Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Navigating unsafe workplaces in Costa Rica’s banana industry

Deeply rooted gender and class hierarchies mean that gender-based violence does not end at home - women are also vulnerable to workplace abuse.

Layla Zaglul
15 November 2017

Banana processing factory in Costa Rica. S. Rae/Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

In 2015, I worked as a regular employee on two banana farms in Costa Rica for a year to collect ethnographic data on the work conditions in the banana sector. As a woman, I was tasked to work alongside other women, as per the rules of the farms. This type of involvement allowed me to form close bonds with the other women workers, with whom I shared experiences, work, meals and other aspects of my daily routine. The close proximity I shared with these women helped me understand the gender-specific dynamics of the Costa Rican banana industry and their broader implications.

Women working on Costa Rican banana farms are exposed to and suffer from different forms of exploitation, including sexual violence. Gender is an important factor shaping power relations on the shop floor, and this was particularly evident during my time at Caché Farm. My research also showed that, even when women are able to escape different forms of violence in their homes, they often end up encountering the same patterns of gender-based abuse in the workplace; hierarchies enabling the domination of men over women at home are thus reproduced at work. Gender often intersects with other forms of power, such as established hierarchies in the workplace. For instance, while female workers expressed being threatened by their male superiors, they did not experience abuse or harassment from their male co-workers, who occupied relatively similar positions of power.

Even when women are able to escape different forms of violence in their homes, they often end up encountering the same patterns of gender-based abuse in the workplace.

For context, violence against women is highly prevalent in Costa Rica. Between 2010 and 2017, 337 729 requests for various protection measures were made to the police – an average of 132 requests every day, the majority of which involved women seeking protection from men. In addition, the Inter-institutional Commission for the Registry of Femicides reported there were 26 femicides in Costa Rica in 2016 – the equivalent of a little more than two femicides per month. While these figures mostly relate to incidents of domestic abuse, violence against women is not restricted to women’s homes.

Gender dynamics on the shop floor at Caché Farm

Workers in Costa Rica’s banana industry are divided into field and packing plant workers, the latter group being mostly (but not exclusively) composed of women. In Caché Farm, the packing plant staff is managed by two men, the foremen, and all other administrative positions, like the role of general manager, are also held by men. Karla, Patricia and Samantha are packing plant workers at Caché Farm. Besides being subjected from various forms of labour exploitation – including being required to work more hours than the legal maximum, being underpaid and not being granted sick leave – all three have experienced different forms of sexual harassment by their superiors at work. It’s important to note that Caché Farm does not have a workers’ union. In fact, banana unions are notoriously weak in Costa Rica – largely as a result of efforts by multinational banana companies, the Costa Rican Government, the US embassy and the Catholic Church to replace trade unions with solidarismo in the 1980s. Whereas almost all agricultural workers belonged to unions before the solidarismo movement, today, less than five of the 180 plantations are unionised, leaving most workers, and especially women workers, in vulnerable positions.

Karla has been working at Caché for more than three years. She is 36-years-old and lives with her current partner and son. She has two other children from her former relationship who live with her parents; her eldest two children decided to move in with their grandparents when they saw her partner being violent towards her. She told me:

“He once tried to strangle me and my daughter saw that, after that she asked my mother if she could live with her. That is very hard for me, to live away from my kids. But Robin [her husband] has gotten better, he has worked on his anger. He hasn’t been violent ever since”.

Unfortunately for Karla, her experience of gender-based violence does not end at home. She revealed to me that she also feels uncomfortable around the foreman at Caché, Jaime, who has made inappropriate comments to her on various occasions. I remember him once approaching her and whispering something in her ear when we were working together. When he left, she told me:

“You know what he just said to me? He said ‘they call me cassava, because I grow down, not up’. That is because he is short, and he’s telling me that even though he is short, he has a big penis”.

Like Karla, 31-year-old Patricia has experienced verbal and physical violence from her husband. She started working at Caché when her husband lost his job, leaving the family of four without any source of income.

