Lao workers feel the sting of chemical use at Chinese-run banana farms

Laborers say that their bosses do not provide health care or pay them their salaries when they become ill and leave their jobs.
A Lao worker (L) shows lesions on his leg caused by the use of banned chemicals at a Chinese-operated banana farm (R) in Bokeo province in northern Laos, in an undated photo.
Citizen journalist

Chinese-backed banana farms in Laos are evading a government ban on the use of dangerous pesticides and herbicides that harm workers, and are failing to pay them their salaries when they leave their jobs, despite running profitable export businesses, workers said.

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-operated banana farms.

Most banana plantations in Laos are run by Chinese companies, with growing areas in the northern provinces of Bokeo, Luang Namtha, Oudomxay, and Luang Prabang, and in the central provinces of Borikhamxay and Vientiane.

There were more than 38,000 hectares (93,900 acres) of banana farms throughout the country prior to a government ban on the use of pesticides and herbicides in 2015. But government officials say they are unable to estimate the current amount of land on which the plantations now operate because some growers have shut down their businesses following the ban and during the ongoing COVID-19 virus pandemic.

Lao banana exports to China and Thailand totaled U.S. $200 million from this January to September, earning more money than other exported crops, based on figures reported by the Vientiane Times on Thursday.

But despite a booming business for Chinese-run banana farms, none of the financial gains have trickled down to Lao workers who earn about U.S. $100-200 a month, laborers said. To make matters worse, the companies do not usually pay the workers on time or at all, and they do not provide health care for those affected by the chemicals.

Workers on the plantations remain exposed to hazardous chemicals which growers import from China even though they are banned in Laos. Yet, they accept dangerous working conditions because they earn more money on the banana farms than by doing other jobs.

Some workers exposed to chemicals develop skin diseases due to a lack of protective gear and few inspections by government officials to ensure that plantation owners are not using banned pesticides and herbicides, workers said.

Data issued by the Lao Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment in July state that many banana plantations run by Chinese and other foreign companies still import illegal herbicides and pesticides to use on their acreage in Bokeo province, which has the greatest number of plantations and was the first to implement the ban on chemical usage in the fields.

‘It’s the same everywhere’

The banned chemicals used on most Chinese-run banana farms affect not only workers’ health, but also the environment and the livelihoods of villagers who live near the plantations, according to the ministry.

Some workers who become ill or develop skin lesions from the chemicals leave their jobs, but receive no compensation, plantation workers said.

Two banana farm workers died from chemical usage this year at the VS Chinese banana plantation in Borikhane district, Borikhamxay province, because of the use of banned chemicals.

One worker from a banana plantation in Borikhamxay, who declined to be named for fear of being fired, told RFA that laborers on the farms cannot avoid exposure to hazardous chemicals.

“It’s the same everywhere with chemical usage on banana farms,” he said. “Some workers are afraid, and some are not. Those who were scared have quit, so now there are not so many workers. Many don’t want to work.”

A Borikhamxay official from the Department of Agriculture and Forestry said that during the coronavirus pandemic in Laos, the department assigned officials to routinely inspect banana plantations for chemical usage and to check on the well-being of workers, but he could not provide details.

“They routinely went to the plantations for inspection,” said the official who declined to give his name, though workers dispute this.

Chinese and Vietnamese banana farms in Sanamxay district, Attapeu province, have refused to allow authorities to inspect their farms for chemical usage, and have only permitted them to inspect the fruit during transport for export, said a provincial official from the Department of Agriculture and Forestry.

“They are not allowing inspections of the farms now, nor are they permitting [government soil] experts to check for chemicals,” he said. “It’s only when they transport bananas that they allow them [to do their jobs].”

RFA was unable to reach the owners of some of the Chinese companies that operate banana farms in Laos or Lao labor and agriculture officials in other locations for comment.

Laid-off workers feel the pinch

Another banana worker from Borikhane district said laborers must deal with other problems such as delayed or unpaid salaries, prompting most to quit their jobs and return to their hometowns.

Not even 100 laborers out of 600 in 2020 still remain on the banana farm where he works, he said.

“There are not many now because they quit when the owners didn’t pay them,” the worker said.

“The owners sometimes said that they would pay on the 15th of the current month, but later changed it to the 15th of the next month,” he said.

Chinese owners do not allow workers to leave the premises to buy food, so that they have to purchase their meals on the banana farms, which charge them higher prices, the worker said. If they are caught leaving the premises to buy food, they will be fired.

At another banana farm in Houayxay district, Bokeo province, some workers who were laid off without pay became homeless and had no money to pay for medical treatment for a skin disease they contracted from chemical exposure on the plantation, one of the workers said.

Two other workers laid off from plantations in Attapeu province were forced to walk nearly 250 miles to get to their homes in Khammouane province since they had no money, RFA reported in September.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Sidney Khotpanya. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.


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