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China wants bananas. But why are Cambodia's banana workers getting sick?

South China Morning Post| 27 March 2022

China wants bananas. But why are Cambodia's banana workers getting sick?



A Longmate employee with bottles of the fungicide pyraclostrobin. Photo: Andy Ball

China wants bananas. Cambodia’s banana workers, exporting mainly to China, are getting sick, blaming the chemicals they use. But no one is listening.

When the inhabitants of Trapeang Rung learned in 2017 that a 1,000-hectare banana plantation would be established in their village by Longmate Agriculture and was set to provide hundreds of jobs, there was jubilation, recalls Kem Lot. The 59-year-old was hired by Longmate Agriculture in April 2018.

For the villagers, Longmate’s banana farm represented an opportunity – a rarity in the rural bowels of coastal Kampot province – and Kem Lot, like many of his neighbours in the small farming community, was excited by the prospect of not having to migrate elsewhere in Cambodia to pay off the debts he had taken on.

The prospect of earning US$230 a month for maintaining some 2,000 banana trees struck most as a good deal; some even sold their land to Longmate, which in return, Kem Lot says, promised them “work for life”.

“The company grabbed some land,” says Kem Lot, “other parts they bought for US$1,000 per hectare and even though the land was probably worth US$2,000 per hectare at the time, nobody protested – not even the land grabs – because the company promised work.”

The race for land that fuelled Cambodia’s banana boom can be traced back to 2018, when the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries secured export rights to China by agreeing to meet Chinese sanitary and phytosanitary standards. Just five companies, including Longmate, were licensed to do so.

According to the agriculture ministry, Cambodia exported 32,821 tonnes of bananas in 2018, which increased almost fivefold in 2019 to 157,812 tonnes. By 2020, banana exports reached 343,812 tonnes with 16 companies licensed to export to the Chinese market, where demand was said to have reached 12 million tonnes per year.

In 2021, these numbers climbed higher still, with 423,168 tonnes exported. Each year China has been the dominant buyer, purchasing roughly 87 per cent of Cambodia’s banana exports in 2020 and more than 89 per cent in 2021.

 

But while dazzling dollar values dominated pro-government media coverage of Cambodia’s banana business, workers like Kem Lot felt they were not sharing in the fruits of their labour. Soon after he began working for Longmate, problems emerged.

First, Chinese management was brought into what was originally a Cambodian-run operation sometime in 2019. This, Kem Lot says, coincided with a shift in workers’ quotas – from being responsible for 2,000 trees to 2,500. Salaries were cut to US$180, overtime was scrapped and workers now had to come in on weekends as well. On top of this, the company would no longer provide personal protective equipment (PPE).

As pressure mounted on workers to meet the new quotas, Kem Lot decided to mobilise the community, forming a union to push back against the harsher conditions.

 

“They [Longmate] didn’t like that, they wanted to suppress our voice and stop us from using our rights,” he says. “Almost all the workers had microfinance loans to pay and the company knew this was our weakness, they knew we would always have to work no matter what the company did.”

 

In 2020, some 2.8 million microloans were held by 3.6 million Cambodian households, with the average loan worth US$4,280, which rights groups have estimated to be the highest in the world, making workers vulnerable to exploitation.

Kem Lot says that if he didn’t meet the new quotas, his pay was docked and so to keep his head above water, he did what many in Trapeang Rung did in an environment with lax enforcement of child labour laws – he brought his whole family to work at Longmate, but only he and his wife drew salaries.

 

“There were about 700 workers from the community there and it was common for people to take their families because there was so much work to do,” Kem Lot recalls, “looking after the trees, spraying the pesticides, watering, trimming leaves, spreading fertiliser, harvesting and replanting the baby bananas.”

Workers were incentivised with payments of 200 riel (roughly 0.5 US cents) for every kilogram of bananas harvested, but as Kem Lot explains, it takes between six and seven months to harvest bananas and the company estimated each tree held 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of fruit worth US$1, which should equate to each worker receiving roughly US$2,500 in bonuses each harvest.

