxfam New Zealand found the men on these plantations were regularly working with chemicals labelled as the herbicide Paraquat, which has been banned across the EU since 2007; insecticide Lorsban, which was banned in US homes in 2001; and insecticide Furadan, currently banned throughout the EU and on food crops in the United States. All the plantations surveyed were exporting to New Zealand.
According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, exposure to the above chemicals can cause headaches, light-headedness, weakness, abdominal cramps, nausea, blurred vision, convulsions, tremor and coma.
Longer term exposure caused multi-organ failure, Parkinson’s disease, cancer and lung disease; and exposure during pregnancy was linked to delays in the mental development of children.
The workers talk of the way their breath shortens after long days with the sprays, how strange rashes sometimes erupt on their skin. They worry too about less immediate, visible effects: cancers, the slow failure of their lungs, infertility or birth defects in their children.
“I remember when I was out covering the banana workers, and a spray plane flew overhead - the workers would all jump up and cover their crotch with their hands,” a local photographer says. “They were afraid of becoming infertile - I didn’t tell them then, that’s not how it works.”
For those workers who do choose to campaign for safer conditions, higher wages and more secure contracts, the path is fraught with danger.
On the wall of Ebenezer Tan’s office in Davao hang a series of portraits of union leaders killed in the last two decades. Front and centre hangs a photo of Oscar Bantayan, a union activist from Davao’s banana plantations who was gunned down in 1988. Beside his hangs a plaque: “Life is Sacred. Let there be life, not death. Life with dignity, justice, freedom!”
“Of course, we are terrified,” Tan says. “We have been killed - our leaders have been killed.”
Vincente Barrios has a gentle, open face that slips easily into a wide-mouthed smile. He lifts his shirt to show where the bullets hit.
“I got hit by a bullet right here, and straight out here.” He points: here, the scars where one entered and exited through his bicep, and there, a small circular burn mark where another pierced his stomach.
Barrios has worked on the plantations for almost 20 years, and has spent much of that time as a union leader, agitating for more secure contracts and higher wages. Currently he is paid around 300 pesos ($9 NZD) a day. He expects his children, when they grow up, will work among the bananas too, and wants better pay and job security for them.
It was 2005 when they started the union, and threats began almost immediately.
“The first one was at my house, they kick our door down and they bring high-powered guns,” he says. He was not home when they arrived, and neighbours saw the men in balaclavas leave.
“We knew at that time that my life was in danger. So I made a request to the company to start work at 6am instead of 4am. The company said OK.”
The next day at 6 am, he and a friend were gunned down as they rode to work on a motorbike. His friend, behind him on the back of the bike, was killed. Four bystanders were injured. The men who ambushed them were never caught, and no investigation was launched, he says.
“The reason why we were ambushed was because we organise the union. The company wants to neutralise our union. They want to destroy our unity to protect the profits of the company.
“If they kill me, the company will neutralise the union. That’s why they planned this ambush, they want to try to kill me. But the problem is they failed to assassinate me.”
Attempts on the lives of unionised workers and labour rights activists are common in the Philippines. Usually, shootings are carried out by anonymous assassins from the back of a motorbike.
A 2006 Amnesty international report detailed hundreds of such ‘politically motivated’ assassinations, mostly of left-leaning activists, trade union leaders, human rights activists and politicians. The report concluded the numbers of killings was intensifying, with 50 prominent activists killed in the first six months of 2006.
This year, the CTUHR found cases of harassment and intimidation against trade unionists and labor activists had soared in 2015. Their documented cases increased by 200 percent, including extrajudicial killings, physical assaults, destruction of property, death threats.
Local human rights groups have documented 318 targeted killings of union members and activists since 2010, but say underreporting means the true number is likely to be much higher.
For those who are killed, the chances their assassins will be brought to justice are slim.
The Kilusang Mayo Uno Union, including Tan, has made a formal complaint in 2007 to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) about the murders of 44 of their labour union members. The ILO launched an investigation and urged the government to take further action, noting that in every case not a single suspect been questioned or any concrete step taken to investigate the murders.
Human Rights watch found in 2011 that only seven extrajudicial killing cases had been successfully prosecuted in the past decade.
Barrios and the other workers spoken to for this investigation worked in plantations and packing plants supplying companies Stanfilco and Sumifru, whose bananas are sold in New Zealand under the brands Dole, Sumifru or Seeka.
Dole did not provide comment after repeated requests for interviews and information on their practices in the Philippines.
Seeka chief executive Michael Franks said the bananas from Sumifru Philippines currently make up around 15 percent of their overall supply.
“Seeka believes Sumifru to be a reputable company with good business practices,” he said, and noted Sumifru was certified by Global GAP, an independent body which offers inspects annually and certifies responsible agricultural practices. Dole’s supplier, Stanfilco, is also Global GAP certified.
The Philippine agricultural system has moved away in recent years from enormous corporate-owned plantations with reforms that returned hundreds of smaller blocks of land to local farmers. Many of these landowners remain too poor to farm the land themselves, and lease the land back to banana-growing companies who maintain the plantations. The result is that chains of supply and accountability are blurrier than ever.
As well as growing their own, Franks said Sumifru purchased bananas from third party small growers, which he said were also Global GAP certified. But GAP’s database includes only three other banana producers in the region, two of which are large-scale international exporters.
Franks said Seeka could not reliably ensure all the smaller growers were complying with minimum wage or worker protection practices.
“We or Sumifru cannot completely guarantee the growers’ compliance with the mandated minimum wage law, but Sumifru continues to educate its growers and conducts spot check audit on its compliance to laws and safety standards.”
After the assassination attempt, Barrios thought of leaving this plantation, looking for other work.
But no, he shakes his head. “I don’t know of any other jobs.”
Instead, he stays, pushing the company to increase the wages and push back the trend toward unstable labour contracts.
“I think that my children will follow in my footsteps,” he says. “If we pass a collective bargaining agreement, it will be good because when I’m old I want my children to inherit these rights.”
It’s a lot to risk, for a job that pays so little. Does he think it’s fair, I ask, that his colleagues are paid for a day’s work the same amount as a single banana bunch is sold in New Zealand?
“We pack boxes of clusters for New Zealand. But I don’t know the price in New Zealand.”
I tell him the bananas he picks go for up to NZ$3 a bunch.
“What?” he breaks into a half-smile, looks up in disbelief, shakes his head.
“No, It’s too much,” he says. “That would not be fair.”
*Travel for this story was funded by a grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation
Clarification: A previous version of this story said New Zealanders eat more bananas per capita than any other developed country and are the second largest consumers globally. This has been updated to say New Zealanders import more bananas than any other developed country and are the second largest importers globally.