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testimonies and stories

Ines C Binns

 

This interview was recorded in May 2001 with Inés C. Binns who was at that time the Women's Officer with the SITRAIBANA trade union.

 
 

I am an indigenous woman. I come from a mountainous area where the main river is called the Cricambola River which belongs to the Bocas del Toro province. To reach there you have to go in a motor launch. It takes 8 hours by sea and river to get there. When you make this journey and the weather is bad and it's raining the waves can be so high that they pass right over you; you can die because the journey there can be dangerous.

When I left there to come here I was only thirteen years old. I got a job here as a domestic employee. When I reached sixteen I got a job with Chiriquí Land Company. Since that day I have worked with the company. I'm now going to skip a bit to tell you that on 5th March 2001 I started working in the trade union. I have been working with the organisation SITRAIBANA here in Changuinola for three months, but I've been 31 years with the company.

When you left your home in the mountains did you leave alone?

Yes, completely on my own. The launch used to arrive up there looking to take people back down here. Most people were banana workers with the Chiriquí Land Company, now they call it the Bocas Fruit Company and they'd go back there on holiday.

What was it like leaving home at thirteen?

I wanted to work to help my mum. That's why I came. When I started work here I always sent the money I earned to help my mum and my family.

Did you sort out employment before you came here?

There wasn't any work up there - only subsistence farming. You could rear chickens and live from that. It was that or nothing. When I got here I looked for work myself and got a job in the house of a family here as a domestic servant.
I worked as a domestic servant for about three years. Then I decided to look for a work with the company, but I was afraid that they wouldn't give me a job as I was still a minor. I had to take an adult - a woman - with me to support me. To get a job with the company I had to get permission from the municipal authorities and from the mayor. I had to go along with either a relative or an adult, in this case my boss. She had to sign for me as I was still a minor. That's how I got work.

 

During those 31 years with the company what changes have there been?

Well, if I begin to tell you everything that's happened to me since I started work here with the company, it'll take a month! I didn't know anything about the chemicals that they used and all the issues there were. I tell you straight, in those days I didn't read. I knew how to read, but didn't read much then. Little by little I started reading more and getting interested in what they were up to.
The company didn't talk about the chemicals and how much damage they did. They never did. Now they've had to do something because they've been forced to. Now there are campaigns about chemicals and the damage they do - that sort of thing. Yes, there have been campaigns, but nothing really hard-hitting enough.

So when you were you were sixteen you were applying chemicals?

Yes, it was worse then, because there was no control. That's how it was - they didn't have any regulations controlling chemicals. I used to watch my indigenous compañeros who sprayed Fumazone - one of the chemicals. They used people out of the plantation with foam coming out of their mouths and bleeding noses - almost dying. They'd heap them up in a chapulín tractor and take them to the hospital. This is the kind of thing you'd see. Then, because of this, the workers went on strike.

When was this?

It was in 1974 that the workers went on strike over chemicals. And because the workers held out, they changed the label. It was the same chemical, but they made it appear like it was a chemical which wasn't harmful. All they had done, though, was change the label and the name.

What social changes have there been?

Well, having our trade union, our organisation, has meant that we achieved certain things, but it's difficult; securing the benefits we have has not been easy. As far as the company is concerned, they've never said, "this is for the workers". It's always been a struggle for the trade union to achieve anything. But as far as the company is concerned they will never give anything to the workers, never.

What's the current relationship like between the union and the company?

Well just now, we don't have one. You could say that we have broken off relations. The workers have asked that we approach the Manager, Mr Andrés Guzman. All he's done since he arrived in the province is talk about lowering costs; he talks of dialogue, but when we try to negotiate with him all he does is say 'no, 'no' and 'no' again! The word of the workers - what we have to say - is never accepted.

 

What changes have been implemented by the new manager?

The manager, because he's a Costa Rican national, wants to bring in working practices that exist there. He's already brought new practices which are from Ecuador. He brought them and implemented them in 1996; and since then he's been really keen to bring in Costa Rican methods such as sticking on the Chiquita label with the finger. For many years now here in Panama we've been labelling with a special wooden tool which is much quicker than using your fingers; but now he wants to introduce the Costa Rican method. The majority of workers who do this job are against this.

The other day in the packing plant you mentioned that they used to use electricity?

Yes, for the same reasons that I mentioned earlier. Before November 1996 the pulleys bringing fruit into the pack house were powered by electricity. So were the belts where the banana boxes are put for labelling and then taken out to be packed in the trucks. He came and changed all that. Now everything the worker does, he does with his own strength. It's the worker's energy that's expended in this job, pushing the tray, pushing the boxes, the whole day long. Where everything was powered by electricity, now it's human energy that's used.

So conditions are worse?