But as Chea Kheang, a 53-year-old former Longmate employee explains, “Nobody got that, few even got close to US$1,000.”

 

Chea Kheang, along with his wife, Srey No, joined Longmate in August 2019, but by April 2020, he became too sick to work, something he says he had never experienced before.

“My job was to spray chemicals on the leaves, the fruit, the stems and the base of the trees. I worked on one zone, which was 2,000 trees back then,” he explains. “It’s so painful to move, I used to be a very active man, but living like this, I’m heartbroken.”

Permanent joint pains coupled with stomach cramps have rendered Chea Kheang virtually immobile, scarcely able to walk more than a few metres at a time or to sit comfortably. His legs are visibly atrophied and he shifts from one position of discomfort to another while speaking.

“From my waist to my feet, I feel it, I cannot sleep, I cannot sit, I cannot work because I cannot walk,” he says. “At first, I just had mild joint pains in my waist and I noticed it while driving [my motorbike] but this was late 2019 and I just took pills for the pain, then it got worse in 2020 until I stopped working completely.”

While he couldn’t afford to see a doctor, Chea Kheang is convinced that exposure to the chemicals used at Longmate is responsible. He wanted the company to offer more protection when he worked there; now he just wants compensation, but Longmate, he says, didn’t listen then and won’t listen now.

As his illness took hold, Chea Kheang became less able to meet the company’s quotas, even with the help of his wife. They detail how the company deducted from their pay to cover the expense of hiring subcontractors at US$7.50 a day when the pair could no longer maintain the trees across their two zones.

A Longmate employee dilutes a mixture of fertiliser and pesticides with water for spraying the banana trees. Photo: Andy Ball

“When my husband got sick, I took over his zone until it was time to harvest, but the company said my bananas couldn’t be sold, so they didn’t pay me – I saw them take my bananas to the warehouse to be prepared [for transport],” says Srey No, who quit as a result.

Caring for Chea Kheang, along with their two children – one of whom has a mental disorder that prevents him from studying – Srey No spends much of her time gathering tamarind in the fields near their home.

This scarcely covers the family’s basic needs, let alone Chea Kheang’s pain medication, but with no land to farm and few options beyond going back to the banana farm, they scrape by on the charity of neighbours, who allow them to live in a hut in their field.

“We live in misery,” says Srey No. “We’re not living, but not dying.”

Chea Kheang’s experience is extreme but by no means unique. Kem Lot also felt his body changing as he worked on the banana farm.

It started with a numbness in his fingers and toes that spread to his hands and feet and eventually his legs.

“It only began after I’d been working for Longmate, I noticed it when I was driving but it’s not just me,” he says. “Other workers got sick, almost all the original 700 workers are gone because they couldn’t endure the work.”

As de facto union leader, Kem Lot raised the health concerns with Longmate and the Kampot Provincial Department of Labour in 2019 and 2020, but while the company agreed it was a problem, instead of addressing it, they fired Kem Lot in July 2020. The new union, Kem Lot says, doesn’t dare to speak up or protest after Longmate ordered local authorities to monitor key union figures, including Kem Lot, who remains tangentially involved.

“Before the new quotas, they used to give us gloves, boots and masks, but when they made staff pay for these themselves, people stopped using them – it was around this time that the subcontractors were hired,” he says, adding that his salary was docked between US$5 and US$10 if subcontractors were used to help him manage his 2,500-tree zone.

Twelve former and current Longmate employees all reported a number of consistent symptoms. Chhen Krut, 52, was told by doctors at Kampot province’s Chhouk District Hospital that he had respiratory problems in 2019; initially his lung damage was chalked up to drinking, smoking and working with chemicals, but then his memory began to fail him.

“Many workers asked for medicine to deal with the headaches after a day of spraying chemicals,” says Chhen Krut, who worked at Longmate’s plantation from 2018 until mid-2021. “The pills, I don’t know what they were, but they helped stop the dizziness, the vomiting and the fainting.”

He confirmed that PPE used to be provided by the company, but that the shift to the new quotas – widely seen by those who worked at Longmate during that time as a cost-cutting exercise – also heralded the end of free masks, gloves, goggles and boots.

