Bananas and the continuing violation of human rights in Ecuador

A persistent employers’ abuse of power and a lack of control by the Ecuadorian State make human and constitutional rights violations in many banana plantations a daily nightmare. Español

Orlan Cazorla
3 September 2015

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"The continuing violation of thousands of Ecuadorian citizens’ human rights in the banana plantations in at least six provinces in Ecuador is not news," stated an objection to the Defensoría del Pueblo (Ecuador’s Ombudsman) in 2010. It added that the violation of human and constitutional rights is twofold. On the one hand, it is due to the employers and the banana companies’ abuse of power. On the other hand, there is a lack of control by the Ecuadorian State. A thorough investigation of the allegations was requested.

It took the Ombudsman two years to come up with a resolution accepting the demand. It listed the human rights infringed by some banana companies: the right to live in a safe environment, the right to health, the right to work and the right to social security. And it declared, besides, that the aerial spraying of plantations jeopardized the Rights of Nature.

A 2010 report by Gulnara Shahinian, United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery concluded, moreover, that "contemporary forms of slavery still exist in Ecuador" and that, specifically, "they are widely present in the primary and tertiary sectors of the economy, in production branches such as the banana plantations."

The continuing violation of rights

Today, banana workers, the vast majority of whom refuse to give their names or have their picture taken for fear of reprisals, continue to denounce many of the problems included in the 2010 complaint. Except for some minor improvements, such as the current absence of underage workers in the haciendas, many witnesses are reporting excessive working hours, blacklists, no social insurance, paychecks below the minimum wage, harassment of union leaders, and environmental and health hazards caused by aerial spraying. The accusations against the Ecuadorian State for its lack of control persist, as do those against the Labor Inspectorate for being dominated by the employers and for leaving the workers unprotected.

According to Leonardo Jiménez, a lawyer for the Asociación Sindical de Trabajadores Agrícolas y Campesinos (Trade Union Association of Agricultural Workers and Peasants - ASTAC), "The state is not willing to find out what is happening. Although it’s quite easy: you can go to the Instituto Ecuatoriano de Seguridad Social (Ecuadorian Institute of Social Security – IEES) and check the workers who are affiliated to it. Then, if there are 100 workers in a farm and you see that merely 50 of them are affiliated, you know what is going on. The contractors’ role is illegal in Ecuador, because job placement is forbidden – and, yet, it is happening.” Jiménez says that, as far as the authorities are concerned, everything is fine. But another reality exists that it is easy to identify, if the authorities really wanted to, by just talking to the workers who are suffering from it. He concludes that “the State does not offer real protection to workers, so that they can freely and safely come up with their claims and require respect for their labor rights”.

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“There are rules, but they are not abided”

Carlos (not his real name) has been working in the banana sector since he was 13. He had to start working twenty years ago to be able to assist his parents economically. “I was attending school then, but I had to help my family out, so I decided to work and put down my studies”. He says he worked for ten years without social insurance, unaware of its existence until a friend told him.

Current work conditions in Los Ríos province, he asserts, have deteriorated since most workers lack social security coverage. “We were supposed to have finished with the famous tercerizadoras (outsoucers), but now another body has cropped out, the equally famous contractors. They get hired to bring in personnel and then, allegedly, we no longer work for the company: we work for the contractor. The company says that any claims should be put to the contractor. But this is not what the law says.”

Another concern has to do with transportation. Although several companies are using buses now, most of them keep on using trucks, quite often cattle trucks. Food needs to be improved too, Carlos argues: "It's not adequate. Not that we are demanding finer stuff, just something palatable. We face up to the cooks, but they tell us they cannot give anything better for what they get paid: between $1 and $1.25 for each coffee and lunch".

Carlos also contends that when officials come in to inspect the workplaces, their visits are very often arranged beforehand by the employers. “They talk to several workers and give them all the implements, so that when the officials arrive, they see that they all have the required materials: gloves, masks, boots, and so on – things that I have never had”, he swears.

But what worries him most is the aerial sprayings. "The bosses couldn’t care less, we are in full harvest and they fly the plane. They spray a liquid substance that is scattered by the wind and comes down to us, sometimes when we're having lunch. Some companies I know take the precaution to remove the personnel for an hour, but I don’t know if this is really enough."

He also describes many cases of workmates whom the companies charge a "holiday allowance", or 1% of their salary, for a workers' association that no one has ever heard of. Other companies carry out blood tests once a year, for which they charge $36 and never grant you the results. “Rules exist”, he says, “but they are not observed”.

Labour exploitation

“Yes, I’m in the black list”, bluntly declares Abel Sedeño, who now has a job, but only because he is being hired through a contractor who takes 10% of his salary. "The Labour Inspection is fully aware of this. All we are asking for is a genuine monitoring of the companies, an investigation conducted by honest people into how workers are treated, into how many hours they are really working. Even though there are eight working hours in a day, we are working here from five o’clock in the morning to eight in the evening. And, of course, we don’t get paid for overtime." Sedeño argues, moreover, that when companies get to know that workers are making complaints, they look for ways to fire them. "They also require workers to sign documents stating that they are given many things, which is not true, so that when they see them in Quito, everything looks just fine.”