What did he do? He reduced the workforce and increased the workload without raising wages. Before, for example, to pack say 2,500 boxes they needed 54 people; nowadays they use only 40 people. This way of working is, as I understand, how they do things in Ecuador. They took workers from here to see how they worked in Ecuador. I don't know what happened to them, nothing was explained; they didn't tell us anything. But as the company has so much power they were always going to win.

Has there been trade union persecution in Panama?

Because the trade union here is a big organisation the company has really wanted to weaken it, but a lot has to do with the trade union leaders. If a trade union official is well informed he can defend you - and count on the support of other workers. But when the workers' don't support the union the company can introduce whatever modifications they like; they can implement work practices from other places, from other countries. So a lot has to do with the workers themselves and the union leaders. Sometimes the leaders may let one or two things slip through, but there are others who keep their resolve and don't allow this to happen.

Do people get sacked for their union activities?

 

Yes. In 1993, when the company wanted to buy the land on which they plant their bananas, we workers would not allow it. The government were willing to sell the land, but we wouldn't let them. We went on strike, didn't we! As a result of this they sacked 625 workers including trade union leaders and officials.

Did they give them their jobs back?

No they didn't.

You are working in the trade union as the Women's Officer. What problems do women encounter?

Well, thanks to the new working practices the women are overworked. They have problems with rheumatism, shoulder pains, their hands swell up. Almost all of them are ill. They have back problems, their hand and fingers are constantly swollen and they also have problems with their finger nails. They have pains in their feet and heels… and countless other problems.

Are there problems with sexual harassment?

Well, yes, there used to be. Before the law that was implemented in 1995, harassment was common. Some supervisors, not all, would be disrespectful and proposition the women, you know? If the woman didn't sleep with him, then he would threaten to sack her. They always did this secretly, but one woman worker would tell her companera and then she would tell another compañera; that's how we realised what was going on. But since the government modified the Labour Code and passed the Sexual Harassment Act - known as Law 44 - it doesn't happen. If it happens to some women then it's because the compañera is unaware of her rights. If she knows her rights then it doesn't happen. However, in other jobs, it happens all the time. Most female shop workers, for example, experience harassment, because the women don't know their rights.

So the trade union has an important role in educating women workers?

Well, women banana workers know about this law because of our union, but women who work in shops, restaurants and places like that don't. Some do know, but they are afraid of losing their jobs and lay themselves open to harassment by their bosses.

Are there many single mothers working on the plantations?

Yes, but for some time they've been cutting down the number of women workers. Now we're only 120 women in the Bocas Fruit Company. There used to be 268.

What will be the challenge for your two years as the Women's Officer?

 

I've always recognised the importance of every human being, so top of the list is education, then health. When a person is uneducated they can be lied to and they'll swallow those lies. Isn't that right? You owe it to yourself to get educated; that way you start realising what's happening. Here, in the banana plantations of Changuinola, the majority of the workers are indigenous and they are uneducated and illiterate; because of this they are exploited, not necessarily by the company as such, but by the administrators, who like to exploit them. They don't pay them as much as they should; they rob the workers of what is due to them or they don't note things down properly; but the indigenous people can't lodge a complaint against them, because they don't know how to. In the three months I have been here, I've been looking at the information which I have gathered and realised what's really going on. I always make sure that the indigenous workers know about what I've found out.

You can't spend your time just listening to music. You have to listen to the news and you have to read the newspapers. You have to inform yourself about what's happening. It's also good to know about history to compare how we live now: are we better or worse off or what? We should know how to read and write and if not we should make an effort to study because if we don't make the effort who else is going to do it for us?

Do you have workshops and seminars here?

Yes, as I was saying, I've been here three months and we have had three workshops. Yes, three already.

What have they been about?

Well, these workshops concentrated on the issues affecting women banana workers - they were supported by COLSIBA .

How many women participated?

Because each workshop was about the same issues and the same information there have been three each with the participation of almost 30 women in each. Men came as well. In the last workshop there were 40 people, women, men and children.

How do these workshops work? Is there much participation?
Do you share lots of ideas?

Yes, we do share lots of ideas, but there's little participation maybe because people don't feel they know much are scared to speak.

What about workshops on self-esteem?

 

Yes, that's important as well. I'm not an educator, but I've always liked sharing and letting others know the things I've learned. Or in other words, I've thought that now I'm working with SITRAIBANA, I should go around the different plantations to tell people about the Labour Code, The Family Code, Law 27 which is about domestic violence and child abuse, and Law 4 which was passed in the National Assembly in January 1999. Law 4 gives the right to equality in the workplace for women, but no efforts have been made to publicise or enforce it.

Do they pay women less than men here?

Here on the banana plantation they pay men and women equally. In other sectors women do earn less than men, but here the women earn the same.

Is that because there is a trade union?

