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testimonies

Ligia Lamich

 

This interview was recorded in May 2001 with Ligia Lamich, Women's officer of the SITAGAH trade union. Horquetas, Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí, Costa Rica

 

Good Morning. My name is Ligia Lamich. We are in Horquetas .

Well, as I've been telling you, I worked on the banana plantations. I'd scarcely joined the trade union - that was a Monday - when on the Wednesday they called me to the office. There was Miguel Luís from the solidarista association and Don Luís Aguilar from personnel. They had me there for two hours trying to get me to sign a piece of paper that said, "Please give me redundancy" and no more. I signed it because I just wanted to go back to work and be left in peace. I didn't mention what had happened to anyone. After they made me sign that piece of paper, Guillermo Brenes called for me in the afternoon, and was talking to me, enquiring about which workers were members of the trade union. I told him that only I had joined, and that I didn't know any more than that. The following Saturday, the foreman came up to be with a big smile on his face and said to me, "Ligia, today will be your last day working here". This was in February 1996. I was pregnant and the foreman knew this. He just didn't like me.

How many months pregnant were you?

I was two months gone. The trade union gave me some money, but the company showed the paper I had signed and they said, "She asked for redundancy". They had put the date of the day that I had joined the union.

Does this sort of thing still happen?

Yes, since then there has been persecution. As Women's Officer, I have organised committees of 5 or 6 women, sometimes as many as 10. There was a group of 15 women getting training, going to workshops, now there's not even one because they've sacked them, or they've sacked their husbands. Even if they sack the women, they sometimes have to stay on because they simply can't manage on what their husband earns. If they sack the husband the women have to stay and work because if not they have to give up their houses, since they live on the plantations. This has cost the union dearly. If only you'd seen what our meetings used to be like. But there are times when there isn't a single woman left because of this persecution. The women who come along regularly to workshops, like the señoras from Chilamate , one of the women's groups we work with. There are people who've not carried on because they've been sacked; the companies kept on the husbands and sons, but not the women workers. That girl you met (Hayzel) said that she wouldn't leave the union, but there will come a time that she will be forced to. Those people from the companies are really smart. You heard about the case of Luquez - they offered him loads of benefits but in the end they betrayed him. That's what they do. Just like when I signed that piece of paper and they said to me, "Don't worry, we're going to help you"! Nowadays, in some places, like in Gacelas , the women are treated well, but that is the result of a lot of hard work on the part of the union.

Another thing is the many cases of pesticide poisoning. That person who lives in Guácimo , for instance, he was poisoned by pesticides. Ever since he was born, they said he wouldn't survive, because he didn't have a stomach and who's know what else. They had to change the child's blood; they had to do all sorts of things to keep him alive. He didn't grow much, you'll see him and he looks swollen, he's a yellowish colour and has no appetite. I think he's about 18 years old now - maybe more. It's been a constant struggle and the family attributes his survival to their faith in God. But it's something that gets you thinking about what agrochemicals can do to a person. If you interview the mother, you'll see that the doctor said it was caused by agrochemicals; but later the doctor had to retract what he said and claimed he'd been mistaken, because they had shut him up. In other cases, such as Nico, people have accidents. There are loads of cases.

There are women outside the organisation who have been sacked for being pregnant, without even having been trade union members. So it's not just trade union persecution that affects women. They look for a way of sacking a woman. Now they've softened up a little. Just three years ago if you joined the trade union you were sacked within a week.

And why is that? Don't they want to pay maternity leave?

Exactly! I joined SITAGAH on the 12th. On the 13th there was no transport for me and on the 14th they called me to the office and Guillermo Brenes made it clear how things were. Then on the Saturday the foreman told me it was my last day. There was no letter.

Do they put sacked women workers on the black list?

Generally, yes they do. There are many ways to find yourself on the black list which covers all banana plantations. If you claim your rights, you'll be put on the black list. Or if you become unable to work through disability, or if you're always going to the social security clinic... You can be really ill, but you they won't give you time off to go to the social security clinic. We've lost many rights on the banana plantations. We used to have the right to go to the clinic, but not now. You have to show them the receipt if you don't want them to boot you out. You don't earn that day. If you arrive back early from the clinic you have to go straight to work even if you're feeling tired or weak or suffering from a reaction to your medicine.

So the black lists still exist?

Yes, but only for trade unions. The lists existed before the trade union. You'd appear on these lists with a code they'd given you. That's how they worked.

How do you see the future for the trade union and the women's struggle? Will it be difficult?

