11 July 2010

Fear in Negotiations

After a number of general, contextual interviews with government and labor officials, and chamber of commerce spokesmen, I settled into Chao, one of many small towns outside of Trujillo where the majority of agroindustry workers reside. Scheduling visits with government officials was, as expected, a nightmare. Lunch hours beginning at 1pm commonly exhausted the afternoon, World Cup games beckoned, and generally, government officials didn't want to talk to me about the state of agribusiness in Trujillo. Interviewing workers, however, would be much more difficult.

Leaving the gates of the plantation, piling off the bus, seated quietly at the weekly union meetings. They were everywhere, approximately 10,000 workers employed by the agribusiness I'm following. They scattered quickly into the dark alleys of Chao, Nuevo Chao, Virú and Virú Puente, were quick to shake their heads and turn away when I approached. I didn't look like them. My Spanish didn't sound like theirs. My height, camera, and notebooks seemed intimidating, and even when I was able to hide the latter two, my presence caused anxiety in a plantation town.

There was simply no margin of error, and associating themselves with someone who gave the wrong impression was a risk most weren't willing to assume.

After being introduced by the union leader, things improved. My conversations generally looked at workers' demographic information, their experiences on the plantation, any infractions of labor rights that they have encountered, and why those reclamos were or were not filed with the Ministerio de Trabajo.

A word that I have become accustomed to hearing frequently, in all interviews: miedo. Fear. Fear, insecurity, and confusion as to what their rights as dispensable laborers are. These are the most commonly cited challenges keeping workers in the field, far away from the offices that were established to file their complaints.

The proposition of a general strike Saturday morning had lifted everyone's spirits. Collectively, they rejoiced in the anonymity that would be offered by a group protest recognized as legal by the Department of Labor. Yet, at 12:00am on Saturday morning, it seemed that even the most conscious of union leaders were plagued by the same challenge cited by so many workers: miedo. The lead negotiator, currently facing numerous lawsuits at the hands of his employer for speaking out publicly against inspection policies to the local press, broke down at the negotiations table. Citing fear and intimidation tactics, he signed away the union's right to strike in the wee hours of Saturday morning.

Saturday night, an emergency union meeting was called. In a small courtyard lined with adobe bricks, the workers packed in. Most faces were grim, soiled with dirt from a long day's work and chewing through the news that not a single point of negotiation was met the night before. When the lead negotiator took the mic, the crowd roared. "We put all our faith in you!," they yelled. "What will you say to my children!?" "How much did they pay you to stab us in the back?" The air was heavy.

The lead negotiator didn't attempt to reconcile his misgivings. He cried, simply and honestly. Cried before a crowd of a hundred grown men. He described a life full of terror, in which every day he arrives home to find a newly printed demanda from the company. Every time, he said, with three days to respond. I can hardly think, let alone live. His shoulders slumped, his eyes were broken. Tears streaming down his cheeks, the crowd softened. Women at my side wiped tears from their eyes. An older man offered some encouragement. "Have strength," he shouted, "There's no shame here!"

He resigned, admitting to have committed the worst mistake of his life, and backed down.

09 July 2010

A la Huelga

They were the same age, he told me. It was easy to count the years. A husband and wife that had migrated from la sierra, the Andes, to work in the plantations on the Peruvian coast. Neither able to read or write, both coughing and sneezing. It was already 10pm when he offered his wife the only chair. He crouched on a cinder block and explained to me his recent dismissal from the company in question.

Accused of working in a state of intoxication and displaying aggressive behavior towards his superiors, he had been released on Father's Day with three days to appeal the decision. In the official letter of termination, no specific infractions were cited. Without money to pay for a lawyer and worried as to how he would feed the ten children that awaited him in Nuevo Chao, an informal settlement that has grown with the agroindustry that surrounds it, he went to look for work. Three days expired with no luck.

He's not the only one out of luck, something that the workers here speak of with frequency and a great deal of sincerity. Hundreds of workers from the same company have been dismissed in recent months under suspicious justification. Generally, the despedidas are correlated with one of two things, and most often with both: union activity and labor complaints.

Currently, the eight dirigentes of the workers' union are at the trade tables negotiating terms of a new contract under the threat of a general strike. The points of negotiation are varied, but include the payment of two years worth of utilidades, something that I understand to be a portion of company profits guaranteed to workers by Peruvian law. Another is the recall of a law known as the Ley de Promoción del Sector Agroindustrial, a law that has allowed agroindustry businesses exceptions to minimum wage, benefits, and vacation requirements required of other Peruvian employers.

It's 11:52pm. If a new contract isn't signed by tomorrow at 5am, most of the company will begin marching from the Plaza de Armas in Chao in a general strike that has been deemed legal by the local Department of Labor.