In what is being hailed as a legal milestone, an Ecuadorean court last month ruled that workers from an abaca plantation belonging to Japanese company Furukawa in Santo Domingo had suffered a form of modern slavery and must be compensated by the company. The case had been taken to court by 123 Afro-Ecuadorean workers in 2018 after over 50 years of slave-like working conditions.
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.
The workers had support on the matter from local human rights organization Centro de Derechos Económicos y Sociales because they had no trade union representation and there was no government support despite the Ecuadorean Labor Ministry’s awareness of at least some extent of labor malpractice on Furukawa’s plantations.
Equal Times reports that the Labor Ministry claimed to have carried out inspections between 2017 and 2020 and fined the company for several violations, including child labor.
Furukawa has been operating in Ecuador since 1963 producing abaca fibre for international companies with the use of farmers who are not provided with contracts, a living wage or even the proper equipment with which to do their jobs.
Furukawa fails to provide appropriate protective gear for harvesting even though abaca filament is sharp enough to cut through flesh, and accidents, including amputation, are not uncommon. Plantation workers live on-site in poor conditions that sound chillingly similar to historical slave plantation life.
… the camps … 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.
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.
What does Furukawa have to say about this? According to then head of Furukawa Ecuador, Marcelo Almeida, “the conditions of the [Furukawa] workers are much better than those of many others in Santo Domingo”. His reasoning is all too familiar – a hint of poverty alleviation sanctifies abuse and oppression.
Furukawa plantation laborer, Susana Quiñonez told Equal Times about an attempt she made, after 30 years of brutal working conditions, to demand better treatment from her employer. The result?
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.
While they cannot resort to violence this time around, Furukawa, as well as the Labor Ministry, is appealing the decision.
For Ecuador, the case is a victory in itself for recognizing, for the first time, a case of modern slavery in agriculture but, for Susana and the other plaintiffs, the fight is far from over.