Two Lao workers at a Chinese banana plantation in Borikhamxay province in central Laos have died in recent weeks, and coworkers believe the deaths were caused by chemicals used on the farm while authorities say they succumbed to natural causes, Lao sources say.
Banana farming for the Chinese market is a major source of employment in rural Laos, with hundreds of hectares of planted land employing Lao villagers and other workers in nurseries, planting, and harvesting, researchers say.
But illnesses and deaths have long been reported among Lao workers exposed to chemicals on foreign-owned banana farms.
Khieu, 18, the first to die, suffered respiratory failure on April 29 at the Chinese-owned VS Company’s 500-hectare banana farm in Borikhamxay’s Borikhan district, coworkers said.
“He had lung disease for months and then started having symptoms such as coughing and vomiting five months ago,” one of his fellow workers on the plantation told RFA’s Lao Service on May 6, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“He had difficulty breathing and had never been treated. That’s why he died,” RFA’s source said.
Khieu’s body was immediately returned to his home Nakhoun Yai village In Xieng Khouang province’s Nong Het district, the source said.
“No autopsy was performed, and no compensation was paid to his family,” he added.
A second worker, 30-year-old Bochiam, an ethnic Hmong who had worked at the plantation as an insecticide sprayer for more than a year, died on May 16, the source told RFA three days later.
“He died because he was coughing and vomiting up blood,” his coworker said. “Blood was also oozing from his nose when he died.”
“During the time that he was sick, he was never taken care of, treated, or brought to a hospital. And our employer didn’t pay any compensation for his death except to pay for the transport of his body back to his home village in Luang Prabang province,” he said.
A second coworker confirmed the two men’s deaths, saying that the owner of the plantation had reported the deaths to local authorities, but paid only for the bodies to be sent home to their villages, with nothing more given to the surviving families.
“After these two deaths, all 500 workers on the plantation—both Lao and Chinese—are frightened, and are being more careful around the chemicals.”
“This banana plantation uses a lot of chemicals to kill weeds and insects and wash the bananas, and the workers who spray them don’t wear masks,” he said. “The two men who died both had chemicals building up in their systems for over a year.”
A villager living near the plantation noted that both the men who died had shown similar symptoms.
“The first one coughed, and then threw up and died, and the second worker also coughed and vomited up blood,” he said. “Our village chief went to observe the two men’s bodies, which were then sent back right away to their parents.”
Many have fallen ill
Speaking to RFA on May 15, a Borikhamxay district office said that after viewing the dead workers’ bodies, police officers and village authorities concluded that the men had died of natural causes, and not from chemical exposure.
“But I personally believe that the chemicals killed them, because many workers at this banana farm have fallen ill because of the chemical use. They have all shown the same symptoms and conditions, and no autopsies were ever performed,” he said.
“The only observations that were carried out were made on dead bodies,” he added.
District authorities are now in talks with the VS Company, which was granted a land concession by the Lao government in 2019, and are asking them to take better care of their workers by taking them to hospitals when they become ill, the official said.
“The VS Company has violated several articles of the Lao labor law,” he said. “For example, it doesn’t take sick workers to the hospital and doesn’t pay for their treatment. The employer also fires workers who make even a few minor mistakes.”
“The district has warned the company about these things many times in the past,” he said.
As many as 600 workers had worked at one time on the plantation, but because they protested to demand unpaid wages, around 100 of them were later fired, the official said.
Another worker at the VS Company plantation has now fallen ill and can no longer work at her job, a third worker at the banana farm said.
“My coworker, whose name is To, is now very sick,” the worker said.
“Her nervous system has been badly affected, and she is almost completely unable to work, but she doesn’t know how to get back to her home in the Ngoi district of Luang Prabang province.”
“She needs help,” the worker said,” adding that To’s younger brother and sister had come with her to work at the plantation but have now left because of concerns over the farm’s use of chemicals.
Three young men from a nearby village had also quit work at the plantation over fears of chemical exposure, another source said.
Workers poor, uneducated
Speaking to RFA, a Lao agricultural development tried to explain the deaths.
“Chinese [businesses] come to Laos to invest, and they employ locals who are poor and uneducated and tend to blame themselves for their fate when they’re sick,” the expert said, speaking on condition that his name not be used.
“They would never say they’re sick because of the chemicals, and most employers take no responsibility for their workers’ health,” he said. “When their workers die, the employers just say that they died from their own diseases and not because of the use of chemicals.”
“I would like to call on the government to set up rules requiring companies that use chemicals to take care of their workers. The workers themselves should wear protective clothing and masks, but when they fall ill the employers should have to pay for their treatment,” he said.
For now, workers almost never go to the hospitals for care, though, a worker at the Borikhan district hospital told RFA.
“We haven’t seen any banana plantation workers being treated at our hospital,” he said.
Chemical run-off from the farms has also polluted many of the country’s waterways, killing fish and fouling drinking water.
In January 2017 the central government announced a ban on new banana plantations, prompted by concerns about chemical run-off and reports of sickened farm laborers.
But by 2019, local officials around Laos had granted concessions for new plantations in provinces including Xayabury, Oudomxay, and Borikhamxay, and bananas were Laos' top agricultural export that year, pulling in an estimated $160 million.
Many in Laos are also concerned about growing Chinese influence as a result of massive investment in hydropower dams and other infrastructure projects under Beijing’s $1.3 trillion Belt and Road Initiative.
China is Laos’ largest foreign investor and aid provider, and its second-largest trade partner after Thailand.