[OPE-L:7419] Child Labor: Free? Feudal Relic?

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@stanford.edu)
Date: Sat Jul 13 2002 - 13:29:25 EDT


NYTimes.com Article: In Ecuador's Banana Fields, Child Labor Is Key to Profits

In Ecuador's Banana Fields, Child Labor Is Key to Profits

July 13, 2002
By JUAN FORERO

PUERTO INCA, Ecuador - At Los ílamos plantation, it would
appear that no expense was spared to produce the Bonita
brand Cavendish bananas sold in the United States.

The modern 3,000-acre hacienda in this steamy corner of
Ecuador, one of the most efficient in Latin America,
employs some 1,300 workers to tend banana plants fed by a
state-of-the-art irrigation system.

The owner is ílvaro Noboa, Ecuador's richest man and a
worldly bon vivant. He has become the leading candidate for
president with the help of a slick marketing campaign that
has cast him as a populist friend of the poor. "I love the
workers at Los ílamos," Mr. Noboa told local reporters in
May, when he announced his candidacy.

But in interviews, a dozen children and many adults spoke
of child laborers at Los ílamos, among them a spindly-armed
10-year-old, Esteban Men╚ndez. "I come here after school
and I work here all day," Esteban said. "I have to work to
help my father, to help him make money."

The presence of children on the plantation of a man who may
win Ecuador's presidential election in October is one of
the more glaring examples of how enduring the use of child
labor remains in Latin America, where some 42 million
children from ages 5 to 14 have been estimated to be
working in recent years.

The problem has been made more durable still by the
competition that comes with a consolidated global market.
Pressures on businesses to be efficient and profitable are
often passed on to the world's most vulnerable population,
its poorest children.

Growers and exporters here, who supply 25 percent of the
bananas eaten in the United States, say the product earns
them about 30 percent less today than a decade ago, often
prompting them to turn a blind eye to labor codes. Child
labor is common on plantations, large and small.

Meanwhile, grim economic realities leave families more than
ready to send their boys, and sometimes girls, out to work,
even if it means pulling them out of school and placing
them in fields or factories where they are exposed to
hazardous conditions for little or no pay.

For two years, Esteban and his family say, the boy has
bounded up 15-foot banana plants, tying insecticide-laced
cords between them to stabilize trunks that might otherwise
collapse under the weight of the produce that is behind Mr.
Noboa's fortune of over $1 billion.

He works for nothing to help his father, who tends 98
acres, avoid having his pay docked.

"That is the life of my sons, working in the bananas at
such a young age," said Esteban's mother, Benita Men╚ndez,
36, who has had three sons working at Mr. Noboa's
plantation, only one of them an adult. "I did not want them
to work when they were little, but this is the reality."

Ecuador's problem is less severe than that of other
countries in the region. Even so, the International Labor
Organization estimated that 69,000 children ages 10 to 14,
and an additional 325,000 young people ages 15 to 19, were
working here in 1999.

Only a significant increase in wages, at best a distant
prospect in a country where the average worker earns $5.74
a day, will keep families from sending their children out
into the fields, labor advocates here and in the United
States say.

But while rights activists regard such labor as
unacceptable, many parents like Mr. and Mrs. Men╚ndez see
it as a necessity.

When several plantations, fearing unwanted attention,
dismissed their child workers after a damning 114-page
report in April by Human Rights Watch, the action was taken
as a disaster by families across the lush banana belt of
southern Ecuador - the world's largest banana exporter and
an increasingly important source for American corporations
like Dole and Del Monte, according to the report.

"They fired all the children, but the work they did helped
us," complained Mar╠a NarvĚez, 31, whose two sons, N╚stor
and Luis Boa, 12 and 13, were dismissed from a big hacienda
where they earned $3 a day. "The situation is such that we
all have to pitch in."

At Los ílamos, which supplies the world's fourth-largest
banana company, labor conditions have become increasingly
contentious. Employees' efforts to organize for better
wages and working conditions led to a violent standoff this
year - a dispute that simmers today in the form of an
intermittent strike by some families, including Esteban's
own.

The workers unionized in March. The company responded by
dismissing more than 120 of them.

When the workers occupied part of the hacienda, guards
armed with shotguns, some wearing hoods, arrived at 2 a.m.
on May 16, according to workers, and fired on some who had
refused to move from the entrance gate, wounding two.

The guards, workers said, then entered the grounds and
burst into barracks where other workers were sleeping and
forced them out.

The next afternoon, workers again gathered at the gate,
where they parked a bus across the road to block delivery
trucks. The guards confronted them again, this time
wounding seven more - including Esteban's father, Bernab╚
Men╚ndez - and a policeman.

"It was an attack on innocent people," said Jan Nimmo, a
Scottish labor advocate who was with the workers that day
and videotaped the afternoon confrontation at the gate.

