You might think that neoliberal globalization has replaced the banana republics of the last century. But inside the engines of industrial agriculture, the rot of the old fruit empires still festers. The long struggle of a group of Filipino banana workers to hold Dole accountable for toxic exposures reminds us that international capital still has a lot more clout than international law.
The lawsuit, involving about three thousand Filipino workers, claims that in the 1980s, Dole and other companies damaged the health of banana workers in Davao, a remote region of the Philippines, by using the highly toxic pesticide DBCP.
The alleged exposures took place years after DBCP was “banned from general use” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the late 1970s. The toxin – a product of Dow Chemical – has been linked to various potential health problems, such as asthma, cancer, sterility and miscarriages.
But the Los Angeles Superior Court dismissed the suit, citing technical issues related to California’s statute of limitations rules. Claire Espina, a lawyer for the workers, said the ruling was an unfair application of state law.
Espina tells In These Times that the goal was simply to force Dole to take responsibility for a mass assault on workers’ health. “To know that it was banned, and to push for it anyway and to knowingly use it [in the Philippines] – I think that conduct like that merits punitive damages,” she says.
Meanwhile, the workers and their families report that they continue to suffer long-term health damage with few resources for help. “For some it’s too late,” she says. “For the others, there are lingering illnesses,” including, according to her research, tumors and cysts “all over the hands.” She adds, “Time is their biggest enemy.”
Banana workers in Ecuador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua have also tried to sue Dole and its partner companies over pesticide exposures. Though there have been some settlements, overall the pushback has been harsh: The company has fiercely denied any link between the workers’ ailments and chemicals they’ve been doused with.
Workers argued that although the exposures occurred decades ago, they were kept in the dark for years about the potential health problems. The complaint notes that, “given the location of the Plaintiffs, their limited education levels, their living conditions and access to information, it was impossible for Plaintiffs to have any suspicion of wrongdoing.”
This health awareness gap threatens not only plantation workers in the Global South, but also workers in the United States and even ordinary consumers. The mainstream food and agricultural industries lobby against basic environmental safeguards, obscuring health hazards.
In a press release following the California court’s decision, Dole argued, “There is simply no reliable scientific basis for alleged injuries from the agricultural field application of DBCP.” But the problem is that a multinational company would subject workers in a poorer country to toxins banned in the United States. Communities in the Global South are attractive business prospects precisely because the relative lack of regulations allows for cheap practices with unknown health effects.
Espina objects to Dole’s assertions – noting there could still be an appeal – and says the case attests to the regulatory issues that make workers in countries like the Philippines easy prey for corporations. “Tort law has evolved,” she says, “but it has not evolved really to address all of these loopholes. And the countries who permit their workers to be exposed in this manner [have] a lot of culpability as well.”
The wave of legal challenges over pesticide exposure among banana workers first began in the 1990s in Texas. That initial lawsuit was dismissed by a Texas court, but some Filipino workers later reached a settlement in the Philippines. The latest case against Dole began in the Philippines in 1998, but there it was dismissed on technical grounds. Since then, the initial group of plaintiffs has dwindled over the years. Currently the litigation involves just a fraction of the original claimants, who, according to court documents, once numbered in the tens of thousands.
There have been fleeting glimmers of hope for the workers: In 2007, several Nicaraguan workers sued Dole claiming that pesticide exposures had rendered them sterile, and won punitive damages. But following the initial verdict, Dole fought to have the claims dismissed based on controversial counterclaims of fraud, and the legal battle has continued to drag on. In a separate case last fall, Dole agreed to settle several related pesticide lawsuits involving Nicaraguan workers; at the time, the company boasted that its finances would not suffer from the litigation.
Like many environmental justice issues, the legal system can’t do the work of sustained public pressure to demand accountability from the world’s giant fruit cartels. The recent documentary Bananas!* has helped expose Dole’s vicious offensive against the workers – and not surprisingly, the investigation has made the director himself, Fredrik Gertten, a target of Dole’s PR army. Meanwhile in the trenches of Latin America’s banana industry, workers are constructing a women-led grassroots network for labor protection.
The toxic residue of Dole’s empire will be felt for years to come, but the quest for justice around the world is growing riper by the day.
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.