Peru's Agro-Export Boom Has not Boosted Human Development

Her hands loaded with crates, Susan Quintanilla, a union leader of agro-export workers in the department of Ica in southwestern Peru, gets ready to collect different vegetables and fruits for foreign markets. She has witnessed many injustices, saying the companies “made you feel like they were doing you a favor by giving you work, they wanted you to keep your head down." CREDIT: Courtesy of Susan Quintanilla
Her hands loaded with crates, Susan Quintanilla, a union leader of agro-export workers in the department of Ica in southwestern Peru, gets ready to collect different vegetables and fruits for foreign markets. She has witnessed many injustices, saying the companies “made you feel like they were doing you a favor by giving you work, they wanted you to keep your head down." CREDIT: Courtesy of Susan Quintanilla
  • by Mariela Jara (lima)
  • Inter Press Service

Exports of agricultural products such as blueberries, grapes, tangerines, artichokes and asparagus generated 9.8 billion dollars in revenue in 2022 – 12 percent higher than the 2021 total, as reported in February by the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Tourism.

Agricultural exports represent four percent of GDP in this Andean nation, where mining and fishing are the main economic activities.

“The increase in revenue from agricultural exports has not brought human development: anemia and tuberculosis are at worrying levels and now dengue fever is skyrocketing,” Rosario Huallanca, a representative of the non-governmental Ica Human Rights Commission (Codeh Ica), which has worked for 41 years in that department of southwestern Peru, told IPS.

Ica and two other departments along the country’s Pacific coast, La Libertad and Piura, are leaders in the sector, accounting for nearly 50 percent of agricultural exports in this country of 33 million people, which despite this boom remains plagued by inequality, reflected by high levels of poverty and informality and precariousness in employment.

Monetary poverty affected 27.5 percent of the country's 33 million inhabitants in 2022, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Informatics. This is a seven percentage point increase over the pre-pandemic period. The number of poor people was estimated at 9,184,000 last year, 600,000 more than in 2021.

Ica, which has a total of 850,765 inhabitants, is one of the departments with the lowest monetary poverty rates, five percent, because it has full employment, largely due to the agro-export boom of the last two decades.

Huallanca said the number of agro-export companies is estimated at 320, with a total of 120,000 employees, who come from different parts of the country.

What stands out, she said, is that 70 percent of the total number of workers in the sector are women, who are valued for their fine motor skills in handling fruits and vegetables.

Although a portion of the workers of some companies are in the informal sector, there are no clear numbers, the expert pointed out.

But there are alarming figures available: more than six percent of children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition, and anemia affects 33 percent of children between six and 35 months of age.

“With the type of job we have, we cannot take our children to their growth checkups, we can’t miss work because they don’t pay you if you don’t show up, we cry in silence because of our anxiety,” 42-year-old Yanina Huamán, who has worked in the agro-export sector for 20 years to support her three children, told IPS.

The two oldest are in middle and higher education and her youngest is still in primary school. "I am both mother and father to my children. With my work I am giving them an education and I have manged to secure a home of my own, but it’s precarious, the bedrooms don’t have roofs yet, for example," she said.

Huamán is secretary for women’s affairs in the union of the company where she works, a position she was appointed to in November 2022. From that post, she hopes to help bring about improvements in access to healthcare for female workers, who either postpone going to the doctor when they need to, or receive poor medical attention in the social security health system "where they only give us pills."

Ica currently has the highest number of deaths from dengue fever, a viral disease that led the government of Dina Boluarte to declare a 90-day health emergency in 13 of the country’s 24 departments a couple of weeks ago.

Not only that, it has the history of being the department with the highest level of deaths from Covid-19: 901 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, exceeding the national average of 630 per 100,000. "The health system here does not work,” trade unionist Huamán said bluntly.

Working conditions more difficult for women

The lack of quality employment and the deficient recognition of labor rights, exacerbated by the pandemic, prompted a strike in November 2020 that began in Ica and spread to the northern coastal area of ??La Libertad and Piura.

Their demands included a minimum living wage of 70 soles (19 dollars) a day, social benefits such as compensation and raises for length of service, and recognition of the right to form unions.

Grouped together in the recently created Ica Workers’ Union Agro-exports Struggle Committee, which represents casual and seasonal workers, they went to Congress in Lima to demand changes in the current legislation.

Susan Quintanilla, 39, originally from the central Andean department of Ayacucho, is the general secretary of the union. She arrived in Ica in 2014 after separating from her husband. She came with her two children, a girl and a boy, for whom she hoped for a future with better opportunities.

After working as a harvester in the fields, and cleaning and packing fruit at the plant, she decided to work on a piecework basis, because that way she could earn more and save up for times when the companies needed less labor.

“It was incredibly hard,” she told IPS. “I would leave home at 10 in the morning and leave work at three or four in the wee hours of the next morning to be there to get my kids ready for school. I was 29 or 30 years old, I was young, but I saw older women with pain in their bodies, their arms and their feet due to the postures we had at work, but they continued because they had no other option.

“I saw many injustices in the agro-export companies,” she added. “They made you feel that they were doing you a favor by giving you work, they wanted you to keep your head down, they shouted at and humiliated people, they made them feel miserable. I protested, raised my voice, and they didn't fire me because I was a high performance worker and they needed me. The situation has changed a little because of our struggles, but it hasn’t come for free.”

The late 2020 protests led to the approval on Dec. 31 of that year of Law No. 31110 on agricultural labor and incentives for the agricultural and irrigation sector, aimed at guaranteeing the rights of workers in the agro-export and agroindustrial sectors.

But in Quintanilla’s view, the law discriminates against non-permanent workers who make up the largest part of the workforce in the sector, since the preferential right to hiring established in the fourth article of the law is not respected.

"Nor have they recognized the differentiated payment of our social benefits and they include them in the daily wage that is calculated at 54 soles (a little more than 14 dollars): it’s not fair," she complained.

At the same time, she stressed that the agro-export work is harder on women because they are the ones responsible for raising their children. "We live in a sexist society that burdens us with all of the care work," Quintanilla said.

She also explained that because several of the companies are so far away, it takes workers longer to get to work, which means they are away from home for up to twelve hours a day. "We go to work with the anxiety that we are leaving our children at risk of the dangers of life, we cannot be with them as we would like, which damages us emotionally."

Added to this, she said, are the terrible working conditions, such as the fact that the toilets are far from the areas where they work, as much as three blocks away, or in unsanitary conditions, which leads women to avoid using them, to the detriment of their health.

Agro-export companies and human rights

Huallanca said that Codeh Ica was promoting the creation of a space of diverse stakeholders so that the National Business and Human Rights Plan, a public policy aimed at ensuring that economic activities improve people's quality of life, is fulfilled in the department. Five unions from Ica and the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Tourism participate in this initiative.

"We have made an enormous effort and we hope that on Jun. 16 it will be formally created by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, the governing body for this policy," she said.

In the meantime, she added, "we have helped bring together women involved in the agro-export sector, who have developed a rights agenda that has been given shape in this multi-stakeholder space and we hope it will be taken into account."

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