“I have been working in this sector for only two years. Treatment is fair, but the salary is very low indeed”. Fernanda (not her real name) works from seven in the morning till five in the afternoon, two days a week. She earns five dollars per truck, and there are two trucks every day, so that her salary is ten dollars a day - that is, one dollar per hour. “I am currently working for a small producer who does not comply with the law because he does not ensure workers”. Fernanda recalls that in her previous job, workers were carried in a cattle truck that was used to sell bananas down the coast over the weekends. “And we were asked to climb into this filthy thing and travel to work for over an hour.” Her experience is that workers are not provided uniforms or working materials, and that planes keep on spraying while they work. "Some people have been poisoned. But they get fired. They are told there is no more work for them for some obscure reason. Now they give us a mask, though."

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Threatened for organizing workers

Luis Ochoa had been working in the banana sector all his life. He started at five. His parents took him to the farm and he gradually learned the trade. But it all changed last June when, together with some other workmates, they began organizing a union to reclaim their rights. “We rented a place where we held our meetings and a lawyer was helping us with advice. We collected signatures for its constitution and we called it “June 7”. On August 14, 2014 we presented it to the Ministry of Labour, and on October 24 I was fired from the company. I was the secretary general. They fired all of us in the leadership. The company is Compañía Frutsesa Frutas Selectas.”

In April this year Ochoa participated in the Tribunal Ético Andino (Andean Ethical Tribunal) that was held in Lima, Perú. This Tribunal sentenced the banana companies Compañía Frutsesa Frutas Selectas S.A. and REYBANPAC Rey del Banano del Pacífico S.A. for their responsibility in the systematic violation of human rights. “I denounced that they had been violating our rights, and when I came back, the threats began. I received intimidating calls saying “Luis Isidro, I’m very close to where you are” and text messages like “We are following you closely. Watch out you son of a bitch, you have been screwing people up who are working well. Just you wait and see”. In May he denounced the facts to the Guayas provincial prosecutor’s office. He has not heard back from them. “Our President has said that any employee can join a union, form an association freely, that no company owner can fire him for this, and here I am now, persecuted for following what the President has said.”

Besides all these threats, Ochoa has also received a few calls from former workmates warning him to beware and be vigilant because the company, they said, could decide to hire a hitman. For him, this has meant moving from his house and going on hiding to protect his life. He never imagined that, after spending 45 years in the banana sector, something like this could happen to him. But he is not giving up, convinced that in the end his colleagues will manage to form the union. “We are not going to let them beat us. They have won a battle, but not the war”, he states categorically.

Labour and sexual harassment

Jennifer (not her real name), who started to work in the banana sector when she was 18, states that today one of the problems in the company is that “some women work less and get paid more, and women who work more get paid less”. The reason is the existing structure of oppression which pushes many women to have sexual relations with their superiors. “To have this kind of relationship with the boss means that they actually do almost as they please, while the rest of us are working all the time. The bosses give their potential preys job positions close to them in order to ease the access. Not fair", she says.

Another case is Ana’s, who does not want to have her family name published. “Yes, there is harassment. I myself have not had any problems, but we all know cases. The boss of a friend of mine is making her life miserable because she refuses to jive with him. They always want to take advantage of the young ones. They ask the girls to go to bed with them in exchange for keeping them on the job. If they don’t accept, they are pressured at work, or get fired, or get assigned unpleasant tasks”. She adds that women get paid less than men for doing the same jobs. “But nobody asks questions, because if you do, you’re into trouble. They don’t like to be asked questions”, she whispers.

"The government does not let us organize"

ASTAC, a farmers union born in 2012 gathers approximately 500 members, both men and women from the Los Ríos, Guayas and El Oro provinces, originates from a provincial coordinating committee which was constituted in 2010 and was denied official recognition. Its aim is defending the rights of banana workers, farmers and peasants. "We have problems with the government. The Ministry of Labour does not let us organize. I think they are pressured by big business not to grant us legal status," says ASTAC’s president, Roberto Amanta. So far, the government has denied their legal existence arguing that it is an “autonomous association with no dependency relationship”, thereby violating the labour laws of the country.

"We have gone through all the steps and resorted to all the legal authorities in the country”, he contends, “and yet our demands have not been heard. We banana workers have been barred from claiming our rights, which leaves thousands of workers helpless and stranded all over the country. We keep on pushing our demands, however, and we have even called on international bodies such as the International Labour Organization to advocate for our cause before our national government.”

Amanta also denounces the fact that ASTAC is getting calls trying to find out who is involved in the association. “The government is making the calls, although indirectly, through third persons, people close to the government and to big company managers. They are worried. But we are ready to face the music."

One last complaint and national dialogue

“In January this year we presented another complaint to the Defensoría del Pueblo”, says Amanta. We have had two meetings since then, which were atended by a few ministries and public bodies. Unfortunately, no representatives from the Ministry of Labour or the occupational hazards people, whose presence was obviously very important to us.”

He regrets that they have never been invited to the diálogo nacional (national dialogue). Back in April, they asked to address the Committee on Workers’ Rights and Social Security at the National Assembly, but they never got an answer. The same happened with their request, also in April, for a hearing with the Minister of Industrial Relations, Marx Carrasco. "So, how can you call it a dialogue if they never dialogued with us? It’s ridiculous; this is not a dialoguing government."

This article was previously published by La línea de fuego, Ecuador.

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