In Ecuador, abaca workers are demanding justice and an end to 60 years of modern slavery

In Ecuador, abaca workers are demanding justice and an end to 60 years of modern slavery

A teenage boy transports bundles of abaca fibre from the harvesting site to the machines where they will be processed. Known as burreros, these workers are usually men with little experience, woman or children.

(Marco Gaete )

In December 2003, after 30 years spent labouring on an abaca plantation, Susana Quiñonez finally summoned the courage to demand better working conditions from her employer, the Japanese-owned Ecuadorian company Furukawa. The company’s reaction was harsh: far from simply ignoring her request, it went so far as to send the police to evict her from the plantation where she and her family were living. Susana’s daughter Maria-Guadalupe Preciado was pregnant with her third child at the time. She vividly recalls the insults, the gunshots and the tear gas like it was yesterday. Her brothers, still in their teens, were thrown into prison. Her husband was shot in the leg and, without the means to seek treatment, later died from his injury.

“In 2003 I demanded my rights for the first time,” Susana, 60, tells Equal Times. As she explains, it took her some time to realise that what was happening on the company’s plantations “wasn’t normal”. “We used to think that this was just how life was, that you had to work to survive, that enduring this kind of brutality was normal.” Susana recalls that it was thanks to reports she watched on her small black and white battery-powered television that she began to realise that she too had rights, and that all of them were being violated.

But even after the brutal eviction of her family, knowing nothing other than the abaca plantations for generations, Susanna had no other choice but to ask to be reinstated at the company under the promise that she would no longer make demands.

Furukawa came to Ecuador in 1963 to produce abaca fibre for international markets. A species of banana tree native to the Philippines, abaca was introduced to the small South American country after studies conducted by the company determined that the area of Santo Domingo in the country’s north-east had the right climatic conditions for cultivating the plant. This extremely resistant fibre is used in products such as tea bags, machine filters, banknotes and high-quality paper, as well as in the automotive and textile industries. It is also used to produce facemasks, causing demand to soar since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Abaca’s versatility of use has made it one of Ecuador’s most exported products, and Furukawa its main producer.

But the hundreds of families including Susana’s, who for decades have harvested and processed abaca fibre for Furukawa, do so under conditions from a previous century. The company rents out its land to intermediaries who pay workers according to how much they produce. Known as intermediación laboral (work through intermediaries), this form of labour is common in Latin America and allows landowners to take ownership of farmers’ work while evading their responsibilities as employers. The farmers have neither contracts nor social security, and their wages, when paid, do not allow them to live with dignity. The result is indebtedness and extreme poverty.

Inhumane working and living conditions

“In Ecuador, the Labour Ministry is obliged to carry out field visits every year to verify the working conditions in companies,” says Patricia Carrión, a lawyer with the Comisión Ecuménica de Derechos Humanos (CEDHU, Ecumenical Commission for Human Rights), an organisation that provides assistance to victims of human rights violations. “So these inspections were carried out without anyone noticing that anything was wrong?” According to Carrión, there are two possible explanations for this: “Either the authorities saw what was happening and decided not to act, or the company took steps to ensure that inspectors only visited the one out of 32 plantations where conditions were more or less good.” The Labour Ministry claims that it carried out inspections from 2017 to 2020 and handed down fines, including for child labour.

It is indeed hard to believe that the unhealthy and degrading living conditions of Furukawa’s 1,200 plantation workers, mostly Afro-Ecuadorians, could have escaped inspectors’ attention. Equal Times visited the camps, which consist of old concrete huts whose small rooms are without light or ventilation. They have no electricity or drinking water, let alone sanitary systems or toilet facilities. The wells are unusable and the workers are forced to drink water from a nearby stream which is contaminated by abaca waste.

According to a 2019 report by the People’s Defender, Ecuador’s equivalent of the Ombudsman, these conditions “are not an isolated case of one camp but are typical of Furukawa’s practice on all of its plantations”.

In addition to their deplorable living conditions, workers are typically not provided with protective gloves, masks or trousers for dangerous activities that have resulted in serious injuries and even amputations. Abaca filaments can be as sharp as blades, capable of lacerating the flesh. Most accidents occur while the plant is being stripped for its fibre using diesel machines that have not been replaced in over 50 years. The workers twist the plant into the machine to crush it and remove its sap to obtain the fibre. One moment of inattention can quickly result in an accident.