“When we sprayed the chemicals – pesticides, fungicides and so on – up on the fruit and the leaves, the wind would blow it back in our faces,” he says. “It felt like being poisoned, I couldn’t sleep or eat properly for days after I was spraying [chemicals].”

“I prepared him with a motorbike helmet and sun­glasses because I was worried about what the chemicals would do to his eyes,” his wife adds.

Chhen Krut was spraying chemicals for five days every fortnight, but while on paper he was covering 2,500 trees, he says the reality could equate to 3,000 trees and yet most workers received only a fraction of the bonuses they were contractually promised.

The company took a similar attitude, Chhen Krut says, to health issues, with pay docked for time off to see doctors, who warned him that the banana farm’s chemicals were dangerous.

Little appears to have changed since Chhen Krut, Kem Lot and Chea Kheang worked for Longmate.

Ratha (not his real name) has been working for Longmate for two years, having previously driven tractors for local farmers.

The money was better, but months after he started, Ratha says he began to feel weak, and now his poor health is forcing him to reconsider the career change.

“I’m different from before. It was only after working with all these chemicals that I started getting dizzy at work,” he says, between spraying the banana trees on his current plantation site. “I brought my own mask and gloves, but it’s not enough protection, every time I spray, the chemicals get in my face – I have to take a break after spraying, it makes me feel sick.”

During his brief break, Ratha explains that he can’t afford to see a doctor, so he has no medical confirmation as to whether the chemicals are to blame, but adds that his mother also worked at Longmate, until she got sick. She felt weak all the time, dizzy, her vision was blurred and then, when the stomach pains began, she quit.

“I worry too much about my health here, so I’m going to resign in April or May, my harvest will be finished then,” he says. “I haven’t spoken to the company about these issues. I know they won’t listen to me.”

One Longmate employee in her 30s who declined to be named says that her husband won’t let her use the chemicals at work, choosing instead to spray the trees in both his zone and hers – most women, she says, don’t want to work with the chemicals, as they are afraid it will affect their fertility.

Another worker in his early 20s, Neth (also not his real name), says the worst illness he had before working at Longmate was a cold, but now – after five years in the banana fields – he is sick at least once a month.

He went to see a private doctor in Kampot province – most workers interviewed did not have confidence in the quality of care at public healthcare facilities – and the doctor told him that the chemicals were affecting his stomach.

“If I don’t work here, then I have to travel far away to find work. My home is here,” he says. “We know it’s the chemicals that make us sick, so we’re very afraid of using them.”

Workers complain that they don’t know the risks associated with the chemicals, which are largely Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese imports, whose ingredients remain unknown to the banana farm employees. Some are mixed in a central pool and then distributed via pipes throughout the 1,000-hectare plantation, while others are mixed by site managers, diluted with water and then handed out to workers to spray on crops.

Only one chemical found at Longmate is listed as banned by the Agriculture Ministry: an insecticide containing zeta-cypermethrin, which the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified as either a category 1b highly hazardous substance or a class II moderately hazardous substance, depending on the composition. The Law on the Management of Pesticides and Fertilisers stipulates those importing, storing, distributing or selling banned pesticides can face up to five years in prison, and fines as high as 50 million riel – more than US$12,000.

Article 110 of the same law also prohibits the burning of agricultural chemical containers, which Post Magazine witnessed on Longmate’s plantation.

However, other chemicals identified on Longmate’s farms include chlorothalonil, a fungi­cide that was widely employed worldwide until 2019, when the European Union banned its use on farms due to associated health issues, danger to wildlife and contamination of groundwater. Chlorothalonil is legal to use in Cambodia and so, too, is glufosinate-ammonium, which was also found to be used at Longmate, and is also a WHO class II substance, banned in the EU and Britain due to its toxicity.

Another chemical banned by the EU but found on Longmate’s farm is the pesticide imidacloprid. Initially believed to be a low-risk agricultural chemical leading to “mild symptoms” such as vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain and headaches, imidacloprid has since been found to be potentially fatal.

