An agro-industrial company in Peru has fired a union leader in an attempt to silence one of the strongest voices against unfair and precarious working conditions, says the Peruvian labor federation CGTP. Join the LabourStart campaign for his reinstatement, and follow the campaign live.
Fidel Polo, legal defense secretary for the Agricola Viru Workers Union and deputy general secretary of the National Federation of Agricultural Workers, was fired on July 12 by his employer, Sociedad Agricola Viru, SA, for “defamation.” Polo Sanchez had appeared on a local television program to discuss a campaign for labor law reform and to speak out against working conditions in the Peruvian agricultural export industry, where workers face some of the worst conditions in the country.
Agricola Viru, where Polo had worked since 2006, is one of the largest companies in Peru’s multibillion-dollar agriculture-for-export sector. The agricultural export industry employs some 300,000 people, more than 70 percent of them women. These workers are continually denied their right to freedom of association through anti-union practices. And the law is not on their side: 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, enables employers to offer lower wages and fewer benefits and protections than those provided to other private-sector workers under Peruvian labor law.
Polo has been fighting to reform Law 27360, despite the huge risk of employer retaliation and resistance to union organizing. He is a union leader not only in his own workplace, but also of the newly formed National Federation of Agricultural Workers (FENTAGRO), the first farm worker labor federation in Peru.
In his May 15 television appearance, Polo talked about the campaign as well as about Agricola Viru’s continued failure to provide safe and decent working conditions in spite of workers’ immense sacrifices. In response, Agricola Viru alleged that Polo had stated falsehoods about the company, including, “[workers] have to buy their own safety equipment” and “[we work in] in inadequate conditions.” Although Agricola Viru may view these statements as “defamation,” the Peruvian Ministry of Labor does not: Agricola Viru has been fined repeatedly over the last three years for failing to provide its workers with proper safety equipment, for denying labor inspections, and for egregious working conditions.
“Fidel Polo’s dismissal is a clear attempt by Agricola Viru to rid itself of one of the leading voices for worker rights, not only at their own bargaining table, but in the entire agro-export sector,” said Pablo Ramos, coordinator of the CGTP’s agriculture department. CGTP is mounting a write-in campaign urging Agricola Viru to rescind Polo’s letter of dismissal and allow him to return to work immediately.
The Solidarity Center works closely with both the CGTP and FENTAGRO, and has provided technical support to programs on organizing, collective bargaining, and public advocacy with agro-export sector unions in Peru.
In Ica, 200 miles south of Lima, Peru, tens of thousands of workers harvest and process asparagus, artichokes, and other fresh produce we associate with the arrival of spring. As we head into Easter and Passover, please take the time to think about the men and women in regions like Ica who make the greens on our plates possible.
Did you know:
In a nutritionally challenged area, where the caloric intake just meets minimum standards, most of the workers do not even have a chance to try the products they grow. Much of Peru’s agricultural bounty is exported.
Seventy percent of the workers are women, the majority of reproductive age. These working mothers are regularly exposed to pesticides, fertilizers, and other toxic chemicals.
In the last year, a group of 10 young women were sprayed with pesticides while working. To avoid having to report this occurrence to authorities, the employer had the women treated at a private facility.
The majority of farms do not provide protective equipment, such as boots and gloves. To protect themselves, workers must jerry-rig their own sun visors from T-shirts. Typically, they wear flip-flops in the fields.
Employers consider bathroom breaks for field workers a privilege, not a right. As a result, workers often use makeshift latrines located close to areas where produce is planted and harvested.
Some female workers, encouraged to work continuously without bathroom breaks, are required to wear diapers so as not to cut into “productive work hours.”
It is not uncommon for workers to toil for eight straight hours with no lunch or rest break. When field workers do have time for lunch, they often sit under the same hot sun that makes the coast so good for growing.
Peruvian labor law allows for workers in the agricultural sector to work more than eight hours a day with no overtime, as long as the cumulative work week does not exceed 40 hours.
When agricultural workers form a union, employers have almost absolute control to fire the leaders, sending a message to the other workers that unions are not allowed in their workplace.
On paper, the right to form and join unions is protected, but short-term contracts and an antiquated, 20-year-old law make it very easy for employers to keep their workplaces union free and their workers voiceless.
The work week for most agricultural workers is six days, and most get no paid vacation.
During holidays, such as Thursday and Friday of Easter week, Peruvian employers are required to pay double for those who continue to work. Employers in Ica and other agricultural areas largely refuse to respect this obligation.
When asked what their hopes and dreams are, a group of 10 workers from the plantation Euro SA who were fired for forming a union gave the following responses:
- “A salary that covers my needs.”
- “That the employer pays us what we are due for the years we have worked with the company.”
- “To retire with what I am owed.”
- “Fair treatment at work.”
When asked their fears, they replied:
- “When my supervisor screams at me.”
- “That I won’t get to retire.”
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.