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Kampot’s banana farm workers on Longmate’s lasting influence

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A plantation worker harvesting bananas at the plantation in Kampot province. Heng Chivoan

Kampot’s banana farm workers on Longmate’s lasting influence

Pivoting from cutting bamboos to collecting non-timber forest products, nearly all of the working-age population of Taken commune in Kampot province’s Chhouk district have been working on the banana plantations of Longmate Agriculture Co Ltd since 2017. Unlike recent claims made in international media, many of them say this change has benefitted themselves and their families.

A joint venture between Cambodia and China, Longmate had invested in a 400ha banana plantation in Chhouk district. The company had started planting the fruit in November 2017 and began exporting them to the market in January 2019.

When The Post visited the quiet Khpob village in the commune late in the morning, it is a quiet affair, the village emptying out since dawn to the banana plantation where most of its inhabitants now work. Some elderly residents were seen cooking at home for their relatives, who return home for lunch.

Chea Bunthean, a 40-year-old resident of Monosok village, said he had come to work as a banana plantation worker at the company in 2019 and has stayed ever since. He has three children, one of whom is in the 8th grade at Trapeang III High School, with the other in the 5th grade and the youngest being 4 years old.

At work, Bunthean cares for 2,500 banana trees. “For the first three months of my care, I received a salary of $180. But after the banana trees yielded good results from April onwards, I’ve earned $280 a month, which is a higher salary than I received for many years,” he said.

“Now that my family’s living conditions are better, I can afford to buy a new motorcycle for my children to ride to school and buy other things such as a power tiller. I also just bought a new Honda Dream 2022 motorcycle,” he added.

His words run counter to a report released in March by the South China Morning Post (SCMP), which claimed that Longmate was, among a plethora of accusations, exploiting its labour force, encroaching on land and using chemicals that endangered the health of its workers.

Hun Lak, the director of Longmate, told The Post in response that the agriculture ministry had already inspected the plantation. “In general, the work of the workers on the banana plantation is normal,” he said.

Lak said that the individual at the heart of the SCMP article who made these claims was a union representative who was sacked more than a year ago by the company for posting messages on Facebook which “misrepresents facts” about the company. The firm filed a complaint with the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training seeking an investigation into the case, with the Kampot Provincial Arbitration Council subsequently terminating the employment of the representative – identified as Khem Lok.

“More than a year later, the dismissed union representative [Khem Lok] went to give an interview to the media,” Lak said.

“What he is saying is not true. We cannot verify what [information] he sent to the media, that might be why they say the company uses improper pesticides,” he said.

Lak said the company did everything according to the agreement of the protocol required by the ministry, including the use of pesticides stipulated in the deal to allow bananas to be exported to China. The Chinese customs had strictly inspected them for banned chemicals and would have rejected the exports if they contained any such pesticides, he pointed out. “There is no real basis to his claims.”

He said the company has been collecting evidence and documents for the media to enable them to “make corrections” to their reporting.

Khem Lok said he had worked on the company’s banana plantation from 2017-2018. During that time, a worker caring for 2,000 banana trees earned $180, and if he worked overtime, he could stand to earn more than $200. But he said that since 2020, the company had reduced the salary of workers across the board, while “forcing” them to work longer hours and harvest more bananas. In response, he formed a union – which he believes was the reason the company fired him.

“They dismissed me because I formed the union to fight against the unfair practices of the company. After finding out I formed the union, they used this excuse to dismiss me,” he said.

“Longmate used to allow us to cut 2,000 trees with a salary of $230. Now they make us cut 2,500 trees and offer only $180 a month. No Sundays off either. Since we can’t cut 2,000 trees, they cut our wages. They don’t care about their workers,” his Facebook post said.

Bun Sav, head of administration and human resources at Longmate, said in response to the accusations that the company decided to fire Khem Lok in July 2020 for his “misrepresentation” of the facts.

“Khem Lok had made the Facebook post to spread false information. We dismissed him in 2020,” he said.

According to Longmate’s July 23, 2020, notice of Khem Lok’s contract termination, the dismissal was based on a “mistake” he made on a July 20, 2020, Facebook post which the company alleged was “contrary to the facts” that had “seriously tarnished” its reputation.

Sav said that workers such as Khem Lok were contracted and responsible for the care and production of 2,500 banana trees, with a salary of $180 during their first four months of employment, rising to $250 in their fifth to eighth months, after which the bananas were harvested and the company gave each worker 200 riel per kilogramme of the 2,500 banana yield.

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A Longmate Agriculture banana plantation in Kampot province’s Chhouk district. Heng Chivoan

“This is a principle that our farmers really like. None of the farmers working in our company are currently dissatisfied with this principle and have asked for it to change. But when the principle was first implemented, they did not understand it,” he said.

Lak said the company complied with the provincial labour council and the labour ministry, in which the ministry set the company’s salary at $182 and up. The salary of workers at the company had risen to more than $200, and was raised because the company followed labour ministry measures.

“We encourage each worker to demonstrate their ability. For those who can cut 2,000 banana stems a day, they began to increase their salary by $20. This means that anyone who cut 2,000 trees a day would earn more than $ 200,” he said.

Sitting with villagers in front of a house with a car and two motorcycles parked in front of it in Khpob village of Taken commune, Chhay Pov, 52, has two daughters who are working on the banana farm. Since 2019, they have been working in the company preparing crates of bananas for shipment.

Pov said her daughters earn between $300 and $400 a month from working on the banana plantation. Recently, they were hired by the company to train new workers at the company, a role in which they can earn an extra 20,000 riel a day.

