More than 500 workers have quit their jobs at a Chinese-run banana plantation in central Laos over onerous coronavirus restrictions, late pay, and exposure to hazardous chemicals, the laborers told RFA.
Growing bananas for export to China and Thailand is a major employer in rural Laos, with hundreds of hectares of Chinese-run plantations in northern and central provinces employing villagers in nurseries, planting, and harvesting, researchers say.
Workers earn about U.S. $100-200 a month, serving an industry that exported $200 million worth of bananas to China and Thailand from January to September, earning more money than other crop exports, the state-run Vientiane Times reported this month.
Plantation workers have long complained of harsh working hours and exposure to toxic chemicals, but the exodus of workers from the VS Company’s plantation in Borikhamxay province in recent months stems from a host of complaints, the laborers said.
“During the last several months, we have been under very strict rules. Many of us can’t live like that. That’s why so many people quit,” a laborer who walked off the job in September told RFA last week.
Among the rules that drove away workers were restrictions forbidding them from leaving the plantation, even to buy food. The policy, presented as a measure to prevent a coronavirus outbreak, forced the workers to buy food and other essentials from their employer at inflated prices, the worker said.
“It’s not like last year,” he said. “This year, we can’t go out and buy food. It’s difficult. The owner of the plantation wouldn’t allow us to go outside.”
The VS Company’s received a concession from the Lao government in 2019 for the 500-hectare (1,236-acre) banana plantation. Most workers are from different provinces, and live in camps on the premises.
Only 80 laborers remain on the plantation out of at least 600 who were there in early 2020, said another plantation worker who still works with the VS Company.
“The other 500 have quit,” she said. “The plantation wouldn’t allow us to go outside to buy food or other necessities. The plantation wants us to buy food only from the Chinese store, where the food is much more expensive. That’s why so many people left.”
Shoddy housing, pesticide exposure
Besides restricting workers’ movements, the manager have been paying workers late, she added, prompting many to quit.
“The employer said that whoever leaves the premises will be fired,” added the worker.
Another worker still on the plantation said that laborers live in shoddy housing and are exposed to hazardous chemicals which growers import from China even though they are banned in Laos.
“Another reason why many of us have quit is that the living conditions here are not good,” he said. “We’re exposed to a lot of chemicals, and our shelters are about to collapse.”
Some workers exposed to chemicals develop skin diseases due to a lack of protective gear, and there are few inspections by government officials to ensure that plantation owners are not using banned pesticides and herbicides, workers told RFA in an earlier report.
A member of the management team at VS Company told RFA that the workers left the plantation because of a drop off in banana exports.
“Now, the number of workers at the plantation is small because we can’t export a much as before to China,” said the manager, who declined to give his name. “That’s why we don’t have many workers anymore. Only the workers who take care of the plantation are staying.”
An official from the Labor and Social Welfare Department in Borikhamxay’s Borikhan district told RFA that VS Company managers told inspectors that the restrictions were aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
“To find out why so many workers at the plantation have quit, labor officials went there and had a discussion with the employer, who explained that COVID-19 is still widespread in the nearby community,” he said.
“To prevent an outbreak on the plantation, the employer doesn’t want anybody to go outside,” the official said.
The use of banned herbicides and pesticides also have forced many workers to walk out. Three years ago, the Lao government issued a law on control of chemical use, but the law has not been thoroughly enforced on the Chinese banana plantations.
Blessing or curse?
Two Lao workers at the VS Company plantation died earlier this year from what coworkers said were illnesses caused by exposure to banned insecticides and herbicides.
The company did not provide medical treatment for the men, who were coughing up blood, and failed to pay their families compensation for their deaths, said their colleague and a villager who lives near the plantation.
“After these two deaths, all 500 workers on the plantation, both Lao and Chinese, were afraid and were more careful about the chemicals,” said one coworker, adding that sprays are used to kill weeds and insects and to wash bananas.
At the time, a district official said that police and village authorities concluded that the deaths were from natural causes, but he added that he believed that they were caused by chemical exposure.
District authorities requested that the company provide better care for the workers and take them to the hospital if necessary, he said.
VS Company has violated several regulations under Laos’ labor law by not taking sick workers to a medical facility and paying for their treatment and by firing those who make a few minor mistakes, the district official said.
“The district has warned the company many times before,” he said, adding that manager had fired about 100 when they protested to demand payment of late wages.
But medical workers said they have not seen any signs that the company is heeding the labor department’s requests.
“We haven’t seen any banana plantation workers being treated at our hospital,” said a staffer at the Borikhan district hospital.
Chinese-invested farming, mining, and development projects in Laos have been touted as a boon for development and employment in the impoverished nation. But the projects have sparked friction over environmental pollution, land taken without proper compensation, and harsh labor conditions.
China is Laos’ largest foreign investor and aid provider, and its second-largest trade partner after Thailand.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.