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testimonies

Maria Eugenia Angulo Durán

 

This interview was recorded in May 2001 on the Panamanian owned Jardín de Cariari Plantation immediately following a strike which was the first that Costa Rican banana workers had won in many years.

 
 

My name is Maria Eugenia Angulo Durán. I'm 38 years old and I'm going to tell you about some of my experiences working in the banana sector. Perhaps this will be useful for some of you. I started as a banana worker when I was 12 years of age. In fact, this Finca Jardín was the first plantation that I ever worked on. I was so little and the bunches of bananas were so large that sometimes it was really difficult for me to remove the banana flowers from the bananas at the top of the bunch. I had to stand on tiptoes.

Later, I did one of the jobs that I most liked doing - selecting bananas. I think you should know something about the job of how we select bananas. Because of the very sharp, curved knife we use (known as a curvo) my hands are covered in scars, which I guess will stay with me for the rest of my life.

My regular job for over 20 years has been as a selector. I've selected bananas on loads of plantations: Jardín, San Pedro, Frutera, Finca San José and most recently on Calinda. I want to tell you how difficult it is. The general banana situation is difficult and being a banana worker is difficult; and sometimes the people in management are difficult. Sometimes you lose your patience. There have been quite a few occasions on which I've had to leave work for a little while and go to the toilets to cry. Because the boss arrives and shouts at you and says, "If you do don't do this well then you're out!".

You know that you can be called to the office to receive a letter sacking you without any right to anything. There are times when you're still working at almost 9 o'clock at night and you're tired; on top of that you have to go home at that hour to see your children and have to start cooking their meal and then get yourself up again at 4 o'clock in the morning to go back to work. Starting work at 6am means that your working day is long and hard. In spite of this there are some good experiences and you learn from these.

I want to carry on fighting and standing up for myself now, just as I did when I was 12 years old. I have no choice but to keep working, because I live alone and have 4 children. I have a son who is in the 5th year at school. I feel really proud of him. I hope to God that he never becomes a banana worker, so that he never has to suffer in the way I've suffered. I really have put up with a lot of hardship. I've known what it is to take a fortnight's wages to the company store and it that it's barely enough to cover what it takes to look after my children. If I bought them shoes then there wasn't enough to buy food. I want my children to be something. I want them to study and to be educated. This doesn't mean to say that banana plantation work is bad - not at all; it's a place of work, it's a job, and you have to be proud of what you do. I've grown up here and it's how I've maintained my family and it's how I've lived. I also help my mother out when I can.

But yes, I've had some really hard times. I'll give you an example of my experience working on the Calinda plantation. This is a plantation where right now the workers are really suffering and if it was in my hands and I could do something for them I would. There you started to work at 6 in the morning. We'd go off to have breakfast at 8am. Everyone knows that you should get a 15 minute break for breakfast, half an hour at lunchtime and another 15 minutes break at 2 in the afternoon. In that plantation you'd leave to go for breakfast and you hadn't even sat down in the canteen with a small plate of food when the bell for us to go back to work was rung. And you'd have to rush back to work - you didn't even get time to clean your teeth, you had to return immediately to the tanks, get your apron on and all that. If not the foreman would turn up and would say to you, "Look here, I'm going to give you a present - a watch, so that you don't turn up late". And sometimes you'd snatched no more than, I don't know, say no more than 7 or 8 minutes. At lunchtime it was exactly the same. That plantation was the worst place I've ever worked.

 