Mr. Noboa's lawyer, Rafael Pino, attributed the violence to
the workers, saying the guards had been sent in to protect
property that was being vandalized. "At no moment were
there shots from our side," he said.

But the violence prompted the United States Embassy to ask
the government to ensure the safety of the striking
workers. An American delegation that included two members
of Congressional staffs visited Los ílamos workers in June.


"This is sort of the underbelly of globalization," said
Representative George Miller, a California Democrat who
sent an aide to Ecuador.

"We ask for labor protections and we ask for environmental
protections," Mr. Miller said, "and we're told we can't
have them, and when the citizens of that country try to get
those protections, they're met with force from the company
to keep that from happening."

After the confrontation at Los ílamos, a Chicago-based
labor rights group, the U.S./Labor Education in the
Americas Project, began pressing Costco, a distributor of
Bonita bananas, to lean on Mr. Noboa to improve labor
conditions.

Under pressure, his banana company has promised to improve
medical services, provide masks, gloves and other equipment
and settle complaints about unpaid overtime wages. But it
has refused to recognize the workers' unions, Labor
Ministry officials said.

Mr. Noboa, who divides much of his time between Guayaquil
and New York, declined to be interviewed, and campaign
aides did not return phone calls and e-mail messages
seeking comment. But his lawyer, Mr. Pino, said children
under 14, who are tightly restricted from working under
Ecuador's labor laws, did not work at Los ílamos.
"Impossible," he said in an interview. "To violate the law
cannot be done, and it is not the company policy either."

Though no one knows exactly how many children work on the
large plantations across Ecuador, Sergio Seminario, an
analyst and former president of the Association of Banana
Exporters, estimated 6,000, with thousands more working on
small family farms.

The Labor Ministry has long been aware of the problem in
the industry, which accounts for 20 percent of Ecuador's
exports. But Alberto Montalvo, the highest-ranking ministry
official in this region, said it was difficult to root out.
"We all believe in human rights and labor rights," he said.
"It is all very beautiful, but we also have to recognize
that all the members of families have to work to pay for
basic needs."

The existence of child labor on plantations is a product of
simple arithmetic. Workers receive so little in part
because the wholesalers and retailers abroad reap most of
the profits, particularly with the recent consolidation of
huge retail outlets like Wal-Mart, Costco and Carrefour.

Each 43-pound box of bananas purchased here by exporters
for $2 or $3 goes for $25 in the United States or Europe.
The Ecuadorean grower makes 12 cents on the dollar,
according to the National Association of Banana Growers.
"These big chains say, `We will buy your bananas off the
boat, but at our price,' " Mr. Seminario said. "So the
exporter has learned that to sell to those chains he must
sell at their price."

If the growers are squeezed, the banana workers feel the
pain. Their work force is almost entirely nonunion, and
workers are often deliberately shifted from one payroll to
another by growers who set up multiple companies on paper
to avoid paying benefits and higher wages.

The workers and their children here said difficult
conditions had long been the norm at Los ílamos. The
families who live here in Puerto Inca cram themselves into
crude cinder-block houses with tin roofs. Indoor plumbing
is rare.

The main earners among several families said they received
$6 to $7 a day - within Ecuador's minimum wage of $128 a
month - but were often expected to work six or seven days a
week, failing to earn the overtime pay set by law.

The monthly minimum they earn falls far short of the $220
the government says a poor family of four needs to meet
basic needs, so children go to work.

"With my husband's salary, we did not have enough for
school, not enough for food," said Patricia C╚spedes,
explaining why she had pulled her nephew out of school at
age 11 and sent him to work at Mr. Noboa's hacienda. The
boy, MĚximo G█mez, whom Ms. C╚spedes has raised since his
mother's death, is now 14 and a veteran field hand.

Esteban goes to school in addition to working. But many
families say they earn so little that they must choose
which of their children to educate and which to send into
the factories and fields. Such economic necessity keeps 55
percent of Ecuadorean children from attending secondary
school, the World Bank says.

Mr. Noboa remains a frequent visitor to New York, where,
according to his spokesman, Pablo Mart╠nez, he mingles with
the Rockefellers and other luminaries. When his son was
christened at St. Patrick's Cathedral last year, an event
shown on Ecuadorean television, Robert Kennedy Jr. served
as the godfather.

But Mr. Noboa's great hope is to reach the presidency,
which he failed to win in 1998. Mr. Noboa has portrayed
himself as an outsider whose policies will improve life for
most Ecuadoreans.

He has made no extensive public remarks about the dispute
with the workers at Los ílamos. In fact, the poor labor
conditions and the existence of child workers have made
barely a political ripple here. An investigation of the
shootings at Los ílamos has not led to any arrests, nor has
it shed light on what happened.

Mr. Noboa's aides say the troubles on his hacienda are
politically motivated efforts to embarrass him in the midst
of a presidential campaign.

"If he wasn't running for president and wasn't the richest
man in Ecuador, this wouldn't be happening," Mr. Mart╠nez
said.


Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company



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