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Guns, threats and exploitation behind the banana trade

Jan Goodey interviews Guillermo Touma, the leading Ecuadorian trade unionist and human rights activist, exclusively for Red Pepper Online

December 1, 2002
11 min read

If British trade union leaders think they get a rough ride fighting government backed privatisation and elitism in public services, you’d be hard pressed to disagree — however their government/media hounding pales into insignificance when you take into account union-bashing, south American style.

Guillermo Touma, Ecuadorian Banana Workers trade union leader, has had death threats, his wife has received death threats on his behalf, and he’s seen striking colleagues shot and beaten up to within an inch of their lives.

Touma works on the Los Alamos plantation in Guayas Province where workers have formed the first new Ecuadorian trade unions in years, affiliated to umbrella organisation, FENACLE (Federation of Small Farmers and Indigenous Community Organisations of Ecuador) of which Touma is president.

The Los Alamos plantation is owned by the Noboa Corporation the fourth biggest banana company in the world. It accounts for about 11% of world trade, and it is headed by Alvaro Noboa, Ecuador’s richest man. Noboa is also through to the second round of presidential elections scheduled for Nov 24 2002. In Noboa’s own words “I don’t like unions. I will fight unions.”

And it was these words which were put into action against Touma and fellow striking workers on May 16 this year. Around 400 armed thugs turned up and turned peaceful protest into bloody carnage. Thirty-three-year-old Mauro Romero was shot in the leg at close range and was left to bleed for several hours. His colleagues were threatened with the same fate if they dared move him. Eventually, he made it to hospital where his leg was amputated. Bernabe Menedez was shot three times in the stomach, while Alex Mata was shot and still has a bullet in his head.

The workers were striking over long hours (some work 12 hours a day, six days a week), low pay and non payment of benefits, poor accommodation including blocked toilets, sexual harassment of female workers by plantation foremen and exposure to chemicals.

Ecuador is the world’s biggest exporter of bananas, but fewer than 1% workers of the 300,000 plus banana workers are organised into trade unions. As a result, the country has some of the worst conditions in Latin America’s banana industry. Low-wage, no-benefit and non-unionised banana work drives down conditions, as companies find the “cheapest” bananas they can to remain “competitive”.

In Britain, as guest of Banana Link, a UK group working towards sustainable trade and production bananas, Touma is highlighting the daily reality experienced by banana workers in Ecuador and that violent attack on May 16. He is married with three children, and he is hoping to make working conditions safer for when his 18 month-old-son comes of age. He spent 18 years working on banana plantations until he decided to move into Ecuador’s free trade union movement. Thanks to his tireless activism in different workers’ organisations, he became FENACLE leader in 1984.

JG: Why are you here?

GT: We’re here to denounce the living conditions and the conditions of repression of all Ecuadorian banana workers

JG: What is FENACLE?

GT: FENACLE is a broad organisation There are banana workers, small farmers and indigenous peoples and it’s a national federation of community organisations and unions. I came in when the organisation was ten years old in ’84. In the Seventies when it was founded, there were a lot more unions. Because of the crisis going in on in the banana sector, those unions disappeared. So, it was a FENACLE strategy to organise small farmers and landless rural and indigenous peoples.

JG: How much can a banana worker expect to earn?

GT: The minimum national wage is £128 dollars a month, but many workers don’t reach that because they’re sub contracted or contracted on a daily basis and get three or four dollars a day. Exploitation wages are worse where there’s no unions.

JG: Can you describe what happened on May 16?

GT: There were two attacks. One at 2am when the hired hit men arrived about 300 of them. They attacked the workers who were engaged on a peaceful strike. At that first attack, I was in my house. They called me up at about five in the morning, and we started to mobilise our people. We went straight to the plantation to support our striking colleagues. Then, when we were still there at about 6.15 in the evening, there was another attack, and I was involved in that. There were about 12 people wounded in that attack by gunfire, one very seriously. There were only six policemen present at this stage, and they didn’t do anything. One of the police was injured by the hired hitmen the company had brought in. After all this had clamed down, the police arrived at about 7.30. They arrested 16 of the hitmen. The hitmen were released later due to Noboa’s political influence. It was like the Wild West — a lot of shooting went on. We maintained the strike inside the plantation. But the attack caused workers to get out of the plantation. So we had to keep the strike on the outside. But because the strike’s been going on eight months, not all of the strikers could hold out financially — they had no food, no money.

JG: What is happening now?

GT: We’re pressing justice for those banana workers and for others, the campaign hasn’t stopped, far from it.We’re just negotiating for those striking workers to be reintegrated into the company. Original strikers from February have been given tiny compensation and we’re trying to increase that. So basically we’re about to go back to work and start the struggle again from inside.

JG: Have there been other notable campaigns you’ve been involved with?

