Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Nuns in a riot

I met some very cool nuns. The bloke who’d set up the meeting for me had told me in advance that “son chevéres” (They're cool), and he was dead right.

There’s been a strike of palm oil workers happening in Puerto Wilches, and I was meeting with the nuns to hear about how they had been supporting the workers, and how I might be able to help.

They told me about the background to the strike. It started on January 30th by workers from the Monterey company. Monterey subcontracts the majority of its work to cooperatives. Which might sound like a good thing, but it really, really is not. It is done simply as a tactic to get over labour laws.

As Norma The Nun began to tell me about the workers’ conditions, my jaw started falling floorward. Seeing this, she commented how it had had the same effect on her.
Collecting palm oil seeds is not easy work. The men spend the day craning their necks, pulling bunches of seeds down from the trees. It's very hot. There are commonly spinal problems from looking up all day, and injuries from falling branches.

The job of injecting the trees with the pesticide monocrotophos (illegal in many countries) is often done with little protective gear. Last year 18 year old Emilio Sabas died after only two weeks at the job. He only had a flimsy face mask. No protective clothes or gloves. Blame of who should have been responsible for his gear bounced between the Monterey and his cooperative.
Given how most workers can hardly afford the food they need on their wages, extra clothes are not their priority. So they go home in the same clothes, hug their kids, have their clothes washed along with everyone else’s. And studies have shown levels of pesticide contamination in workers’ families.

The sorts of things the Monterey strikers were protesting against when they started, included how

- The many ways in which they get fined. For bunches with fewer than 8 branches, for bunches left in the trees, for bunches cut without leaves, for stems which are too long, and when bunches are too ripe and seeds fall out.

- Wages had not risen in five years

- Workers have to pay 100% of the transport costs of getting to the fields

- If they buy their tools from the factory shop (where they can get credit, which they need when they're paid late), they are 60% above market value.

- Workers have to pay for the transport of the seeds from the fields, and are fined for any damage to the carts, including wear and tear.

- The cooperatives are meant to pay 100% of the social security payments. Given that Monterey is often late paying the cooperatives, there are gaps in payment which leaves people with a big problem if they have an accident during one of the gaps. It’s risky work, so people do.

- Workers are fined for the seeds that fall loose on to the floor. Women collect them off the ground. They are paid, and the men are fined, according to their weight. That’s the bit that really made my jaw drop.

So the Monterey workers started the strike on January 30th. They were joined on February 13th by workers from many other companies. They set up a blockade on February 18th. Two groups of nuns were there, supporting two different sites, meeting up at 4am.

The nuns had gleaming eyes as they related the story. Riot cops arrived at 5.25am, threw in some tear gas, and there was a pitched battle til 8 or 9. The crowd grew from 300 to 5000 when the tear gas started. The police singled out people to beat up. They threw tear gas into houses with pregnant women and children in. One woman later miscarried. The nuns treated tear gas victims and told off lots of cops. People got wise to throwing water over tear gas canisters to neutralize them. The police then ran out of gas, were surrounded, and had to get rescued. They left the scene at 12pm.

The blockade lasted another week or so. There were some negotiation meetings, but the companies did not give an inch. Gutting. It’s common after agreements are reached for community leaders to be assassinated afterwards. I imagine they might be even more vulnerable when the power balance is such that they didn’t even win anything. Bit of a worry.

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