Profits at the expense of workers and their communities


What makes bananas so cheap? The focus of this interview is on the work that goes into producing this dietary staple.



Working to Produce Cheap Food for Export


Aviva Chomsky is Professor of History and Coordinator of Latin American Studies at Salem State College in Salem, Massachusetts. She is the author of many important books, including West Indian Workers and the United Fruit Company in Costa Rica, 1870–1940 (1996) and Linked Labor Histories: New England, Colombia, and the Making of a Global Working Class (2008). The focus of this interview is on the work that goes into producing bananas.


Why should we care about who grows the bananas we eat?


Most of us know that we live in a globally integrated economy. But we generally have only a vague sense of what that means. It can be brought to our attention in particularly vivid ways when we physically touch, wear, or even eat an item like a banana that not only has traveled a great distance, but is embedded in a social, political, and economic history that has caused immense human suffering and environmental destruction over centuries, and continues to do so today. We should care about that system because we are part of it—whether or not we eat bananas! But the bananas, with their little stickers saying “Product of Honduras,” “Product of Colombia,” “Product of Guatemala,” “Product of Ecuador,” “Product of Costa Rica,” can remind us that the most ordinary and intimate aspects of our everyday lives are embedded in global systems and structures. Most of our bananas come from countries plagued by poverty and violence—and the banana industry has played a big role in this. Our bananas have complicated, fascinating, and tragic histories.

From your perspective as a historian of labor, why are bananas cheap?


Labor is one of the costs that goes into producing our food, but it’s not the only one. Land, machinery, inputs like fuel, pesticides and fertilizers, executives’ salaries, distributions to shareholders, and taxes are some of the direct costs. Because corporations are legally bound to prioritize profits to shareholders, they try to minimize other costs—often at the expense of workers and local communities.


There are other costs that keep our bananas cheap that are not directly paid by the companies—like the military aid the United States gives to banana-producing countries that helps to keep labor cheap by, for example, overthrowing governments if they allow workers and peasants to organize for better wages. That’s not just theoretical—it happened in Guatemala in 1954, and in Honduras in 2009. Then there are the unpaid costs, like the cost of subsistence farmers pushed off their land for agribusiness, polluted waterways, poisoned land, and climate change. To summarize: bananas are cheap because U.S. companies and the U.S. government collaborate to exploit the land and the people of banana-producing countries.









Why did the United Fruit Company recruit black West Indians to work on its plantations on the Atlantic Coast of Costa Rica? Wouldn’t it have been easier to recruit indigenous and mestizo peoples from within Costa Rica?


In Central America, the banana industry was established in the late nineteenth century in the Atlantic Coast rainforests. This region was quite remote from the countries’ highland centers of population, government, and economy, and had long been more politically and economically integrated with the Caribbean islands. Nevertheless, in the countries with large indigenous populations and established systems of indigenous labor coercion, like Guatemala and Honduras, the banana companies were able to bring large numbers of indigenous workers down to their coastal plantations. In Costa Rica, though, the indigenous population was much smaller. The company turned to the British Caribbean, especially Jamaica, Barbados, and St. Kitts, to recruit the descendants of workers enslaved in Africa and forcibly transported to Caribbean sugar plantations. When slavery ended, many Caribbean workers entered a migrant stream that supplied the growing U.S.-dominated industrial order, building the Panama Canal, working on U.S.-owned sugar plantations in Cuba and banana plantations in Central America. They were easy to exploit in part because national governments cared little for migrant workers, and often stirred up populist and racist resentment against them.



“Bananas are cheap because US companies and the US government collaborate to exploit the land and the people of banana producing countries.”

What role has organized labor played in creating better working conditions in the banana-growing regions of Costa Rica and Colombia?


Workers on banana plantations have organized again and again over the past century. Banana worker unions and strikes have played significant roles in their countries’ histories. Historian Charles Bergquist pointed out that when foreign companies employ local workers, worker radicalism may be supported by national anti-imperialist sentiment. This was certainly the case with the 1928 banana strike in Colombia. The company called in the Colombian army, which massacred hundreds or perhaps thousands of workers. The strike was crushed, but it became an iconic symbol of heroic resistance to foreign exploitation in Colombian historical memory. In Costa Rica and Cuba, where most of the United Fruit Company’s workers were foreign migrants, nationalism could cut the other way, and the company could benefit from anti-immigrant sentiment that undermined support for banana worker justice. It’s worth noting that even after over a century of struggle, banana workers remain marginalized and exploited, subject to grueling working conditions, low wages, and exposure to toxic pesticides—and in Colombia, especially, to violence when they try to change these conditions.


Are there more equitable ways to grow and consume bananas? What can we, as citizens of different countries and as consumers, do?


I like to remind my students that personal purification is the least effective form of political activism. Individual choices about consumption—like deciding to boycott bananas because of the violence and exploitation involved in their production—does exactly nothing to help the people involved. A boycott can be an effective tool when workers demand it to support specific goals. For example, the United Farm Workers organized a consumer boycott of iceberg lettuce and table grapes in the 1960s and 70s in order to pressure specific companies to recognize and negotiate with their union. That consumer boycott worked, and the companies signed contracts that substantially improved worker rights. But a decontextualized, individual boycott is more likely to harm than to help the workers who are already struggling under terrible conditions. Buying “fairtrade” bananas might also seem like a simple consumer solution, but the injustices in the banana industry are so vast that the “fair” label has also created much controversy.


If we want our bananas to be produced under fairer conditions, I think we have two avenues. One is to work directly in solidarity with workers and unions on the banana plantations. The other is to look at how U.S. government policies create and support conditions in Central America and Colombia that make it easy for companies to exploit workers there. Ending U.S. military aid to these countries might be the most effective way to reduce repression of workers and create spaces in which they can freely organize.

The Fruit Company, Inc.

Reserved for itself the most succulent,
The central coast of my own land,
The delicate waist of the Americas.

It rechristened its territories,
As the "Banana Republics",
And over the sleeping dead,
Over the restless heroes
Who brought about the greatness,
The liberty and the flags,

It established a comic opera …




– Bergquist, Charles. Labor and the Course of American Democracy: US History in Latin American Perspective. New York: Verso, 1996.
– Chomsky, Aviva. West Indian Workers and the United Fruit Company in Costa Rica, 1870–1940. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.
– ---. Linked Labor Histories: New England, Colombia, and the Making of a Global Working Class. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.
– Coleman, Kevin. A Camera in the Garden of Eden: The Self-Forging of a Banana Republic. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016.
– Frank, Dana. Bananeras: Women Transforming the Banana Unions of Latin America. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016.
– Frundt, Henry J. Fair Bananas! Farmers, Workers, and Consumers Strive to Change an Industry. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011.


– "District superintendent and overseer inspecting fruit, Colombia Division, circa 1920s." United Fruit Company Photograph Collection, Baker Library, Harvard Business School (olvwork719673).