A dusty blue bus pulled to a stop in the center of Chao, a series of faded facades lining the principal route between Trujillo and Lima. It was just after 5pm, the sun dipped low and the white sand dunes began their daily transformation from parchment to blush to rouge. One by one, the workforce of La Libertad's largest agribusiness, Camposol, lowered themselves onto the street. Those arriving from the field were identified by a wide-brimmed hat, a machete, or by a rag loosely tied around their head to shade against the sun. They quickly disappeared behind adobe walls covered by campaign signs and into congested storefronts.
Twenty meters away, in the back of the bus garage, fifty workers were gathered around a small plastic table. From a distance, the gathering could have been a standard World Cup viewing, the air intermittently scattered with cheers and boos; at one moment arms flung into the air, in others faces were buried deep into leathery hands. An hour away, at the Regional Labor Ministry in Trujillo, negotiators from SITECASA, Camposol’s only independent union, entered into their eight hour of collective negotiations with company representatives. Via two cell phones passed amongst the fifty workers, the group communicated with negotiators at the table, their collective chants measuring the approval or rejection of negotiation advancements.
The agribusiness Camposol employs approximately 10,000 workers in the developing communities of Virú, Chao, and Nuevo Chao. Like fellow non-traditional agro-exporters Sociedad Agrícola Virú, Talsa, and Danper, the emergence of Camposol into the economy of northern Peru was facilitated by the Chavimochic irrigation project, which in 1994 brought piped water from the Andes to the otherwise arid coastland of La Libertad province. In it’s 13 years of operation, Camposol has not only become the largest agribusiness in La Libertad, accounting for 30.2% of regional production in 2009, but has also vaulted into the position of top asparagus importer in the world.
Increased access to global markets,
achieved with the recent signing of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States, has meant greater product placement in international markets. Last year, in the midst of an international economic crisis, Camposol registered an official gross profit of 24.2 million, a 20% decrease from the 30.3 million earned in 2008. Running under the institutionalized slogan ‘do more with less’, Camposol has recently opened offices in Spain and the Netherlands and has planned expansion into the regions of Piura in northwestern Peru.
Although it would be difficult to deny the importance of the agroindustry in La Libertad, the advent of non-traditional agriculture into the now productive valley of Trujillo has not come without controversy. Placed amidst vast fields of avocadoes, grapes, and asparagus, Camposol has become an emblematic example of the economic development typical of the agroindustry. Floated by national policies awarding tax, environmental, and labor incentives to agribusiness, Camposol has maximized the region’s natural resources and human resources prevailing not only from coastal regions but also heavily from the Andean highlands.
Despite their list-topping position in the international asparagus market, the company has been recently embroiled in labor disputes that speak to a general discontent among industry workers. In a sector-wide meeting of the National Agribusiness Union (SNA) last week, general concerns were vetted in an attempt to formulate a national platform that would be used in collective negotiations.
The complaints among SNA members are common to most: discrimination against union members, meager wages, extended working hours, and capricious dismissal of workers during 'seasonal recessions', the latter two legally protected under the controversial Law 27360. Commonly known as the Agricultural Sector Promotional Law, Law 27360 was created with the intention of attractive private investment to publicly funded irrigation projects such as Chavimochic through discounted labor costs. The law has been the center of many labor disputes in the industry; its abolishment was identified as a priority in the collective platform drafted by the SNA.
“They'll shatter your dreams,” a 26-yr-old member of SITECASA explains. Over a cup of steaming tea, he continues, “under the agrarian law 27360, you won't advance,” he explains, “and this is the case with many of us. I wanted to take out a loan to continue with school, but in this job, no one feels secure. At any moment, at their whim, they could toss me to the streets and leave me unable to pay my loan.”
A husband and wife from the Andean highlands, Camposol workers, sat timidly at the Chao bus stop, coughing and sneezing intermittently. Eleven years ago they moved to Nuevo Chao to work in the agroindustry, yet after three consecutive years with Camposol, the husband was dismissed a month ago with little explanation. After laying his ‘notice of termination’ on the ground, he reaches into his bag and extracts ten additional pages. “These are the birth certificates of each of my children,” he said. “I can’t read or write, neither one of us can. I can’t read the document they’ve given me, but I know that I have ten children to feed. They haven’t been able to give me a reason for my termination yet.”
For those workers that migrated from the Andean highlands, the Peruvian Amazon, or from within La Libertad province, the agroindustry represented employment opportunity. Yet for many, with limited resources, education, and employment options, the temporal nature of work and the meager wages characteristic of the agribusiness represent a great amount of financial insecurity.
A Legal Framework of Insecurity
The recently signed Free Trade Agreement between the United States and Peru has been widely celebrated in the US Congress and President Obama for its improved environmental and labor standards as compared to past FTAs signed by the United States. Amendments added to Chapter 17, the labor chapter of the FTA, include an emphasis on the recognition of fundamental human rights defined by the International Labor Organization (ILO), to which Peru is a member. Most notably, it mentions acceptable working conditions, minimum wage, working hours, health and occupational security as fundamental rights to which all workers are entitled.
Labor attorney Javier Mujíca Petit has found that, in accordance with Law 27360, agricultural workers earn S/476.64 ($170) less per year than those workers protected by common labor laws, in other words, $170 less than minimum wage. “The disadvantageous labor regimen in the agricultural sector contradicts the obligations outlined in Chapter 17 of the Free Trade Agreement.”
From collective negotiations emerged a collective disappointment. At 1230am the negotiations broke under what director Walter Campos described as “immense pressure from company representatives” to sign an agreement that awarded a one time S/50 payment to each union worker. No further advancements were reached. In the words of another negotiator, “we each gained a new pair of pants.”
With Talsa union negotiations failing in recent weeks and collective bargaining for Sociedad Agrícola Perú and other companies on the horizon, the case of Camposol is illustrative. Miguel Caldas, director of human resources at Camposol, confirmed that a salary increase did not figure within reached agreement. “What’s more,” he says, referencing the low salaries characteristic of the agroindustry, “this is not a problem that is exclusive to Camposol, but the entire sector.” With the largest agribusiness in the region failing to increase worker compensation, the industry lacks incentive to raise the collective bar.
The idea of corporate social responsibility has grown in recent years as a counterbalance to the exploitation of natural resources and human rights violations that have come to be frequently associated with internationally traded commodities, industrialized agriculture, and raw material extraction. The blurring of the consumer producer relationship, inherent to global markets, has given rise to a consumer population that is increasingly concerns with the impacts of its purchases and with the privilege to choose products that align with personal ideals, be it a fair salary, environmental responsibility, or corporate respect for fundamental human rights.
Camposol publicly declares its company values to be ‘Integrity, Respect, Team Work, Excellence, and Austerity’. If Camposol were truly concerned with giving international consumers the impression that respect and integrity were cornerstones of its operations, an obvious first step would be to award its workers a salary that, at very minimum, equated Peruvian minimum wage.