When I spoke to the nuns just after the palmworkers strike in Puerto Wilches ended in February, they were upbeat about having been in a riot, but they painted a pretty dismal picture of what the 30 day strike had achieved. Despite the fact that it got so much solidarity and support from locals, nationals and internationals.
I have been staying in Puerto Wilches for the last two weeks, with intention of finding out what had happened since. It's horribly hot here, which made me ill and then took away my motivation to do anything that isn't sleeping.
So I've given myself a deadline to get the interviews done so that I can leave and go live somewhere cooler, with a better mattress less overrun by biting ants, and which I don't have to share with an 8 year old boy when more family come to stay, who's in the habit of kicking me in the face throughout the night.
After an eleven hour sleep, (which seems a lot even for me), I got myself up this morning with some determination to go find some people to interview.
Since then, things have been going surprisingly smoothly. We asked around for the bloke who was one of the leaders of the strike. Shortly after, he turned up where I was staying. And rather than listening to the tale of woe I had been expecting about the strike achieving nothing but an increase in repression, the word 'triumph' was repeatedly used.
Before the strike, those working indirectly for the palm company Monterrey through cooperatives (set up and controlled by the company so they can avoid various legal requirements such as paying for social security) got fined like this:
- 6000 pesos (£1.70) for each seed bunch they cut down which had less than five seeds fallen loose – ie was not considered ripe enough.
- 6000 pesos for each seed bunch left uncut with more than five seeds which have fallen loose – ie too ripe, although it may have ripened in the time between the worker passing the palm and the supervisor checking it.
- 3000 pesos for each kilo of seeds found on the ground below the palm trees.
- 6000 pesos for each seed bunch cut down by one worker, but left behind by another instead of loaded onto the cart.
- 2000 pesos for each seed bunch stalk cut more than 2 cm long.
So basically there were four or five things you can get wrong every time you cut down a seed bunch from 2 metres above your head.
These fines ate into the wages of the workers, along with having to pay for overpriced tools, transport, raw materials and social security payments. A healthy-looking 700 000 pesos (£200) monthly wage therefore shrunk to 250 000 (£70) take-home pay: just over half the legal minimum wage.
To give you some idea of the purchasing power of 250 000 per month, consider that's just over 8000 pesos (£2.30) a day. Consider the palm worker may well be the only wage earner in the family. Consider people here tend to have a lot of children (5 or 6 is the average number).
Some common costs
Lunch: 4000 pesos.
An exercise book (and each schoolchild needs about 15 in a year) 1000 pesos.
A pen: 700 pesos.
School uniform: 50 000 pesos.
School sports uniform: 34 000 pesos.
School annual enrolment (eighth grade): 80 000 pesos.
Rent: 150 000 pesos per month for a two-bedroom house.
ie, A pen or an exercise book is an hour's wage. Lunch is half a day's work.
Due to the 47 000 ha of oil palm here in the municipality of Puerto Wilches (about a third of the rural land) not leaving much space for food crops, bananas which used to be given away to neighbours for free are now imported from Venezuela or Ecuador.
Transport costs make fruit and veg prices high, which is a source of frustration for people given they live in such a fertile area.
A pound of potatoes: 1200 pesos (35p) in Puerto Wilches, 400 pesos in the nearby city of Bucaramanga.
A pound of tomatoes: 1500 pesos (43p) in Puerto Wilches, 400 in Bucaramanga.
A pound of plantain: 600 pesos (17p) in Puerto Wilches, 250 in Bucaramanga.
As for the repression experienced due to the strike, well, it's not as bad as it could have been. Blokey I spoke to was verbally threatened by the police during the strike. He had a fairly exciting story about being shot at and a load of them involving themselves in a motorbike chase where they followed the assailants back to their base at the police-station. They reported it but the police have somehow chosen not to follow it up. There was also a young guy who left town for a month when him and his mum were threatened after his active involvement in the strike. He's back now though.
For the Monterrey workers:
- The fine system has changed so the 6000 fines have been reduced to 2500 pesos, half paid by the company and half by the cooperative. The other fines are now 500, also half paid by the company.
- Workers now are allowed a 3% margin of error before the fines start. Supervisors give you the opportunity to cut the stalk to the right length before a fine is imposed.
- The tools that had to be bought from the company are now sold much nearer to cost price: roughly half the cost they were.
- Wages have increased by 28%.
- There is a review committee of workers and company reps who meet monthly to look at how the fine system is running.
- The company pays for a full-time consultant to lend expertise to the cooperatives.
All this means that the strike has lead to an increase in income of about 40% for workers in this sector. Up to around minimum wage levels. I think that's quite an impressive triumph.
Plus positive results breed others. This strike has inspired other nearby, which is now on its thirtieth day.
And there are less tangible consequences of over 3000 striking workers coming together every day for a month. A new organisation has started up with a focus on encouraging the cultivation of staple foods. People have a sense of success and unity that's nice to see. Right perked me up it has.