At 2:00 a.m. on the morning of 16th May 2002, around 400 hooded men violently attacked banana workers on the Los Alamos plantations, owned by the Noboa company in Ecuador.
These workers have been organising for proper working conditions and their rights under Ecuadorian law. The workers have been on a legal and non-violent strike since 6th May. Preliminary reports are that a dozen or more workers were wounded, at least two seriously by gunshot wounds, that women were abused and that the workers’ few possessions looted.
The Ecuadorian banana workers’ struggle is being watched very carefully by banana workers’ unions throughout Latin America, whose wages and benefits are threatened by the dominance of non-union, low-wage banana exports from Ecuador, the world’s biggest banana exporting country. Ecuador is leading the race to the bottom in labour and environmental conditions.
The unions representing the Los Alamos workers have just been registered by the Minister of Labour. They are the first new unions in Ecuador for many years. This is significant in a country where all but a handful of the 300,000+ banana workers are unionised, where wages are low and where conditions are some of the worst in the Latin American banana industry. However, this violence threatens this unionisation process.
It became apparent that some of the workers had been wounded, one man lay on the ground having been shot in the stomach. (We thought that he was dead as he was immobile). He was lying behind the police car but the police didn’t help him. We quickly got him onto the back of a pickup along with another injured man and some other workers. We drove immediately to the clinic where they got some medical attention. While we were in the clinic another worker arrived. He had a bullet in his forehead but miraculously, although he still has the bullet in his head, the wound was superficial.’
The workers are on strike to demand that they are paid overtime, as inscribed in the Social Security system, and provided with healthcare facilities, fair wages and job security.
Threats have been made on another plantation, Rio Culebra, with a different owner where there are also striking workers. The water and electricity supplies were cut off at the beginning of the strike to the workers’ living quarters in the plantation. A visiting delegation of trade union members from Britain (GMB, TGWU and USDAW), and Ireland (MANDATE), along with UK organisations War On Want and Banana Link witnessed the appalling living conditions faced by the workers on this other plantation, Rio Culebra, at the end of April. In spite of the delegation’s pleas, the water and electricity supplies have not been restored.
Ecuador produces about 35% of world banana exports. The owner of the Noboa Corporation is Alvaro Noboa Pontón, candidate to the Presidency and one of the richest men in Latin America. Noboa is the fourth biggest banana company in the world (after Chiquita, Dole and Del Monte).
Jan Nimmo, Banana Link Scottish Worker
Banana Link: 38-40 Exchange Street, Norwich NR2 1AX
Tel: 01603 765670 Fax: 01603 761645
FENACLE: Small farmers, indigenous peoples organisation and banana workers’ union federation
Ecuadorean bananas are grown on 5,000 farms covering over 320,000 acres of a country where 85% of people live below the poverty line.
Over 300,000 workers – at least two million people if their families are counted – depend on waged labour in these plantations. Most workers earn around £3 a day, whilst it is calculated that they need at least double that to cover their most basic needs. 12-14 hour days are common; child labour and lower wages for women are widespread. Most employers flout the law and fail to register workers with the national social security institution.
Until around 1980 there was a reasonably high level of unionisation in the industry, but employers conspired to completely rid their farms of unions, in some cases by violence.
In 2001 there were just 1200 union members organised in a few plantations. Workers feared instant reprisals if they as much as mentioned the word ‘union’.
US-based Human Rights Watch released a report on the Ecuadorian banana industry on 25th April. This found wide-spread violations of worker rights, including extensive anti-union behaviour which has effectively blocked the formation of banana unions in Ecuador for the past twenty years (http://www.hrw.org/reports/2002/ecuador/).
The Los Alamos strike
Monday 25th February saw the first major strike action by Ecuadorian banana workers in over 20 years. More than 1400 workers at the Los Alamos plantation producing for the Noboa corporation (Alamos Division) went on strike in support of basic labour rights, established under Ecuadorian law.
Management initially responded to the strike action by firing eight union leaders. After legal advice, the rest of the workers went back to work the next day, since their strike was technically illegal. Union supporters subsequently began signing up hundreds of members and filed an application for legal registration of a union covering all workers. In the first week, 500 workers signed up for the union.
The workers also applied to register three unions, one for each of the contracting companies, which manage the plantation labour, which are their direct employers. (On the 26th April 2002 the Ecuadorian Labour Minister officially approved the new trade unions in Cliades, Beducor and Nenro (Alamos Division).)
On 11th March 123 workers were fired, with another 180 workers being laid off that same day ‘for lack of work’. Workers were prevented from entering the plantation by private security backed up by state police.
The application to register a general Los Alamos workers’ union was turned down by the Labour Ministry on 27th March, on the grounds that the named leaders no longer worked for the company.
On 5th May, at a general assembly of the union, the workers decided to go on indefinite strike from Monday the 6th May. The decision was made following the firing of three union activists the week before, following the approval of the new unions on 26th April.