Workers report miscarriage, sexual harassment and acts of aggression

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Workers report miscarriage, sexual harassment and acts of aggression - Pineapple and banana production crushes women’s rights
 
T-shirt, jeans and oil-skin boots. That is how Sugeily Sarmiento dresses to work on the banana plantation on the Palo Verde estate in Matina. Every morning she puts on these clothes to go to work, but she cannot erase the memory of how, three months ago, they were soaked in blood, when she had a miscarriage - she alleges - as a result of abuse of her labour rights. 
 
The boss mistreats me. When I was pregnant he came up to me and told me that there was no use me working because I was no longer any use on the plantation, that women in my condition are no use to him because we are useless. We have to work as hard as we can, and spare no effort,” Sarmiento explains. Aged 26, she is one of a group of women claiming that they suffer sexual harassment, ill-treatment and even violence, during the course of their work on the pineapple and banana plantations.  

Photo: Pineapple workers raise their voice against ill-treatment on plantations
DIARIO EXTRA spoke to women workers after making a visit to several cantons in the province of Limon, where there is banana and pineapple production. In their accounts, these women describe how their job turns into a nightmare once they decide to join a union to try to safeguard their jobs. 
 
I brought my pregnancy test result to the plantation, and handed it to my boss. I asked him to help me, and explained that I did not feel well, and that my doctor had told me that I needed to take great care of myself. He told me that it was not his problem, that pregnancy was not an illness, and that if I wanted to continue working on the plantation I would have to do whatever he told me. He always left me to work and for days he took me out to stamp the fruit. This is one of the hardest jobs because it demands both speed and strength.
 
The day before I had told him that I felt really unwell, and asked him to give me permission to go home. He said no. On the following day, Friday 13 January, I came back to work; I was in dreadful pain, and by 2.00 p.m. I was losing so much blood that I had to go to hospital. I even went with my boots on. The doctor told me that it was due to overwork, as I had been working too hard, and standing for so many hours. I work from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m,” Sarmiento explained. 
 
With Sarmiento is Jerónima Cruz Romero, her colleague on the plantation, which belongs to Grupo Acón. “When you join a union, they give you rights, but you also lose rights. Here they pick off any worker who speaks out, who is not a union member. Not only that, but as a punishment, they do not allow those employees to work on this plantation for a year, or on any Grupo Acón plantation for six months, and they have around 32 plantations. There is constant harassment.
 
In my case the abuse is verbal and psychological. They have got other workers to try to provoke me by hitting me. They hit me hard; I have several bruises. In spite of the bruises, they told me I still had to have a witness. But how can I have a witness if I work on my own with one other worker. You’re useless, he says, when he passes me, and he hits me as he passes by,” she says, unable to hold back the tears. 
 

Photo: Jerónima Cruz Romero, Says she suffers physical and verbal aggression within the plantations
Our interviews were interrupted when the Grupo Acón Human Resources manager parked his car just millimetres away from where DIARIO EXTRA was talking to the women on the fringes of the plantation, during their lunch break. In a high-handed manner, the man demanded that we prove to him that we were not recording, and in spite of us showing him that we were not, he kept aggressively insisting that we show him our telephone. When we refused, in the middle of this confrontation, he asked us to leave. 
 
A few minutes earlier, we heard a similar account to that of Sugeily and Jerónima at the home of Flora Castillo, who has worked on the same plantation for thirteen years. 
 
They treat us very badly there; if we have an appointment they say that the authorisation is not valid, that the doctor has to put what illness we have: diarrhoea, bleeding, whatever it may be. But when we went to see the doctor, he told us that he was not allowed to do what they wanted on the plantation, because it is a confidential matter between the doctor and the patient.” Flora is in tears as she tells us about what followed: 
 
I gave the authorisation to my boss, and he said to me: ‘Take it, and go home; that authorisation is no good.’ ‘If it’s no good, give it back to me,’ I said, and he said: ‘Take it and use it as toilet paper’”. 
 
The persecution these women suffer on account of their union membership also makes them victims of sexual harassment. This is borne out by Maricruz Barrantes, who is employed by the same company. 
 
