Interview with Guillermo Touma - President of Fenacle (Ecuadorian banana workers trade union). Source: Ecuador: bananas leave bad taste for workers', International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), Online, 2002
Brussels 22 November 2002 (ICFTU OnLine): On the eve of the Presidential elections on 24 November in Ecuador, Touma presents his own experience of the exploitation of banana workers and their determined trade union struggle, backed up by an international campaign. The Los Alamos plantation has received particular attention, not least owing to a complaint that the ILO’s Freedom of Association Committee is examining this week.
From the age of 14, Guillermo was already spending his 3-month summer holidays working in a banana plantation. At 18 he began to work full-time in the Balaochico plantation, where he would stay for 17 years. “Seeing all the exploitation there, I became convinced that only the setting up of a trade union could help improve our quality of life. That is why I became a union leader in the 1970s and got to know other trade unionists who showed me the significant achievements that could be made through struggles”.
Of the 360,000 workers in the banana plantations only 1,100 are members of the agricultural workers’ union, FENACLE. Is organising a trade union really that hard in the plantations?
Despite the provisions in the Republic’s Constitution and Labour Code, not to speak of the ILO conventions ratified by Ecuador, organising workers is very difficult. The Labour Ministry officials responsible for supporting freedom of association tend in practice to take the side of the employers in preventing the establishment of trade unions. Hence the vital need for the trade union recruitment campaign we are running.
What is this campaign and how much international support does it receive?
For a year and a half we have been working on a unionisation and trade union training project in the banana plantations, in partnership with the Banana Link international network and with financial support, in particular, from the American confederation AFL-CIO. There are a great number of young people working in this sector who know absolutely nothing about trade union work. Thanks to this project we have been able to help them begin to understand how vital trade union work is in protecting their jobs and fighting for the social rights they are currently denied, even though such rights are provided for in the Labour Code. We are also members of the Latin American Banana Workers' Trade Union Coordination (COLSIBA), and obviously keep in contact with unions in the other three banana-producing provinces in Ecuador.
In recent months the Los Alamos plantation, run by the Noboa company under the “Bonita” trademark, has hit the headlines owing to trade union rights violations. What was the source of that conflict?
Over 1200 workers have been exploited in that company for years now, working on poverty wages, with no respect for health and safety standards. They work a 10- to 12-hour day, 6 days a week. Women, who represent about 15% of the workforce, are also subject to sexual harassment and wage discrimination; they earn about 18 to 20% less than men. On 25 February 2002, workers at the Los Alamos company decided to form a trade union. One of the initial aims was to combat a very common practice in Ecuador: sub-contracting. The management had implemented a rota system for the workers in a series of sub-contracting firms, enabling them to exploit the workers more easily without offering them any job security. If there is the slightest problem you are sacked with no compensation. You do not know who is your direct employer: at best this is written in small print at the bottom of your contract. Any hint of union organisation is quickly repressed. On 8 March 2002, 123 workers were sacked simply for joining a trade union. The pretext for the sacking was that three separate unions ought to have been formed instead of one, since there were three subcontractors.
When did the anti-union violence take place?
On 6 May 2002, following the rejection by the company management of the formal proposals issued by the union, which had been waiting for a reply for months, some 800 workers went on strike, in accordance with the legal requirements on strikes. The strikers were protesting against the sackings two months earlier and were demanding respect of various items in the Labour Code, in particular the provision of work clothes and equipment, the creation of a health centre, the payment of the minimum wage and overtime, protection against aerial fumigation, etc. The union, which includes many women, had also formulated some specific demands aimed at countering sexual harassment and wage disparities.
10 days later, on 16 May, 300 armed and masked mercenaries stormed the plantation at 2am and attacked the workers in their own homes. 19 people were injured, one of whom was Mauro Romero who lost a leg. Later that day, around 6pm, these strike breakers in the pay of the employer launched a new attack, which resulted in more injuries amongst the workers.
What form of international trade union solidarity was displayed in this conflict?
