To imagine that slavery is still spoken about in the very 21st century, is a cause for indignation and above all alarm, since according to statistics compiled from Non-Governmental Organisations, there are increasingly more cases of individuals being victimised by workplace exploitation.
At the beginning of 2019, the entirety of Ecuador was profoundly shaken after finding out the shocking reality; namely, that there are hundreds of workers for a Japanese company that works on the extraction of abaca, a plant considered the fibre ‘of the future’. The low salaries, lack of life insurance, absence of work safety regulations, illegal contracts, multiple mutilations and horrendous life conditions, led 105 of its employees and ex-employees to report their cases to national authorities.
Furukawa Plantations C.A. is a Japanese company that has worked for 55 years in Santo Domingo de los Tsáchilas, Esmeraldas and Los Ríos. In the current day, it is owner of 32 farms that occupy a total of 2,300 hectares. Its workers devote themselves to the planting and harvest of abaca, also known as Manila hemp, a prime material that is receiving increasingly more acceptance in the international market and that is even being used in the motor industry to replace fibreglass.
Until now, the only authority that has stepped up to confront the evidence turned in by the complainants is the manager of the company, Marcelo Almeida, who, in an interview with a national media source, shed ‘light’ on the security regulations by specifying that ‘I cannot know everything about the situation, you seem to believe that one person could ever manage to know that’.
However, over email he also declared that: ‘the workers at Furukawa certainly receive tools of all kinds for their work, such as gloves, clothing, masks and everything else. I once again extend an invitation to you to verify this.’ But the reports, photographs, videos and testimonies gathered by journalists reveal the reality in which men, women and even children still subsist.
The most preoccupying concern of inspectors who visited several of Furukawa’s farms, was the sheer quantity of mutilation cases that they found among the workers. This is due to the fact that abaca is a fibre which, if it is not handled with all the requisite and proper equipment, has the potential to become lethal. The majority of work-place accidents were caused in the fibre-removing machine, which has been used for years and even produces a deafening sound each time it is turned on.
However, above all this, there are other workers who have been left incapacitated by arm, hand or finger mutilations, accidents provoked by the use of knifes or machetes during manual activities. On that subject, the manager of the company has indicated that first he should find out more about the situation before he takes action.
In the Furukawa farms, there occur various work-place accidents on a daily basis. Within the facilities there is no sign of an infirmary or even a medical centre, which is why, when an emergency is reported, the director of the group or the leaseholder should take action by escorting the workers to the nearest health centre and accepting responsibility for all the expenses.
In Ecuador, the Unified Basic Salary (UBS) is $394; however, in spite of this, the workers at Furukawa earn between $200 and $300, much less than the amount established by the law. This is, absurdly, in spite of working full days and even extra hours. And what about social insurance? With regards to the cases that are known about, none of the defendants were insured and, as such, they never received their law-entitled benefits. There are, shall we say, no profits whatsoever, much less any severance pay.
It is here that another conflict makes itself known, since families are not able to sustain themselves economically with the salary that they earn in Furukawa, whose children were taken out of school and forced to participate in work-related activities. This is yet another violation of human rights that institutions such as the Ombudsman’s office never tire of condemning.
The abacaleros (as the people who harvest abaca have been termed) have another point against them, since the company has leased 25 of the 32 farms to the workers, who are mostly illiterate; there are citizens who do not even own an ID Card. This lease agreement releases the Japanese company from any industrial liability.
In the report submitted by the Ombudsman’s Office, there is talk about the violation of all types of fundamental rights, such as those of housing, health, education, identity and labour rights. According to the last inspection carried out by the Civil Registry, it was found out that 70 people do not have their ID card. “That is to say, 30% of the total population of the farms visited; of those unregistered people 59 without boys and girls, 3 women and 8 men,” said Ombudsman Freddy Carrión.
After an inspection carried out by several representatives of the State in February of this year, the Japanese company was closed for 60 days; however, it is now currently operational. There are dozens of people who, despite the awful working conditions, have no other choice but to continue living in that vicious cycle of slavery and exploitation, in which economic capital is placed above human welfare.
Ecuador is the second country in the world to export abaca, according to data from the Central Bank; in the last five years the average export was 9,387 tons of this fibre. For that amount, the country annually receives an average of USD 15 million. Japan, the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, the Philippines and Indonesia are the main buyers, figures which outrage human rights defenders.
Translated by: Etta Selim. Instragram and Snapchat: ettaselim.