There are some stories that your research doesn’t really prepare you for. Covering the conditions of workers producing New Zealand’s bananas was one of those.
Videographer Luke McPake and I travelled to the Philippines and Cambodia in May with help from the Asia New Zealand Foundation. Our (slightly ambitious) aim was to cover three multimedia features across two countries.
Two of those stories are still to be released, but the first - an investigation into exploitation on plantations producing New Zealand bananas on the Philippines island of Mindanao - has just been put out on the RNZ website and programmes.
The story we produced, Banana Republic: the ugly story behind NZ’s most popular fruit, took a closer look at the treatment of workers producing many of NZ’s bananas.
New Zealand is one of the largest per-capita importers of bananas in the world, and gets around 71 percent of them from the Philippines. I wanted to tell the story of labour that was feeding that appetite.
I’d done enough research to know of the poor wages and possible exploitation of workers, but what we ultimately found shocked me.
The people we met were paid tiny wages for incredibly tough work. They and their children suffered health effects from exposure to toxic chemicals. They experienced harassment and the threat of violence when they chose to campaign for higher wages or better conditions.
Some of those who spoke to us had survived attempts on their lives, and took great personal risk to tell their stories on camera. It was a huge privilege meeting with them.
Getting the story required long days traversing back-country Mindanao. Some nights we slept on the floors of workers’ houses, and rose with them in the mornings to follow them into the banana plantations. They were invariably generous with their time, information and resources.
There were some challenges to making it happen. The Mindanao region has ongoing problems with violent militant and terrorist groups, kidnapping and safety issues, so it took a little work to get the project approved by our editors at this end.
We’d done weeks of prep for the story – preparing risk mitigation reports and making contact with local labour unions, NGOS, translators and journalists who connected us with the plantation labourers themselves.
We travelled to three key banana-growing areas of the region – Compostela Valley, Sto Tomas, and Davao del Norte – to try and get a sense of norms on the plantations, and to ensure we were visiting farms we could trace down the supply chain to NZ-sold brands.
The problems facing those labourers are a complex tangle. So many factors have contributed to the exploitative picture we now see – from land reforms to contractualisation, minimum wage laws to union busting, a history of impunity for political killings and military involvement in suppressing labour movements. That means there’s no single clear solution to ‘solve’ the problem, but we hope sharing the story is a start, and allows New Zealanders to begin making informed decisions about their consumption.
From reporting on the same trip, we have two other stories to come – on labour trafficking on fishing boats, and extrajudicial killings of Mindanao’s indigenous people. We hope to see them published in the coming weeks or months.
My special thanks to the Asia New Zealand Foundation, who generously funded our travel, and allowed us to pursue investigative stories without demanding editorial input or control.
The trip was an excellent opportunity for RNZ (and myself and Luke as journalists) to do in-depth international coverage from an NZ perspective, which most likely would otherwise have remained financially out of reach.
As New Zealand develops stronger economic and political ties throughout Asia, we need in-depth reporting about those relationships more than ever, but financial constraints on newsrooms mean it’s perhaps harder than ever before to do.
In this environment, grants from philanthropic or other independent groups like the Asia New Zealand Foundation are an essential part of the picture.