One day, I remember, I'll never forget it: we went back to work at 8am after breakfast. In this packing plant you get used to the three tanks, and there were three women compañeras working at each tank. We were called selectors: 3 selectors here, 3 in the middle and 3 at the end. Because we're human there are some of us who are naturally faster workers than others. I've always liked working with the fast workers, but if they put me to work with a compañera who was learning I also liked to help out. Sometimes I had to work even faster while the compañera was getting the hang of what I was doing. But of course it's only logical that's it not the same working with someone who's learning and someone who is experienced. And sometimes that can create serious problems for you. Logically, when 20 minutes have gone by the tanks have to be full, the tank in the middle where I was working, was only half full. The others were full because the compaņeras on either side were efficient and fast working and I wasn't. There were two compañeras selecting with me, but they were slow. I knew that the boss was going to arrive and say, "Well, María Eugenia, what about you? If you don't want to work you can just go back to your house". This really gets to you, when they start shouting at you in front of the other 12 selectors, not to mention the other workers behind us and the desmanadores (workers who cut bananas into smaller bunches)ahead of us. You feel humiliated, and that day I got really angry. You're only human and, yes, sometimes you get angry. So I said to the boss, full of rage: 'Señor, do you know what? This isn't the way to treat workers. You lot know nothing about human rights, you should know about human rights, and the least they could do is give you a short talk explaining them, so that you know how to treat the workers". That's how I got a letter sacking me, using Article 81, which is the severest there is here in Costa Rica. Can you imagine my surprise, they told me that day that I was no longer working there and should go home. I grabbed my bucket and my apron and went home. I was really hurt because you feel bad when everyone sees you being sent home. I was shocked by the fact that they'd sent me home like this.

The next day I went calmly to work. When I arrived at work, they told me there was a letter waiting for me in the office. I went there quite happily, a letter, well, my redundancy letter, with my legal benefits. I don't want to leave but at least I'll be leaving with all my money. When I arrived at the office, they hit me with the letter that was sacking me under Article 81, which meant that I was not entitled to anything. Obviously they were accusing me of being disrespectful to the boss, that I has been abusive to him and used foul language. You can imagine the kind of language to which they were referring - Son of a... Words that I never used, all I was doing was defending my rights. I got into a big argument with the boss, Mr. Alvarez de Santi, who had put himself forward as a politician. I hope that his conscience, if he has one, won't permit him, along with other politicians in Costa Rica, to carry on doing what he's doing to his workers on Calinda. I had a huge fight with these people, but I won. I had to find out about human rights and to speak to the solidarista organisations, because at that time that was the only organisation there was. We were members of the solidarista association then, not that the association meant anything; it was only a name, a front. We were not responsible for looking after the funds. It was just a smoke-screen. The money was managed by Mr de Santi along with Mr Joaquín, the administrator of that plantation. I'm telling you this because I worked there and lived through the experience.

There was a lot of talk there about the solidarista associations. What a shame that these people know all the right things to say, but it's no more than a smoke-screen: if we wanted to give a worker a loan we couldn't because we didn't control the money; and this was our money; money which had been deducted from our wages. I had saved up 120,000 colones . On one occasion, I needed some money as I was behind in my payments at the company store and had some other household debts that I had to sort out. But they told me that I couldn't ask for a loan, because the money was in Banex . So, the solidarista association served no purpose. And I couldn't get help from the trade union because to talk of the trade union was considered disrespectful; the very word trade union was the worst word that anybody could pronounce. I had heard that there were some trade union activities on Calinda after I left, but since I came here I don't know what happened. I'm really pleased that here there are compañeros that are organising themselves. I hope they go on strike, just as we've gone on strike on this plantation, Finca Jardín.

 

I'll tell you something: at the beginning I was scared. Not so much for myself, because I've always been a real fighter, and I tell myself that I'm not going to lose, that I'm going to win. It fell to me to get this idea into the heads of my compañeros. I understood on the second day of the strike that my compañeros were scared. The boss - the Señor - came here, if I can call him Señor, because it's a word that sticks in my throat. But with respect, he's a human being and you have to at least respect that. He called one of the workers. Everyone was listening and watching really closely. I don't know what story he told him but the boy turned up looking done in and he started to instil fear and a sense of nervousness into the other workers. It was like we'd started going backwards.

The boss had planted an idea in the worker)'s mind which may have seemed real but was pure fantasy. As usual they were lies and more lies. The boy arrived with a proposal and I felt that the workers were going back on their resolve and that they wanted to accept the boss's proposal. But this made us twig what was going on; it was obvious, as always, they were being deceitful. That was the first time that I intervened in the strike, to stand and say: "No, compañeros, we can't back down. We are mounted on this horse and we have to tame it. If not, we'll be sunk, let's go forward together". They all looked at me and the only thing that occurred to me was to grab Barboza , who has more experience than me, to ask for his advice. So I said to the workers: "Compañeros, let's do something, let's ask Barboza for advice on how to take things forward". And that's what happened.

