Decent working conditions in intercontinental banana shipping

Opportunities and constraints of decent working conditions in intercontinental banana shipping


Year: 2022/2023

Project Coordinator:
Prof. Dr. Christoph Scherrer

Project's aims:
(1) to shed light on the deficit of decent working conditions in the banana value chain between Germany and Colombia and Costa Rica, and (2) to highlight the opportunities and obstacles for reducing the deficit of decent working conditions.

Decent work, maritime industry, harbours, global banana value chain

Main Research Questions

  • What are opportunities and challenges to reduce the decent work deficit in ocean shipping of tropical fruits?
  • Are there differences in the working conditions on ships transporting tropical fruits to Europe depending on ownership, registration and operations?  
  • What are the best practices that can be also implemented and utilized by shipping lines and German retailers?


The “Opportunities and constraints of decent working conditions in intercontinental banana shipping” project is linked to the new German law on due diligence in supply chains, the ILO Decent Work Agenda and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The movement to adopt human rights due diligence laws along global supply chains is gaining momentum. Germany's due diligence law, which came into force in August 2021, will soon be followed by a similar law from the European Union. While these legislative initiatives focus on production sites along supply chains, the links between these sites that make the chains possible also deserve attention, as there are deficits in decent work for transport workers, not least in ports and on ships. Given GIZ's support for the German retailers' Living Wage project on wage, working and living conditions in the banana sector, our project will focus on the opportunities and limits of decent working conditions in intercontinental banana transport.


Relevant Literature

Seafarers are today and have been in the past essential elements of the distribution of goods and thus of production and consumption. Currently, 90 percent of the world's traded products are transported by ships. As the backbone of world trade, the volume of global maritime trade has increased as trade in goods has increased. Digitalization and new developments in shipping technology (e.g., mega-container ships) are important factors contributing to growing trade and geographically dispersed production facilities. Ownership (who owns the ship), registration (where it is registered, what flag a ship flies), and operations (who operates it) can differ. A vessel owned by a Chinese company may be registered in Mongolia and operated by a Swiss company. Insurance and other financial services may be provided by a British company. Ships are usually scrapped in South Asia (Pakistan, India or Bangladesh) and China (Campling & Colas 2021).

In the relevant literature on global agricultural value chains in general, and the banana value chain in particular, discussions are limited to decent work deficits upstream in the value chain (e.g. on plantations) and the power imbalance between producers and retailers. The literature focuses on the working conditions of farm workers and farmers who "produce" agricultural products. Relatively little attention, however, has been paid to who "transports" the produce and under what working conditions.

We aim to fill this research gap by documenting labor conditions in the logistics value chain, with a focus on the maritime transport of tropical fruits. We also explore the opportunities and barriers to creating better working conditions.


How and under which conditions is agricultural produce shipped from the Global South to the North? In answering this question, the research project combines primary and secondary research, focusing on key harbours for banana trade in Costa Rica, Colombia and Europe.

The primary research design is laid out to follow three subsequent steps that are related with each other to explore working conditions in harbors and on ships:

  • Scoping study that synthesizes findings from a range of study designs
  • Setting the stage
  • Measuring decent work deficits in maritime transport:
    • In-depth interviews with seafarers
    • Survey based on snowball sampling 
    • Focus group discussions to reveal opinions of the seafarers
    • Expert interviews with relevant stakeholders and experts

Funding Institution

The Decent Shipping research project is funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation (BMZ).