Ecuador's banana plantations, a Nest of slavery

The story of Jorge Acosta could come from a novel by Mario Puzo, the author of El Padrino. But the banana trade unionist is not a Mafia fiction, Acosta is about nothing less than his life. Because if someone in the Ecuadorian banana plantations defends the rights of the workers and, like Jorge Acosta, allows himself to question the elites and their power structures, then he risks his life. “Banana production is as dirty as drug trafficking,” the 59-year – old had recently stated, drawing the displeasure of those who employ their pickers, pesticide sprayers, laundresses and Packers on inhumane conditions-that is, a large part of the industry.

Acosta has already felt the consequences several times. Two years ago he received a death threat by phone, in April 2019 he was charged for allegedly causing “economic panic”, and in early February 2020 a local judge had him imprisoned without further ado.

Ecuador's banana plantations, a Nest of slavery

Acosta is the founder and coordinator of the banana trade union ASTAC (Asociación Sindical de Trabajadores Agrícolas Bananeros y Campesinos) and had requested copies of a document from the legal department of the municipality of Babahoyo, one of the Centers of Ecuadorian banana production. The document is the basis for the legal defence of 46 plantation workers who were dismissed from one day to the next in 2019 after trying to organise a union.

The document is actually public, but the administration did not want to get it out. Meanwhile, a judge had stepped into the room, and Acosta – upset about the Situation – pointed out to him that the day before, a member of the Regional Anti-Corruption Authority had already requested the same document in writing. From these words, according to ASTAC, the judge became angry and called the police. The trade unionist pulled out his cell phone and began filming the Situation. This was apparently enough to accuse him of" violating the privacy". If convicted, Acosta faces one to three years in prison. If it comes to that, however, is questionable. “The evidence is far too weak,” says his lawyer.

EU parliamentarians speak out

As soon as Jorge Acosta was free again, the wires ran hot between Ecuador and Europe. The man, who worked as a pilot of pesticide spray aircraft until well into the 2000s, had intensively networked with NGOs and politicians on the other side of the Atlantic since ASTAC was founded in 2009. “Just as the market globalized, we need to globalize the labor dispute,” emphasizes Acosta. And so he travels regularly to Europe, visiting local trade unionists, supermarkets and international agricultural exhibitions. In 2018, he was even invited to the EU Parliament.

Bananas from Ecuador before shipment. Europe is an important sales market. Image: mutantia.ch

Europe is one of the most important markets for Ecuadorian bananas. The interest in a functioning production is great, as is the sensitivity to human rights violations. Acosta has contributed to this with his numerous trips. Therefore, it took only a few hours for the social partners in Europe to speak out after the events in Babahoyo. “It is with great concern that we have received the news of Jorge Acosta’s (temporary) arrest,” writes the Swiss NGO PublicEye, for example. For Oxfam Germany, the arrest of Acosta’s seems to be a pretext to sanction a defender of the Banana workers. And Helmut Scholz, who knows Acosta personally, in his capacity as an MEP from Die Linke, has sent his letter directly to the Ecuadorian public prosecutor’s office, the president of the Judicial Council and the Government Ombudsman. As a result of the events, Scholz writes, “We call on you to stop the harassment and to ensure that trade unionists in the banana sector can carry out their trade union work without becoming victims of persecution.”

Sukkurs of human rights lawyer

A representative of the American Bar Association (ABA) even travelled from Chicago, the world’s largest bar association with around 400,000 members, for the hearing in Babahoyo scheduled for last Monday. After the accusations in 2019, he wanted to get a picture on the ground, explains the man*, who is responsible for human rights violations in Latin America within ABA. The accusations were highly confused in both court cases and it looked like a pattern that pointed to the criminalization of a trade unionist. “The events of the past months do not seem to me to be a coincidence.“And as if this were not enough, the prosecutor in charge had the trial postponed due to an urgency. “I am concerned about this Situation,” says the Chicago Observer. “This case must be dismissed as soon as possible in order to guarantee Acosta’s freedoms as a trade unionist, so that labour rights in the Ecuadorian banana industry can be strengthened.”

But this is far from easy, as a look at the report of the Instituto Estudios Ecuatorianos (IEE) shows. Together with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, the foundation has compiled statistics that document the working conditions of banana workers. Eighty percent of the respondents stated that there was no trade union organization in their companies. Only four percent said that trade union activities were allowed in their companies.