Some workers deal with chemicals every day, others, just a few times a month, but the prevalence of health issues reached a point where Longmate felt the need to hire Leng Somphors, a now 27-year-old nurse, for six months between March and September 2019.

“Most workers got poisoned by the chemicals, they had headaches, diarrhoea, they would vomit,” says Leng Somphors while playing with her young son.

“I saw workers in this condition every day, maybe eight or nine workers each day. When the workers got really sick – some so bad they couldn’t move – then the company sent them to hospital, but otherwise, when they complained of numbness, dizziness and breathing problems, we gave them paracetamol, sometimes tiger balm.”

According to Leng Somphors, Longmate tried to find a doctor to work on-site at the plantation, but as far as she knows, it succeeded only in finding another nurse when she quit in 2019.

One private doctor in Kampot, who requested anonymity, says workers from the banana plantation are frequent patients and suggests that exposure to the various chemicals is, in most cases, a factor in the illnesses they are suffering from, but adds that this is difficult to confirm.

The doctor’s unwillingness to speak out openly against Longmate has much to do with the company’s ownership. Hun Lak, who enjoys the honorific title Oknha – a Khmer term for a tycoon who has donated in excess of US$500,000 to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party – is on the board of directors and essentially acts as the spokesman for Longmate, given his sprawling agricultural empire.

Hun Lak, who is also chairman of the Cambodia Rice Federation, could not be reached by phone for this story and did not respond to questions sent by email.

However, Hem Huy, chief of the Chhouk District Department of Agriculture, says he was alarmed by the workers’ complaints and that he had not heard of health issues at Longmate, but adds that workers he spoke to during inspections were chosen by the site manager.

Hem Huy says that when his team inspected Longmate, they were unable to translate the ingredients of all the chemicals used, but were convinced that none of the pesticides, fertilisers or fungicides on-site were illegally imported. He says best practice dictates that nobody should enter areas of the banana farm sprayed by chemicals for at least a week – a practice that workers confirmed is not abided by at Longmate.

“The company must provide PPE to workers using chemicals,” says Hem Huy, promising to report workers’ complaints to the Kampot Provincial Administration. “Workers are the people of the state and the state should take care of them.”

But the events at Longmate are not isolated. Workers from two other foreign-owned banana farms in Kratié and Stung Treng provinces reported similar problems, and arguably worse working conditions.

Yim Dara (not his real name), a site manager for Angkor Banana, in Cambodia’s northern province of Stung Treng, has worked for there for four years, during which time he has seen the Vietnamese-run banana farm come under scrutiny in the local media – again for health-related issues and the grim conditions that workers endure so that customers in China and Japan can enjoy the fruits of their labour.

Cramped conditions living on site, daily pay as low as US$5.40 – and up to just US$7.20 – repeated exposure to agricultural chemicals and minimal healthcare provisions have seen workers consistently off sick.

“Even when I’m just standing and watching the workers spraying, my skin also gets itchy; wherever it touches you, it’s itchy and hot right there,” says Yim Dara, who adds that he intends to quit soon due to the conditions. “Some employees get sore throats, fevers and they stay home to take medicine, but they are poor, so, they come back to work quickly to get money to survive.”

Yim Dara himself is largely spared this level of risk as a site manager, but he is convinced that it is the chemicals that are making people sick. Angkor Banana not only doesn’t provide PPE, but also makes staff pay for the tanks in which the chemicals are mixed and from which they are sprayed.

Workers in Stung Treng, however, operate on a different schedule from those at Longmate. Angkor Banana opts for four one-month periods annually of spraying pesticides, fungicides, fertilisers and crop supplements, meaning workers have to endure longer periods of exposure to the chemicals. Yim Dara cannot provide any of the active ingredients, noting they are all Vietnamese.

“The company never cares about the workers’ or subcontractors’ health problems,” he says. “When we raise the issues with our supervisors, they ignore it. When I spoke to the local authorities, they didn’t take my word for it. I’ve seen police come here, but I think they just take bribes and leave. So who can I talk to? Whoever comes and says they will help, like government officials or journalists or others, they come, they get money in their pocket and they leave.”