The people moved forwards from then on. From that point I began to feel the strength of the workers. I said to them that so much suffering was no longer acceptable and that we, the banana workers, had to fight back. That now was the time, that since the 1980s when the trade union movement had been eliminated things had been a real disgrace. I say this because of my experience on the banana plantations, seeing how the owners had ensured that human and labour rights were ignored.

I worked on San Pedro, before it was Bandeco . It's been 3 or 4 years since Bandeco sacked everyone and put in a new workforce with lower wages. Four years ago I earned 70,000-80,000 colones a fortnight, 50,000 when the wages were at their lowest. And of course, I lived well. They treated me quite badly, I worked really hard, but I earned a good wage. And now, well about year ago before getting pregnant (my baby is now two months old) I worked on Bananaraña. This is another Bandeco plantation, which the company had rented. I worked there from 6am to 6-7pm. Many times it was 7pm and I was still stuck there with my curvo (curved knife used to cut bunches of bananas from the stalk) chucking bunches of bananas. I felt as though my back was breaking, my waist too and with my feet in those boots… At that hour I was ready to just drop everything and go to bed. Can you imagine the exhaustion working all these hours and up since 6 in the morning - 15 minutes for coffee, half an hour for lunch, 15 minutes in the afternoon, and from then until you finish. For a fortnight's work I got 30,000 colones , when 4 years ago I was earning 70,000! The cost of the basic shopping basket is sky high, clothes and shoes cost the earth and here we are earning 30,000 colones. That's without any social security payment deducted. If you take that into account, we take home 17,000 colones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There have been many times when I've looked at my wage-slip and I've burst into tears and asked myself "What can I do with this?". I'm left with 17,000 colones to pay the nursery fees for my son and to pay the school fees for another son. I have third son who is 18 - I don't want to say he's not normal but he's had problems since he was he was 6 months old. They operated on him 2 months after he was born. He was only 3 and half pounds when he was born. There was nothing of him, just like a little skeleton covered with skin. He is my responsibility because he's my son, even although he's 18 years old and can't work. It sounds horrible for me to say so but he is backward. Physically you don't notice it but yes he has learning difficulties and he's small. If you were to see him now you think he was 13 or 14 years old, but he's nearly 19. It has been an obligation that I've had to fulfil. And me with those wages - left me crying. And that's how is for all the workers on San Pedro.

The wages aren't even half of what they used to be 4 or 5 years ago. It would be logical for them to be higher than they were. But no, it's quite the opposite: food and everything is so expensive and the wages are at rock bottom. You really notice the difference. But the work remains the same.

There are no social benefits on any of these plantations. You just do exactly what they tell you to. And that's it. You work. They have got us workers here in Costa Rica working like horses. It's just work, work, work and what about human relationships, human rights and the well-being of the workers? I am a banana worker, it's what I know and it's what I've grown up with. But the way things are now, I don't want to work there any more. Each time I work on a plantation for a period of time, I end up leaving in tears having experienced the sad things that happen to you. At least I'm a person who can look after myself. But there are other people who aren't so able to defend themselves, who are mistreated and humiliated. They put up with everything because they have 5 or 6 children and that the little they get paid is all they have to depend on. This is unjust.

Something has to be done about this country, for these workers. If there's one thing I'm proud of then it's the conflict and the workers' struggle on this plantation here in Finca Jardín de Cariari. I believe this should go down in history. I feel really proud that my compañeros have supported me so much. It gives me the enthusiasm and strength to go on fighting - to go on working hard. Yes, I got involved in this strike, but I never believed that they would take me as one of their leaders. But now they've come to regard me as one of the strike leaders, and I feel really proud and will continue our struggle. To see that we women are so important, and that we shouldn't be frightened of those so-called important, educated people. We are all human beings, God made us all equal. This gives me the hope that we can continue our struggle for justice. I'm going to see if my compañeros will take my hand and accompany me. And I'll carry on bringing up my children.


Interview and Translation: Jan Nimmo

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