Yes. If a man earns $18.00, then so do I. Ever since I came the company has paid the men and women the same.

After the two years with SITRAIBANA what will you do?

Go back to work in the packing plant, of course, (Inés laughs)…. because that's my job. Isn't it? When I go back to work one thing I aspire to is to carry on helping my compañeros because they are unaware of so many things. And if the indigenous people and the plantation workers of this company don't educate ourselves well, then we will continue to live with the burden of oppression.

I imagine that when the indigenous people leave their villages they have to adapt their culture and customs. Is that the case?

Yes they change. I can tell you that because I'm indigenous. I know how to speak my own language, right? But now my children have been born here and they don't know how to speak it, because Spanish dominates. My children are mestizos because their dad is Latino and I am indigenous. Nowadays the younger generation can't speak the indigenous languages. It's the same with an indigenous couple who come here - their children don't know how to speak the dialect either.

What language is it that you speak?

Nogbere.

How many indigenous languages are there in Panama?

 

There's the Kuna , they speak another language, there's the Embera people who live in the Darién who have their own language and there's the Naso who are from Bocas de Toro Province and the Ngobere who are indigenous majority - most of them live in Veragua, Chiriquí or Bocas del Toro. I am Nogbere. There's also the Bocatai who live on the coast in a place called Escudo de Veragua. The Bocataí are now called Buglé. The government here changed their name, as they did with the Guaymí - now they're called Nogbere. Who know what the rascals will call them next year! (Inés laughs)

Coming back to the banana sector… Does the government support the trade unions?

No. Not sufficiently. But you could say that since 1970 when a military government came in, the banana workers in this province have to give a big thanks to General Torrijo - may he rest in peace (because he died). He had almost 11 years in charge of this country and gave a lot of support to our trade union. The trade union was strong. The education of the indigenous classes was also strong. It's because of him that there are indigenous politicians and indigenous people working here in the organisation. If it wasn't for that, we would still be slaves. We have made a little progress, but not that much.

Have there always been indigenous people in the trade union?

Yes, because the majority of the workers have always been indigenous.

And indigenous women?

I am the first indigenous woman working here in 40 years since the trade union was founded. I say this with great pride (Inés smiles).

Inés, to conclude, if you were to send a message to European consumers, what would it be?

How I would love to go to those countries over there where they consume the bananas that we produce here with so much sweat, with tears in our eyes and so many sacrifices. You, the consumers over there in Scotland, England, wherever, should know about the effort and sacrifices we make so that this fruit leaves in perfect condition! They're always telling us off here and the bosses virtually lock us in us in until the fruit is ready to leave in perfect condition. We care for the banana as if it were a new-born baby. However, this isn't reflected in our wages. We always end up with wages that only cover our food and that aren't enough to educate our children.

And I'm going to send this message: there are times that we get ill from working so hard. We die because of the chemicals, and we're left with nothing. Nothing. There's nothing left for the family. You die and the doctor writes "Died of a common illness". There are times when it is definitely because of the chemicals, but they treat you like you were born with an illness. We make so many sacrifices.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We should be paid 24-25 centavos for every box we pack, but when our new manager arrived he cut the rate per box by 2 centavos, so we're only paid 20. Now, this destroys any of the benefits that our union has gained through collective bargaining. I send the following message to you, the consumers: the workers of Bocas de Toro, Panama make many sacrifices. The business men don't tell you anything about the costs to us of producing bananas. No, they don't tell you. They should tell the truth.

Inés's personal story

My name is Inés Binns. I am the Women's Officer here in the trade union SITRAIBANA. I am a mother of seven children and it has been really difficult for me to raise them because of my work. We used to start work at 6am and leave at 9pm. Sometimes I didn't have anyone to leave my children with; sometimes I had to leave them shut in a room. I had to leave four of them behind in a room just so that I could keep my job. If I didn't do that they could have sacked me. There were times when the children would get sick and I would be at work crying. At times I would ask permission to go and look after them. They would give me permission, but when it got to the end of the week and I went for my wages I didn't have enough money. It's a great sacrifice being a mother and worker in the banana plantations and to keep your job.

I've been working with the trade union for three months . That hasn't been easy either. It was the women workers who chose me to represent them at trade union level. I have every intention of doing my best to represent these women - and also the men because there are many problems here.

In the plantations both field and pack-house workers get ill just because we are trying to keep our jobs. We all have families and it is difficult to find other work. This is why people keep working when they're ill, even although they shouldn't be at work at all. It's a fact that all the sacrifices we make are not remunerated by the company. When you leave the job and your working relationship finishes, the company pays you a miserable sum - just what you're owed. If I were to say now to the company, "I need my benefits" the most they would give me is $4,000 for my 31 years of service. This is the fate of the banana worker.


Interview and Translation: Jan Nimmo

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