Serfdom as a form of modern-day slavery

In 2018, 123 workers finally decided to organise and take their case to court. With no trade union representation, they sought the help of human rights organisations who, appalled by the conditions of bondage detailed in the Ombudsman’s report, agreed to support their lawsuit against the state for negligence and against the company for modern-day slavery.

The Centro de Derechos Económicos y Sociales (CDES, Centre for Economic and Social Rights), which provided support to the victims, cites the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, which defines serfdom as “the condition or status of a tenant who is by law, custom or agreement bound to live and labour on land belonging to another person and to render some determinate service to such other person, whether for reward or not, and is not free to change his status.”

Carrión argues that it is the workers’ inability to break free from their status as serfs that constitutes modern-day slavery in this case: “These people depend on a third party, in this case the company, for their livelihood. They are not free to change their status.”

On Furukawa’s plantations, workers get up at 3am every day and work until 8pm to earn an average of between US$80 and US$100 a month. Entire families, both adults and children, participate in production activities. All of the families, who live on less than a dollar a day, are forced to buy food on credit and then ask the company to pay for it, which means producing more and more to pay back their debt. The company also strictly forbids workers from planting anything other than abaca, depriving them of a minimum of food autonomy.

“They [the managers] tell us ‘this land does not belong to you. You are here to work, not to farm. If you want fruit, buy it,’” says Leones Ramón, a worker.

In a 2019 interview with local media outlet Revista Plan, then head of Furukawa in Ecuador Marcelo Almeida denies any obligation to the workers, claiming that the intermediary is responsible. While acknowledging that the company may have made “some mistakes,” Almeida rejects accusations of human rights violations: according to him, “the conditions of the [Furukawa] workers are much better than those of many others in Santo Domingo”. When asked about the violent eviction that took place in 2003, he claims to not “really remember,” before declaring that it occurred because “there were dangerous people in the camp,” though he is unable to say why they were dangerous.

Economic power and racist domination

While preparing her files on the eve of the third and final court hearing on 14 January, Carrión was nervous. For her, this was also a complex political trial involving several high-ranking officials with interests in agribusiness companies. “We have a revolving door problem: public officials with interests in private companies and vice versa. Economic power, in collusion with political power, over human rights,” she says, adding that if the case had involved white or mixed-race people, it would have been much more likely to be taken up by the press and dealt with more quickly by the courts.

The problem of landowners exploiting workers in Latin America is closely linked to the racialisation of bodies.

According to Rossana Torres, a researcher in environmental social sciences at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLASCO), “the colonial invention of the concept of race continues to have tangible effects on the lives of the people in this region.”

In a statement before to the court, she accuses the Ecuadorian state of being “guilty of stigmatising discourse towards people of African descent”. She gave the example of a delegation from the National Assembly who attempted to visit one of the plantations and was warned of ‘dangerous inhabitants’ by officials from the Ministry of the Interior. According to Torres, such characterisations have legitimised the company’s racist oppression of its workers.

Despite an historic initial victory, many remain wary

In the minutes before the verdict was handed down at the court of first instance of Santo Domingo on 15 January 2021, the suspense in the air was palpable. When the judge decided in favour of the plaintiffs, the applause was deafening. It was indeed a historic decision: it is the country’s first recognised case of modern-day slavery in agriculture and marks the first time that workers have won a lawsuit against a powerful agro-industrial company for discrimination and human rights violations.

The judge recognised the farmers’ right to land access and ordered Furukawa to compensate them and to issue a public apology. The judge also concluded that the Labour Ministry had failed to act responsibly and allowed such violations to take place for 60 years.

It was ordered to compensate each worker by providing access to services such as housing, healthcare and education, as well as to psychological counselling. The details of the decision are not yet known as the judge has yet to issue a written ruling.

Both Furukawa and the Labour Ministry have already appealed the decision, and while Susana and her daughter are happy with the initial outcome, they are waiting for the victory to become official before they celebrate. As one of the plaintiffs told Equal Times, the workers ultimately hope to gain access to land in order to set up their own cooperative to “directly export our abaca to international markets”.

But with the influential company unlikely to give up its land without a fight, the struggle of the Ecuador’s abaca workers is far from over. “We don’t want to be exploited any more. We want a different future,” says Susana.

This story has been translated from French.