He suggested (the supervisor) that we should resign from the union. I told him no, that he should respect it, because we weren’t doing anything wrong, and that we had been treated very badly, then he wanted to double my workload, and if I don’t accept that the whole management team will come down on me. The human resources managers unnecessarily call my attention. It’s persecution. They have been sexually harassing me for two months.
 
It affects me very badly, as you can imagine it is even affecting my family, because I feel so hounded that I don’t want to get up and go to work.” 
 
Such experiences come as no surprise to Magdalena Espinoza Funes. She works for the Corporación de Desarrollo Agrícola Del Monte (Del Monte Agricultural Development Corporation), and tells a similar story of harassment. 
 
It’s really hard. This started as soon as I joined the union. Ill-treatment. It has been so exhausting. If I tell them that I’m a little tired because I had an illness, or I tell them that my chest hurts because I had a health condition recently, they go wild. It’s only by joining the union that I haven’t lost my job. I need my job so that my son can continue his education, but they don’t understand that.”
 
THE BANANA AND PINEAPPLE SECTORS 
 
In Siquerres, six more women express the same feeling of powerlessness. They work in the pineapple sector, for the Hacienda Ojo de Agua Todo Natural company. 
 
Ileana Álvarez states that, after more than four years in her job, she was dismissed on account of her union membership. “As soon as I joined the union, they started ill-treating me. They make the tasks more demanding. If workers have health problems, they threaten them with dismissal. I was unfairly dismissed,” she insists. 
 
For her part, Wendy Reyes alleges that due to improper management within the company, she suffered a medical malpractice and lost her baby, and consequently she made a claim agianst the company. 
 
They gave me a three-day course of treatment. On the first day they injected me, and on the second day a large swelling came up on my buttock, on the third day I fell ill, and on the fourth they left me with a wound. I was pregnant, and I lost the baby at three months. I went back to work with the wound still open.” 
 
UNIONS AND PARLIAMENTARY REPRESENTATIVES DEFEND WORKERS’ RIGHTS  
 

Photo: Banana plantation workers say they are exposed to heavier work tasks and ill-treatment if they join a union
Didier Leitón, secretary of the Sindicato de Trabajadores de Plantaciones Agrícolas (Union for Workers on Agricultural Plantations), along with Álvarez Cruz, a former worker in the banana industry and a supporter of the union’s campaign, support the allegations made by these women. 
 
They treat the women very badly, they insult them as women and as workers. Whether it is a question of wages or rights, they tear the women’s rights to shreds. Sexual harassment is an everyday occurrence on these banana plantations. Unfortunately, the women do not have a means of proving it, because the managers practise sexual harassment in full view and knowledge of all the comrades. But when the female comrade concerned looks for witnesses to support her, her comrades do not come forward, but the supervisor has more witnesses than he needs,” explains Leitón. 
 
He goes on: “Here at Grupo Acón the reports I have from female comrades is that the verbal abuse is grotesque, obscene. All the human resources department cares about is that the supervisor concerned improves production and keeps costs down. Pregnant workers are exposed to tasks that harm them: in some tasks chemicals are used, concentrated chlorine, and they send pregnant women to work there, and that affects the health of the baby. There are gruelling shifts, from 6.00 a.m. to 7.00 or 8.00 p.m. We have exhausted all avenues. We have been to the National Labour Inspectorate, we have met with the former minister for Labour, Víctor Morales, and with the former-deputy minister Harold Villegas, as well as with the authorities at the Instituto Nacional de la Mujer (National Institute for Women). There are proceedings in Limón on account of unfair practices against women employees at Grupo Acón,” stresses Álvarez.
 
Leitón insists that the Ministry of Labour has failed to protect the women’s rights. “The situation faced by women workers on pineapple and banana plantations is deplorable: every day their human rights are violated in terms of their health, their pay and their working hours. At the Jardín de La Rita plantation, the situation faced by the women is extreme. The manager of this plantation treats them like animals. In some cases they are not allowed time off to breast feed,” he tells us.
 