I think the conditions for a struggle are right, even better than before, because we've won some benefits. As Hayzel was saying, she doesn't have problems at Gacelas. On these plantations there are quite strong trade union branches with committees. But on other plantations, when workers join, they kick them out straight away.

Can you name these plantations?

Yes, in Gavilán there was a committee, that Victor Luquez helped scupper. In Malinche our compañeros are persecuted. The foreman has even gone to the house of one worker. She has a young girl just like my daughter, Joanna. The foreman said to this worker, "I'll give you a good job and I'll pay you well if you let me take your daughter". He said that she would get a job in the packing plant, that she'd have good working conditions and that he'd look after her well. But the worker said, "No. What I earn will I'll earn through my own sweat. I'm not going sell my daughter to a pig like you".

So why did the foreman want the girl?

For sex. He wanted to sexually assault the worker's daughter, who was then somewhere between 14 and 16 years old.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If a worker goes to the police with an accusation like this do they take them seriously?

Yes and no. They are very careful, but they can't do anything, because the accusation is being made from within the banana plantation.

So the law of the land doesn't apply on a banana plantation?

Maybe in some places, yes, but in this case I don't know if the compañero actually went to the police. I do know that he went to the plantation administration at COBAL, and made the complaint to Guillermo Brenes and to Oldemar Espinosa...

Did they fire the foreman?

I think that they did because he's one of the ones who isn't there any more. In the meeting that my Latin American compañeras and I had with the representatives from Chiquita here in San José, we reached an agreement. They kicked out 2 or 3 from the administration, but I don't know for sure whether he was one of them. I know that this man in particular was causing lots of problems. He threatened the same compañero, with a machete one day on the plantation. The foreman was saying to the other compañeros, "Look at this old fool, don't go anywhere near him, because he's from the trade union". I know about this because I met with them in Malinche .

Do hear much about what happens to workers who aren't affiliated?

Yes, there are women who get kicked out because they're pregnant. When I worked there I got on well with the people from the administration. I had a permanent job. When they sent me to do a job I never said 'no'; I always did what they asked. In that sense I had good relations with them until I joined the trade union. Then the administration behaved differently towards me. When I joined the trade union things got worse and they got rid of me.

How are women viewed within the trade union? Is everything resolved or do women have to continue the struggle for a space within the organisation?

I think we need to continue our struggle. But the trade union doesn't have the resources that it needs. The women's officer doesn't have a specific budget, like, for example, for going from house to house to visit women living in such and such a cuadrante . There are no resources for food or transport. There's no wage and I have a family to look after. There are many plantations in this area: there's Gacelas, Alamo, Oropel, and others such as San Antonio. If you catch a bus, then it's fine, but if you have to walk the whole way there in all this rain. It's really horrible when it's raining; the water gets hot and tastes of salt and rust. The wells that workers drink from are in the middle of the banana plantations. These are problems we have to deal with, and although we win some benefits we have to carry on struggling. Look at the plantation where Hayzel lives; they've got good conditions. We have to keep fighting until the conditions are good on all plantations and the same in all countries.

How do you feel about the support you get from your male colleagues in the union?

I feel that they do support me, but it's not enough. For instance if there's a meeting and they need me there or other women compañeras, they make an effort to find the bus fares or something so that we can be present. They've arrived here at 9 o'clock at night to give me my fare. If it's something of interest to me they get me the bus fare. Sometimes they get you the bus fare but that's it but then it's up to you how you get to San José. If I don't have the 600 colones to get to San José, I can't participate. I have to go around thinking up some miracle to see if I can get my fare to San José, because it's expensive. We're also doing some research for the Latin American union coordination, and quite a few of the compañeras have found it difficult to get resources to do this work. The men say: "Yes, we're going to help you", but then there's no money forthcoming. I know that there are compañeros that don't like this to be said, but it's true.

I also have to think about my house, my family, my children, if there isn't any food in the house how can I calmly go off to do my work in the banana plantations? If I don't have the bus fare to go to the office in Puerto Viejo then there are times that I have to stay here, because I don't have enough to get there. With resources you could go to the clinic or other places to talk to people, or you could catch them in the bank or wherever. If you talk with them for a little while, you can tell them that they could attend a meeting or that there's a workshop or something. But if you don't have any cash how am I to get from here to Puerto Viejo? When I go to Puerto Viejo, I take water from the house, that's essential. I always go around carrying my bottle. Sometimes I go around feeling hungry and thirsty but I have to put up with it until I get back here to the house.

 

Interview and translation: Jan Nimmo

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