Agricultural Workers in Peru Use Media to Advocate for Legal Reforms

Peruvian workers from across the country have taken to the airwaves, describing their precarious daily reality and advocating for justice in the workplace. In doing so, they are sending a strong message to Peruvian lawmakers and, at the same time, educating other workers.

For workers like Maria Morales, the current debate in the Peruvian Congress over reforms to Agricultural Sector Promotion Law 27360—which governs all workers in the industry and was launched as a “temporary measure” in 2000 to foster the growth of new exports—is one of many milestones in a much longer advocacy process. Morales and her co-workers have helped spark a broader conversation about the law by broadcasting their stories on community radio, calling on Peruvian lawmakers to support “agro-exportation without exploitation.”

Law 27360 has become, in effect, a permanent mandate and a major obstacle to improving the standard of living for hundreds of thousands of rural Peruvians. The law codifies substandard protections for agro-export workers, including a compensation package below the minimum wage, half the normal vacation days, and fewer protections from arbitrary dismissal. This means workers like Morales toil 12–18 hours a day in the fields planting and harvesting asparagus, peppers, and other produce for export to the United States. They earn an average of just $8 per day, can be fired for becoming pregnant or organizing a union, and can be hired on short-term, continuously renewable contracts, keeping them in a constant state of fear that they will lose their job if they complain.

In contrast, the large agribusiness firms that dominate this sector have grown enormously profitable, earning $3.6 billion from January to October 2011 alone. In the 10-plus years since the law was established, the agro-export sector has grown 400 percent.

Faced with this reality, the Solidarity Center in Peru, in cooperation with Peru’s four main union confederations, held a series of regional and national workshops that helped workers identify their key message within the broader issue and carefully shape that message to have the greatest effect possible in the public arena. The participants interviewed one another, provided constructive feedback, and assisted one another in recording their testimonies based on what they had experienced in their own workplace. Although workers from a number of different sectors attended the workshop, all participants pledged their solidarity with Peru’s agro-export workers in light of the special conditions afforded to employers by Law 27360. The result was a series of four radio spots.

The testimonies of Morales and her peers have been broadcast to more than 60 education and community radio stations through the National Radio Coordinating Body, a Peruvian radio station network. Recognizing that any successful advocacy campaign derives its power locally, the Solidarity Center coordinated with the four main trade union confederations to distribute the radio spots via their media networks and on their websites, and to provide audio copies to union activists from the agro-export sector for them to share with their local radio stations.

Many agro-industry workers spend their workdays listening to the radio. The impact of hearing a colleague speak about common issues and a shared daily reality is powerful and empowering, workers say.

Meanwhile, the Peruvian Congress is debating an amendment to Law 27360 that would provide nearly 300,000 of Peru’s agricultural workers with the same minimum wage, vacation, bonuses, and severance compensation that other private sector workers enjoy. While not a full victory, at least it is a step in the right direction.