“One of my daughters was just allowed by the company to work on another farm in Anlong Veng district of Oddar Meanchey province, along with nearly 30 other villagers. My daughter, children of the villagers and experienced workers were sent by the company to work on a new farm in Oddar Meanchey province as trainers for a group of new workers,” she said.

Like Pov’s daughters, 40-old-year Sum Chenda also prepares crates for the bananas, and has been working on the plantation since 2017.

Before the banana plantation arrived, she said most of the villagers were farmers, while some cut bamboos and collected non-timber forest products in community forests near the village to earn a living. But after the banana plantation was set up, most of the villagers came to work on the farm, and have been able to earn a more stable income to provide for their families, she said.

“We get paid more or less depending on the banana yield. If there are more bananas a month, we also have more work and also have our salaries increased,” she said.

Khpob village chief Som Dorn noted that by working in the plantation, the residents have generally been more well off than before.

“The increased positivity in the village is remarkable as the residents are better off. Some of them are building their houses to be bigger than before. Certain houses now consist of a few motorcycles, whereas before the arrival of [the banana] company, they had to cut bamboos in community forests for sale,” which was an irregular source of income, he said.

In response to allegations made in the SCMP article that workers became chronically ill from repeated exposure to pesticides and other chemicals on the plantation, Dorn said that Longmate had distributed masks, gloves and boots to the workers and made it mandatory to wear them on the job, adding that if they failed to wear their masks, the company did not allow them to work. Nonetheless, some workers did not make it a habit, he said, and had taken it off when a supervisor was absent.

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A worker prepares bananas for shipping after picking them from the farm in Kampot. Heng Chivoan

Dorn noted that most of the village’s 700 inhabitants are working at the company and a sizable number of them had migrated and relocated to other areas for such work.

At the families’ request, he asked that the company take care of their welfare, especially those caring for the banana trees, to avoid developing health problems stemming from being exposed to chemicals during their time on the plantation, or from the heavy lifting they often have to do. He also requested that the company relax internal rules, such as regards working hours, so that they could continue to work in the long run.

Dr. Leng Samphors runs a clinic out of his house for general disease in Taken commune.

He said that most of his patients come to seek treatment for colds, diarrhoea and fatigue, ailments which he said are expected from farmers depending on the season and their diet. During the rainy season, many come to his clinic with a cold, he said, while when mango season arrives, many people complain of diarrhoea. On average, “about 7-8 people” come to the doctor a day for general medical services.

“People come to my house for different medical services. Some complain of headaches and fatigue. I always give them medicine according to their symptoms. Their fatigue is caused by their farming activities – it is normal for them to get tired,” she said.

Tong Samnang, Director of Koh Sla Health Centre, which provides medical services to residents of 12 villages in Taken commune, said that on average, 5-10 people come to receive medical services at the centre a day. “The symptoms that occur in the people are normal as they get sick daily, monthly, seasonally,” he said.

He added that previously, he had not received patients with symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals, despite fertilisers reportedly having caused symptoms such as fevers and stomach issues on banana plantations in other provinces, but did not mention current numbers.

Chea Veasna joined Longmate in 2018 as an Assistant Regional Manager in the Banana Plantation. He is now the Regional Manager for General Management in charge of growing bananas.

The Royal University of Agriculture graduate said that the care and cultivation of bananas at the company is dictated by a modern farming system adhering to standard production procedures for export.

The company used the technology according to standards set by the Ministry of Agriculture, he said, with the use of fertilisers and other pesticides having to go through inspection by relevant ministries.

Veasna said that the care for banana trees from sapling to maturity involves the use of local chemical fertilisers and other pesticides under the inspection of the Customs Department and the Ministry of Agriculture, and that all pesticides used by the company were licensed by the ministry.

“Without the use of pesticides, we would not be able to achieve target yields set by the company. But the pesticides have been approved by the authorities and not just any one on the market,” he said.

Ing Po Heng, Director of the Department of Labour and Vocational Training of Kampot Province, said that the department had often inspected Longmate for their worker labour management.

“We just went to inspect [the plantation] recently. We asked the workers [about their practices] and observed that the company has performed better than the labour law mandates. It shows that the [working conditions] are well-organised. The results from the workers’ interviews were good,” he said.

Regarding the case of the former employee, Heng said: “The company has followed the labour standards according to the law. We had already resolved the case of the dismissed workers. If other problems arise, the union will file a complaint with the department.”

Longmate’s banana plantation in Chhouk district had contributed to providing “nearly 1,000” jobs to the people in the area, he said, enabling them to generate a stable monthly income for their families.

Kampot provincial Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries director Chan Rith said that Longmate had directly cooperated with its Chinese partners, and echoed remarks made about the pesticides being of Chinese import standard.

“Longmate cooperates directly with the Chinese company, which is the direct buyer. If it uses the wrong pesticide, they will not export bananas there,” he said. “The company has a team of experts from China who work directly with them and have quality control before exports. So there should be no problems arising.”

A commerce ministry report said that in 2019, Cambodia had exported 15,540,000 tonnes of bananas worth $59,336,854 to Asian and Oceanian markets.

In the first half of 2020, 14,240,000 tonnes of bananas worth $68,562,793 had been exported, primarily to Europe, Asia, Oceania and China.

Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Veng Sakhon said that in the first three months of this year, 3,434,071 tonnes of agricultural exports had been exported to 57 countries – an increase of 344,861 tonnes, or 11.16 per cent, compared to the same period in 2021, in which only 3,089,210 tonnes were exported.

The Chinese government has recognised and allowed nine qualified companies to export bananas from Cambodia to China, of which Longmate is one.

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