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.

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

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 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.

Source : Radio Free Asia More   

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Indonesian envoy: ASEAN bars Myanmar junta chief from upcoming summit

The decision comes after Myanmar's military refuses to allow the bloc's envoy to meet all parties as was agreed.

Indonesian envoy: ASEAN bars Myanmar junta chief from upcoming summit

Updated at 6:25 p.m. ET on 2021-10-15

Southeast Asian foreign ministers decided on Friday not to allow the Burmese junta chief to attend an upcoming ASEAN summit, an Indonesian diplomat said about a rare move by the regional bloc, which has been criticized for its collective dithering in response to post-coup Myanmar.

The top diplomats of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations took the decision at an emergency virtual meeting, after Myanmar’s military government this week backtracked on allowing ASEAN’s special envoy to meet with all parties in the country, including jailed opposition leaders.

After Friday’s meeting, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said that ASEAN member Myanmar had made no progress in implementing the bloc’s five-point roadmap to putting the country back on a path to peace and democracy.

“Indonesia proposed [that] the participation of Myanmar at the summits should not be represented at the political level until Myanmar restores its democracy through an inclusive process,” Retno said in a message posted on Twitter.

BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, asked Ade Padmo Sarwono, Indonesia’s envoy to ASEAN, whether the bloc’s members had decided against inviting Senior Gen, Min Aung Hlaing – the Burmese junta chief – to the Oct. 26-28 summit.

“Read Retno’s tweet,” he replied.

BenarNews asked him whether other ASEAN members had the same position as Retno’s.

“Yes,” he answered.

In the hours before the region’s top diplomats huddled for their emergency meeting, Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah warned that Kuala Lumpur would press to have Min Aung Hlaing excluded from the summit, if needed.

“Malaysia’s stand is clear and I will repeat that if there is no significant progress in the implementation of the five-point consensus, the junta chief helming the nation should not be invited to the ASEAN summit,” he told reporters.

The junta leader had agreed to the consensus at an April meeting in Jakarta that was called to discuss the situation in Myanmar after he led the military in a Feb. 1 coup that toppled an elected government.

Min Aung Hlaing has tested other ASEAN members’ patience since leading the coup and throwing Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders of the National League for Democracy government in jail. During the more than eight months since, Burmese security forces have killed close to 1,180 people, mostly anti-coup protesters.

ASEAN was finally pushed to deliver its sharpest response to the Myanmar junta. The 10-member bloc did not immediately issue a statement after the Friday meeting, but one was expected on Saturday.

Several news sites on Friday, citing unnamed sources, corroborated what the Indonesian diplomat Ade said. Some media outlets said that Wunna Maung Lwin, the junta-appointed foreign minister, attended Friday’s meeting.

Some news agencies, also citing unnamed sources, said ASEAN would invite a “non-political figure” to represent Myanmar at the meeting.

The emergency meeting of foreign ministers was called by Brunei, which currently holds the bloc’s revolving chairmanship.

Until now, Myanmar military-appointed officials have participated in all ASEAN sub-meetings since the coup. The junta has also splashed photographs of these virtual ASEAN gatherings on state media and social media, all in an attempt to gain legitimacy.

Political analysts and rights groups had said that was tantamount to recognizing the military government.

Credibility gap

For this reason and for its legendary delays in arriving at decisions, ASEAN was on the verge of losing credibility.

This was “the cost of its dithering and indecision on the complex and fast-evolving geopolitical environment,” former Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa recently told The Jakarta Post.

The regional bloc works by consensus, which is why critics have called it ineffective. Some diplomats in the region had said that Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand were blocking taking stern action against the Myanmar junta.

It took the bloc more than a hundred days to agree on who would be special envoy to Myanmar. During that time, ASEAN also watered down a United Nations resolution calling for an arms embargo on Myanmar.

Throughout this period of indecision, Burmese security forces continued to shoot at and kill anti-coup protesters.

On Thursday, two analysts told BenarNews that they did not think ASEAN member-states would agree to block Min Aung Hlaing from the summit – or at least not agree on this at the emergency meeting.

Still, it was clear during the past two weeks that Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines were against allowing the leader of the Myanmar coup into the summit because he was not cooperating with ASEAN envoy to Myanmar Erywan Yusof.

Meanwhile, a host of countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, on Friday issued a “Joint Statement of Support for the Special Envoy of the ASEAN Chair on Myanmar.”

They said they “are committed to supporting his efforts to facilitate Myanmar’s full and urgent implementation of the five-point consensus, as decided by ASEAN leaders and the Commander in Chief of the Myanmar military.”

“We emphasize support for the objectives of Dato Erywan’s visit, including his intention to meet all parties in line with the Five-Point Consensus, and call on the regime to facilitate his access. We reiterate our support for the Special Envoy role going forward, and stand ready to support ASEAN’s efforts across Chairs,” the statement said.

ASEAN’s decisive move, after months, to deliver its sharpest rebuke to the Myanmar junta won plaudits from some analysts and on social media.

Simon Adams, president of the Center for Victims of Torture, an organization that treats torture survivors and does human rights advocacy, called it “a good decision by ASEAN” to not allow the junta chief into the summit.

“A junta that is responsible for shooting down protesters, mass arrests and overseeing the torture of detainees should not be allowed to pretend that it has diplomatic credibility,” said Adams.

“Myanmar’s generals belong in handcuffs not at ASEAN meetings. It’s time for ASEAN to give the 5-point consensus some teeth.”

Mizanur Rahman, commissioner of the Bangladesh Securities & Exchange Commission, said on Twitter: “ASEAN seems to have exceeded my expectations."

The Civil Disobedience Movement, led by professionals in Myanmar, thanked ASEAN.

“You made the right decision not to invite treasoner-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing. He committed treason against the country and he is a terrorist,” the group said in a tweet.

“He doesn’t deserve to be sitting at the ASEAN meeting.”

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

Source : Radio Free Asia More   

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