GT: Another campaign which got a lot of international support was one with indigenous peoples. They felt marginalised. In the Nineties, we had a series of marches and occupations of the centre of Quito (and at the local level as well), and we were able to get a law passed through parliament which was in favour of indigenous people’s rights. Now they have the right to hold political posts. GT: One example was May 16. I was the last person to leave the plantation, and I got a death threat that day. My wife has received death threats on my behalf by telephone, threatening my family. We haven’t managed to find out who it was. Obviously, they are trying to get me to abandon the struggle. They haven’t put me off. We shall continue.

JG: How has dollarisation effected the economy?

GT: Well, we still have dollarisation. In September 2000, it came in. We lost our national monetary identity. It’s very difficult imagining going back to the sucre [the former Ecuadorian currency]. The economy is kept from collapse from remittances from Ecuadorians in Europe and the US. Remittances are our second biggest source of income, and they’re allowing the dollarised society to survive. More than 1.5m Ecuadorians live abroad out of our populatin of 12.8 million.

JG: What’s the feeling on the street about the forthcoming elections?

GT: It’s a small country with an enormous number of political parties. We feel there is a lack of political training, culture and maturity amongst our people. About 80% of Ecuadorians are classified as poor. The Government is managing the poor. Because they don’t have any political education, they end up voting in the rich. In the case of the current elections, two candidates went through to the first round: Lucio Guiterrez and Albert Noboa. People realise that Noboa spent $1.6m on getting through the first round. Guiterrez spent less than $200,000. There are always 100 or 200 people protecting Noboa if he’s around — the same guys as the hitmen from May 16. People don’t put any faith in him. We played our part: we put out this educational leaflet. It explains the situation of Los Alamos workers and the role of Noboa in all of that. We’ve used out regular radio slots in the country to inform people. We’d obviously like to get on the television, but we can’t afford to. A lot of TV stations have simply closed their doors to anyone who’s going to be critical of him. We’ve prepared our own videos and shown them to local communities to give our side of the story about who Albert Noboa is. People have responded to that, and the guy is losing votes left, right and centre.

JG: So what about Guiterrez?

GT: As the poor of Ecuador, we’re voting for Guiterrez. We believe he should create a government in favour of the poor. There are a number of social changes that we’re looking for. Fighting corruption is one of our most serious diseases. He talks about major healthcare programmes and education. And in the small farmers movement, we’ve put forward proposals for agrarian reform. For example, we want reduced rates for agricultural credit for the small farmers. At the moment, it’s 18%. We’re asking for 6%. We’re also expecting to reform the labour code. The labour laws we’ve got have been made by the employers, and they’re not favourable to the workers. We know we’re not going to see a radical change overnight. But we believe that he will sow the seeds for some of these major social changes.

JG: Do you have any political ambitions?

GT: No our work is more social. I was asked to stand as an MP. I didn’t accept, because I consider it a more important job for me to carry on defending workers rights.

JG: What are your thoughts on the anti-globalisation movement?

GT: To us, it seems very important and plays a very important role. Globalisation is having very dramatic consequences in the poorer countries of the world. Problems with the impact of privatisation, we’re in the midst of debate about the Free Trade Areas of Americas in 2005, which from our point of view means more poverty, more emigration. We very much support the movement against globalisation as it currently manifests itself.

Liz Parker from Banana Link adds:

“We took a delegation of TU workers in April to Los Alamos as part of a seven banana workers unions in five countries project. Part of that to raise awareness among Brit TU members about what is going on because bananas are a really good symbol of lots of injustices in the world trade: WTO issues, environment issues, workers rights, small farmers. A lot of those issues affect British workers as well.

It’s about recognising the need for international solidarity. These workers formed their union to struggle for their most very basic rights. At a time when consumers are becoming more concerned about the way their goods are produced, we need to challenge producers to be competitive on more than price alone and offer bananas produced in a more socially and environmentally sustainable way.”

And finally, Jackie Simpkins, the Trade Unions officer from War on Want was also involved in Touma’s visit:

“War on Want has had funding from the Department of International Development for a programme called Global Workplace. Part of the programme are global workers forums. We take grassroots trade union activists from the UK to visit our partners, or partners of sympathetic sister organisations abroad, preferably in the same industries, so that they can see first hand the struggles there. To Ecuador, we took people from the retail sector from the GMB, USDAW, the T&G. They represent workers in Sainsbury’s and Tesco etc. Bananas are the single biggest selling item in a supermarket. They went to see the other end of the supply chain, the problems with the companies there but also the benefits they have from joining a union.

We’re having Guillermo speaking at a union training day that we’re having in Glasgow, where he’ll reach out to yet more union activists. It’s important that these visits aren’t just a one-off. People need to take what they’ve seen and heard and turn that into action. The big crime is that profits are made disproportionately at this end of the production chain.

We’ll be bringing over people from further different projects: Columbia and Palestine, in the next few months.

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