There is persecution, discrimination against the workers and their families. At Grupo Acón, which is a big company here in Costa Rica, once workers have joined a union, their relatives can no longer get jobs, they dismiss them, the managers demand more from them than from the non-unionised employees,” stated the union leader. “The Ministry of Labour is ineffective, it has no power and it lacks determination; it accepts minimal standards from the companies in respect of worker rights.”
 
The leader of the Frente Amplio, the parliamentary representative Patricia Mora, argues that the country urgently needs to approve new legislation to strengthen the labour inspectorate and put an end to these practices. Along with her parliamentary colleague Sandra Piszk, she put forward a bill along these lines, but it is being held up by motions from the Partido Movimiento Libertario (Libertarian Movement Party). 
 
According to our bill, there are three very serious defects: a failure to pay the minimum wage or to pay overtime rates, the dismissal of pregnant women and a failure to respect union rights. Our Political Constitution guarantees workers the right to organise ourselves into trade unions, just like the plantation owners organise themselves into chambers of commerce; the logic is exactly the same,” she pointed out. 
 
A violation of the right to join a union brings down one of the pillars of our democratic system. The bill will introduce an administrative measure, in other words, the inspectorate arrives at the plantation, and if they find a very serious shortcoming, they penalise the company on the spot, and it goes down the administrative route, which is much quicker. Of course, as in any system, the owner will have the right to appeal to a court,” explains Mora. 
 
DIARIO EXTRA tried to ascertain the Ministry of Labour’s position, but at the time of going to press we had received no response. 
 

Photo: Some employees report spending more than eight hours standing, which affects their health
A JOLT FOR COMPANIES AND CHAMBERS OF COMMERCE 
 
The Costa Rican National Chamber of Pineapple Producers and Exporters (Canapep), and the Chamber of Banana Producers rejected the allegations, as did Grupo Acón and the Hacienda Ojo de Agua Todo Natural pineapple plantation, when they were contacted by this news organisation. We also contacted the del Monte Corporation, but received no response. 
 
Édgar Quirós, president of the Chamber of Banana Producers, put the women workers’ allegations down to the political situation, claiming that the “trade unions and leftist groups were beginning to launch attacks”. He made his comments after indicating that the Chamber had examined the DIARIO EXTRA reports.
 
Alexander Arana, assistant to the President of Grupo Acón, stated in its defence: “I categorically deny that breaches of the rights of male or female workers are occurring at companies belonging to the corporate group known as Grupo Acón. On the contrary, and unlike what happens at other plantations in the industry, in our workplaces there is an excellent working environment, good wages and great stability. The so-called persecution of union members is a myth that some people try to nurture. These people find it difficult to accept that the banana plantations are actually very different today from how they were 30 years ago, they do not want a peaceful relationship between the owners and the workers, but would like to see a situation of conflict and anarchy ... Mrs Sarmiento was pressurised by work colleagues and third parties to lie and blame the loss of her baby on the work that she was doing. She herself has admitted that she has had other miscarriages, caused by problems with her reproductive system.” 
 
The presidential candidate and parliamentary representative Antonio Álvarez Desanti, who is also connected with the banana industry, rejected the accusations put forward by SITRAP, that workers in his companies experience persecution on account of their union membership.
 
It is not true; we respect the law”, he claimed.
 
The Hacienda Ojo de Agua plantation defended itself by pointing out that the company “generates employment in the area. Women make up an important group within our workforce, and there is no persecution of union members, or of any workers, in our organisation.” 
 
Abel Chávez, the president of Canapep, insisted that the Chamber had been adamant that if infringements of workers’ rights occur, they should be raised with the Ministry of Labour. 
 
In the case of the plantation, I am very surprised, because it is a company that has adhered closely to the country’s social welfare legislation,” he commented.
 
According to figures produced by Corbana (the National Banana Corporation) in 2015, the country exports 100 million crates of bananas every year, and according to Canapep in 2016, 2.4 million tons of pineapples are exported. Both fruit crops are sent mainly to the USA and Europe. 
 
These industries add dynamism to the economy, but in the shadow of violating the rights of its employees, as the voice of the hands of those who produce them raise their voices.