When contacted for this story via details listed on the Ministry of Commerce’s register, Angkor Banana did not respond to requests for comment, but a similar story played out in Kratié province, where Thagrico, another Vietnamese company – with ties to Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL), a conglomerate that has been repeatedly accused of land grabs and rights violations in Cambodia – also owns a banana plantation.

Tran Ba Duong, chairman of Thaco, Thagrico’s parent company, in December 2021 told Vietnamese local media that he expected banana exports to be worth US$1 billion after exporting 250,000 tonnes of bananas from Cambodian operations last year.

Like Yim Dara in Stung Treng province, 42-year-old Soeung Vichet (also not his real name) works for Thagrico as a site manager, but he, too, is a sub­contractor, one of several thousand working on Thagrico’s numerous tropical fruit plantations in Kratié. And like Yim Dara and the Longmate employees, Soeung Vichet has also seen a number of health issues among workers.

Soeung Vichet manages as many as 50 workers who handle chemicals, spraying with them every day – from when the banana tree flowers until the fruit is packaged – but as with almost all banana farm workers Post Magazine spoke to, the chemicals they are using remain a mystery to them.

“I don’t know where the chemicals are from,” says Soeung Vichet, describing how the workers mix them each day and adding that all the labels are written in Vietnamese.

None of the observed chemicals used by Thagrico’s staff are listed as banned by the Ministry of Agriculture, although the pesticide imidacloprid was also found here, along with carbendazim – a fungicide widely banned throughout the world due to its links to genetic defects, infertility and long-lasting environmental impact.

Thagrico does not provide PPE to the workers, saying it is their responsibility to protect themselves on the job, but Soeung Vichet notes that it is almost impossible to avoid coming into direct contact with the chemicals while spraying and says he is routinely soaked when the company uses tractors for spraying.

“Even though [the company] knows that workers have health problems from spraying the chemicals, they haven’t reduced the amount of chemicals used,” says Soeung Vichet. “They added more and more to use every day without providing us with any PPE.”

Srey Vuthy, spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, declined to comment on any illnesses or health issues connected to chemical usage on banana farms, but Heng Choeun, president of the Cambodian Agricultural Workers Federation (CAWF), says that no official assessment has been made by any government ministry regarding the health impacts of chemicals used on the farms.

“We don’t know how badly the chemicals affect workers’ health because there is no assessment from the relevant ministries,” he says, noting that health issues – particularly weak health and respiratory problems – have been raised by banana farm workers across Cambodia. “We don’t know for sure if that is because of the chemicals, as we don’t have the capacity to conduct research yet.”

Of CAWF’s estimated 1,000 union members, 400 are banana farm workers in Kampot and Kratié provinces, but Heng Choeun has been active in working with agricultural workers across the country and has his sights set on unionising banana farms in Ratanakiri and Stung Treng provinces.

Neither the companies nor the government seem interested in digging deeper into these health problems, Heng Choeun says – in fact, the inspections carried out by the Ministry of Agriculture do not even appear to enforce basic safety standards.

“Our union has raised awareness of the issues related to agricultural chemicals, but we still don’t know exactly what the issues are,” he says, “so our goal is to have protection, to monitor and research the risks, especially when companies don’t take protective measures – there’s no improvement yet, no enforcement of PPE requirements while spraying pesticides.”

Heng Choeun has seen what he calls a range of human rights abuses, exploitation and endangerment across banana farms and likens them to the well-documented abuses seen in Cambodia’s rubber plantations. But while the Chinese market is partly responsible for the banana boom and the subsequent cost-cutting measures that endanger workers’ health, he says these abuses have been seen across the board in banana farms, whether they are owned by Cambodian, Chinese or Vietnamese nationals, irrespective of where the bananas are destined to be sold.

“We want to mobilise workers in agroindustry,” he says, “so that they have one voice and power to negotiate with employers and the government to promote working conditions, freedoms and legal rights.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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