Patricia expressed to me that she feared Jaime and other administrative staff, but not her male co-workers. At the time, Patricia’s division in the packing plant was isolated from most of the other workers. She only worked with Greivin, a male co-worker who happened to be her neighbour and childhood friend. When Jaime started harassing Patricia she felt threatened by him, especially when there was no one else around, so she asked Greivin to make sure she was never left her alone with Jaime.

Patricia was also harassed by Juan, a supervisor at the farm, who once presented himself to Patricia naked while she was walking around the plantation. When she saw him, she got scared and ran away, as he proceeded to shout at her, inviting her to join him. He was masturbating whilst calling her, an act that Patricia interpreted as a threat of rape.

Despite these abuses, the farm’s administration, foremen and managers alike, made little to no effort to make Patricia feel safe. After the incident with Juan, Patricia asked her brother-in-law – another male co-worker she was able to trust – to accompany her to the a meeting with her general manager for support. The general manager responded by proposing to prohibit Juan from having any contact with Patricia. After the meeting, Patricia’s brother-in-law was fired for unclear and unstated reasons, an event they both saw as consequence for speaking out.

Dismissals of the sort are not uncommon on the farm. Eighteen-year-old Samantha worked at Caché for two months before being fired with no justification. She doesn’t have children but she needs to work to help support her family. She lives with her sister and her two nieces. During an interview a few weeks after being fired, Samantha said to me:

“I was fired because I did not sleep with Jaime. He was harassing me via text messages, sending me dirty messages and asking me to send him naked pictures of me”.

At first, Samantha ignored the messages and deleted them because she felt ashamed. But when Jaime started making verbal sexual propositions at work, she confronted him and told him that she would never sleep with him. She was fired a few days later.

The deep roots of gender-based violence

These testimonies from the women at Caché Farm show how broader social hierarchies rooted in patriarchal notions of male domination are reproduced in the daily operations of the banana industry in Costa Rica.

As argued by Kevin Yelvington in Producing power: Ethnicity, gender, and class in a Caribbean workplace, the exertion of power through sexual language is an important tool for control. Indeed, comments like the ones Jaime made towards Karla, Patricia and Samantha are frequently used as a method to discipline the female workforce. Jaime made sexual remarks to instil fear, and to reinforce his position not only as man, but also as their superior – and thus used this combination of privileges to produce labour conditions where women are perpetually disempowered.

In the absence of unions or other types of workers’ organisations, women have no option but to turn to the abusers themselves or to their superiors, who are apparently indifferent to the violence propagated by their peers.

And we saw that verbal and other forms of sexual harassment are not limited to the workplace. Women like Patricia and Karla also experience gender-based abuse in their families. In Spirits of resistance and capitalist discipline: Factory women in Malaysia, Aihwa Ong argues that, while female workers that were previously subordinated in their homes may have found some economic independence in factories, their dependency on men in the industrial hierarchy intensified. This was the case for Patricia, who told me that she took on the job to break from her dependency on her husband, but encountered the same patterns of gender-based violence in the workplace, where she was once again dependent on a man and consequently vulnerable to and a victim of his abuse.

In many cases, the violence experienced in the workplace can result in termination without justification, as was shown by the experiences of Samantha and Patricia’s brother-in-law. And in the absence of unions or other types of workers’ organisations, women have no option but to turn to the abusers themselves or to their superiors, who are apparently indifferent to the violence propagated by their peers. Despite potential differences in the nature of gender-based violence, power relationships on the shop floor are reinforced by and reproduce deeply rooted patterns and structures of gender inequality.


This Guest Week week presents the results of research carried out by the team of ERC GRANT, ‘Shadows of Slavery in West Africa and Beyond (SWAB): a Historical Anthropology’ (Grant Agreement: 313737). The team has researched in Tunisia, Chad, Ghana, Madagascar, Morocco, Pakistan and Italy under the leadership of Alice Bellagamba. The team has invited Joanny Belair, Raúl Zecca Castel, Irene Peano, and Layla Zaglul Ruiz to participate in the discussion.

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