Child labor is still an issue

According to ASTAC, at least 150 workers have been dismissed in the past two years because they wanted to organise themselves. “Over the years, the banana companies have devised various mechanisms to prevent workers from organizing themselves,” says Stalin Herrera, who co-authored the report for the IEE. The pressure on the critical workers is at first subtle, for example by extending working hours with a constant wage, by late wage payments, or by the mutual antagonisms among the workers themselves.

However, one of the darkest chapters, Herrera says, is the “blacklists”, known since the 1980s. On it are the names of those workers who want to claim their rights, complain to their bosses or organize themselves. They circulate among the various producers in the Region, which ensure that the registered persons will henceforth no longer find work in the banana industry. In view of the few alternatives on the labour market, the lists mean Ruin for many people affected – the fear of even opening their mouths is correspondingly great. “Since banana producers have a monopoly position, they define the length of working days, wages and all other conditions,” says Stalin Herrera. One of these conditions is to stay away from ASTAC.

“Modern Slavery”

A UN special rapporteur had already compared the working conditions in the Ecuadorian banana plantations with modern slavery ten years ago. Two years later, the Ombudsman of the then government passed a Resolution that referred to both the violation of natural rights and those of the workers.

Nepotism hinders fair working conditions. Icon image: mutantia.ch

Not much has changed since then, as Stalin Herrera says. The sociologist knows why: because of the local elites. “They control the labour market, the business world – and politics.” Municipal and municipal presidents, provincial governors and members of Parliament, and even the ministries are peppered with representatives of the banana industry. The current head of the Ministry of the environment, for example, is the son of the President of the country’s largest banana Association. During his time as Minister of labour, he had introduced several reforms to make working conditions in the plantations more flexible. In addition, the Minister of agriculture is one of the most important representatives of organic banana production. “Those who are actually responsible for workers' rights, “says Herrera,” are part of the Ecuadorian Elite. And that creates an enormous level of impunity.”

However, the scientist does not want to talk about Mafia. “I think over time there has been a dynamic that doesn’t need to be orchestrated by someone. If that were the case, they would have made Jorge Acosta disappear long ago.”

No written contracts, no minimum wage

It is a dynamic that reminds of the colonial period, when the Haciendas had changed hands together with the staff. Until the 1970s it was called in newspaper advertisements, vendo Hacienda, indios inclusive – selling country estate, including Indians. The self-image of belonging to the oppressed, coupled with the fear of being dismissed, still leads to the fact that a large proportion of plantation workers have no written contracts and often earn less than the minimum wage of 400 francs per month. In addition, poisoning by pesticides is just as much a part of everyday life as sexual harassment in the case of workers. Child labour is also still an issue. Only at the beginning of the year, an 18-year-old woman and a 17-year-old man were killed in a road accident while working. They have been working in the plantations for four years.

File a complaint with the EU, Sukkurs of Trump

ASTAC, which, despite having around 1,400 members, was still not recognised as a trade union by the Quito government, filed a complaint with the European Union last year for failing to comply with the Labour and environmental standards set out in the Free Trade Agreement. The government also knows this paper. But in the foreseeable future, not much is likely to change in the prevailing methods in the banana plantations. President Lenin Moreno visited the White House last week - the first president of Ecuador in seventeen years – and has joined the economic program America crece (America is growing), which means: labor rights are likely to play a minor role in the future-also because the program was launched at the behest of multimillionaire Donald Trump. And this is not exactly known for social concerns.

Prosecution guarantees " due process”

Jorge Acosta is still waiting for the trial. This has now been scheduled for next Friday. Conspicuous: in both cases, both extracts from Acosta’s Social Security and from the Tax Office have been requested. “These documents have absolutely nothing to do with the case,” says his lawyer Leonardo Jiménez Vergara. “That’s why we think that behind these absurd demands is the same Person or group of people.“For the public prosecutor’s Office of the province of Los Rios, where the negotiations will take place, there is no reason to drop the trial – although it could do so due to a lack of circumstantial evidence. “We ask for serenity, “the boss says on request,” we will guarantee a proper process.”

The accusations in the case of “economic panic” read, by the way, as from the above-mentioned novel: he is accused, says Jorge Acosta, of favoring the competition in other countries by his activity as a defender of the plantation workers. Indirectly, he was accused of receiving money from banana producers in Central America so that he, as a trade unionist, would ensure that production conditions in Ecuador were made more difficult.