We received solidarity letters from the ICFTU and many of its affiliates around the world. Without that international solidarity network the repression would undoubtedly have been stronger and trade union leaders like myself would not have been able to express our views as I am doing today. The IUF has also been providing very important support to us over the Los Alamos case, and it is thanks to the IUF that we were able to file a complaint with the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association, which met this week in Geneva. The committee has just recommended to the ILO Governing Body that it ask the Ecuadorian authorities to ensure there is a serious judicial enquiry into this matter and to establish a collective bargaining procedure in good faith.
What is the current mood among the Los Alamos banana plantation workers?
There was a meeting on Sunday at which the workers, following their 7-month strike, decided to go back to work. We received a few foreign donations that had enabled them to survive but these workers are in a desperate financial situation and can no longer feed their families. However they were also very scared of their return to work. The company’s lawyer gave us a verbal assurance that the management would improve wages and the medical centre. We hope these are not just empty promises in the final week of the presidential campaign.
On the eve of this second round of presidential elections, what is the state of the country’s economy?
The situation is extremely tough. In September 2000 Ecuador lost its own currency, the sucre, and the change to the dollar has created more poverty and led to a huge emigration. Over a very short time one and a half million Ecuadorian workers have emigrated to Spain, Italy or the USA. That emigration has caused serious social problems for workers’ families that have stayed on in the country, since they now find themselves virtually abandoned. Were it not for the foreign currency sent back by the emigrant workers, which constitutes the second-largest source of income for the country (**), the "dollarised" economy could not survive. And on top of that there are the negative effects of the measures imposed by the IMF, such as those involving privatisation.
In these elections, it would seem that the outgoing President, Gustavo Noboa, who is also a banana magnate and owns, amongst others, the plantation bearing his name (***), is set to lose to Lucio Gutiérrez. Do you really expect changes to take place?
In every election we clearly hope for change, but it is important that all sectors of the country, particularly the unions, are united so that he realises that he must keep the promises made in his campaign. In particular, I mean the fight against corruption, reform of the Labour Code, the restructuring of the Labour Ministry, the promotion of education and health and an analysis of the problems associated with the growing commercialisation of agriculture.
Will these elections particularly affect workers in the banana plantations?
Noboa will probably lose to Gutiérrez. If those predictions are confirmed we can expect a new wave of repression against the unionised workers who went on strike in the last 6 months. We shall have to be particularly attentive in the days immediately after the election and be ready to denounce any form of repression, with the support of international partner organisations like the ICFTU. We are also preparing a new campaign with Banana Link, consisting of sending Christmas and New Year cards welcoming the new government and asking it to respect the Labour Code and a number of reforms, in particular the right to sector-based collective bargaining, which is currently being replaced, in practice, by an obligation to negotiate in separate plantations.
As you are here in Brussels, what do you make of the European dimension of the banana trade, not least in view of the enlargement in 2004 and the new European banana importation rules from 2006?
With enlargement, we are scared that companies will turn away from the existing European distribution chains that are sensitive to fair consumption principles and will invest massively in the new markets in Central Europe, where the consumers are very badly informed about “fair consumption”. This week there will, incidentally, be a meeting here in Brussels between COLSIBA and EUROBAN (European network of trade unions and NGOs active in the banana sector) and the small producers’ networks, aimed at defining a joint strategy capable of best protecting workers’ rights.
Last April Human Rights Watch published a report denouncing child labour in banana plantations. What do you think about this problem?
If children are working it is because many families would otherwise be incapable of making ends meet. The monthly wage is between 80 and 120 dollars, whereas the estimated budget needed to look after a family is about 300-350 dollars per month! It is true that there are a great number of children working in the plantations, mainly under sub-human conditions, with no respect of children’s rights, wages even lower than those of adults, no health protection and no access to education. That report was like a bombshell to the government and the producers, and since then many large employers have fired children, without providing any compensation. What is more, following that report the ILO set up a tripartite commission to make a closer study of child labour in the banana plantations.
Interview by Natacha David.
(*) FENACLE organises 250,000 banana plantation workers, indigenous workers or small independent farmers, all affected by the banana industry.
(**) The main source of revenue is oil. The third largest source is bananas (Ecuador accounts for 40% of global banana exports); the fourth is prawns and the fifth is flowers.
(***) Noboa is the fourth-largest banana-producing company in the world.
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