The NI Interview
Angelica Alvarez Cerda
Richard Swift talks with a Chilean activist fighting for fruit pickers.
photo by RICHARD SWIFT
Angelica Alvarez Cerda was only 12 when they knocked on the door. It was Santiago in the fall of 1973, the afternoon of 22 September to be exact, and they had come for her father ‘just to ask a few questions’. She never saw him again. He was a leader of the dockworkers’ union. That meant he was just the kind of person found on all those sinister lists held by the police and military in the days following the overthrow of democracy and the assassination of Chilean President Salvador Allende. She says with a wry smile: ‘We were lucky. At least we found out our father had been killed; so many others never knew what happened to those that were taken away.’
For Angelica, a life organizing workers during the Chilean ‘economic miracle’ which followed was an inevitable homage to her father’s memory. She first became active in the early 1980s, working with her husband, who was a leader of a campesino (peasant) federation. The work was dangerous and clandestine.
Today things are different. She and the organization she works with, Mujer y Trabajo (Women and Work), fight openly on the side of fruit pickers, 70 per cent of whom are women. Fresh-fruit exports are one of the major sectors of the Chilean economy. She relates stories of almost impossible working conditions. ‘Twelve- to fifteen-hour days are standard,’ she says. ‘There is no access to toilets or even water and no employment security. Workers are exposed to dangerous agricultural chemicals banned in the industrial North and there is no childcare. Sometimes women are forced to bring their young children to work and expose not only themselves but their kids to a dousing with dangerous agrochemicals.’
Mujer y Trabajo, in coalition with a range of other groups, has launched a campaign to fight for better conditions and the right to free organization for rural workers. The campaign is to culminate in a march in downtown Santiago with everyone carrying green balloons imprinted with the campaign slogan: ‘Rural campaign for better conditions of work and life’. They plan to release all the balloons in one massive green burst over the capital to highlight the pressure they are bringing to bear on government and employers alike.
When I assume that the agricultural estates are controlled by conservative latifundistas (Latin America’s traditional landowners) Alvarez Cerda is quick to correct me. The employers are now actually the transnational corporations who have long dominated the global fruit market. Names like Dole, Del Monte and United Fruit come quickly to her lips. There have been strikes and a few concessions – in some cases owners have agreed not to spray chemicals when workers are actually in the fields. Just as well because the evidence of the dire effects of pesticide poisoning is mounting. She talks of skin allergies that won’t go away and mass poisonings involving vomiting, headaches, dizziness and eye irritation.
But as negative publicity increases so do attempts to cover up the problem. Workers are paid off and sent to private clinics so there will be no public record of poisoning. Her anger is obvious as she relates the story of a doctor who has documented agro-chemical health effects and has been fired and threatened with having his licence revoked if he doesn’t shut up. But an ironic smile that signals anything but resignation steals across Angelica’s face when she relates one case in which 30 workers were poisoned. ‘The employer said food poisoning was the real culprit. He claimed the workers had all left their lunches in the sun, that they’d got food poisoning as a result and it had nothing to do with agrochemicals. All 30 of them!’ She shakes her head in disbelief.
Alvarez Cerda dispels any impression that the fruit sector is simply a backward part of Chile’s otherwise modernizing economy. Instead, she says, the working conditions of the fruit pickers, unstable seasonal work with no benefits, are being generalized throughout the Chilean economy and are a pillar of the country’s economic miracle.
As with most ‘economic miracles’ it is the workers who are paying the price. Permanent full-time jobs are now a rarity as employers look to ‘flexi-work’, which means you work when you are needed and any down-time is at your own expense. She then goes on to point out that ‘women are the workers of choice for this flexi-work because they are used to moving back and forth between paid work and the diverse tasks of household management. Things like pensions and medical care have been transformed from rights associated with employment to goods that one must buy on the open market.’
Another side to the Chilean miracle is the growth of consumer spending. However, Angelica says much of it has been financed with credit card debt. Many Chileans have bought into the new emphasis on happiness through consumer choice which has accompanied the free-trade ethos. They are exceeding over-stretched incomes with the use of recently available consumer credit. She believes that this is breaking down traditional working-class solidarity. ‘People are unwilling to take action or to go on strike because they have such big credit card bills to pay at the end of the month.’ This is all to the good as far as employers are concerned. Alvarez Cerda recounts how the big growers arrange for credit card company representatives to be on hand as the fruit pickers end their long shifts. ‘They are right there beside the orchards and vineyards ready to sign people up as they leave for the day.’
For Angelica the fight of Chilean fruit pickers for stable work contracts, decent childcare and safety from agro-chemical poisoning is a direct challenge to the skewed priorities of Chile’s economic miracle.
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