Women Asparagus Workers in Peru
Much of Peru’s recent economic growth is the result of increased export of non-traditional products. Among this is asparagus, of which Peru is currently the largest exporter in the world. Not surprisingly, most of it ends up in United States super markets. A closer look at the economic benefits brought by the asparagus industry reveals a sadly familiar story: a few individuals and companies have become rich at the expense of their workers. In the case of the Peruvian asparagus industry, women workers are increasingly the victims of this profit-driven exploitation.
Rosemary is a Peruvian temporary agricultural worker (harvesting asparagus, artichokes, and grapes for export to the US). She moves around from temporary job to temporary job, depending on seasonal needs.
“I am paid weekly, according to how much I produce. It’s $48 a week in high season, in low season I earned between $13 and $16 a week. There’s no fixed monthly salary, it’s only determined by how much we produce and how much we advance. We would be out working for 14 to 16 hours a day. I worked 9 months in the fields but not continually. I had to stop certain weeks and start again the next week. When there was a lot to produce, I worked all day, 112 hours a week, 448 hours a month more or less, without taking Sundays off, getting paid nothing for overtime because they pay is according to how much we produce. I was illegally fired also for being pregnant.”
Companies can get away with treating temporary women workers like Rosemary because without permanent contracts and worker representation (through unions or worker-owned cooperatives) workers fear losing their jobs. In the developing world where unemployment is high and small farmers are displaced, many workers will do anything to earn a modest income and companies, including US companies, take advantage of their impoverished situation. Rosemary was easily fired for being pregnant because she had no union contract to secure her job. In Peru, women are entitled to various maternity benefits but without job stability, employer accountability and union representation these laws often go unenforced.
Read more on women temporary workers here. Organizations like our partner in Peru, Associacion Aurora Vivar, have dedicated themselves to defending the rights of working women, with a particular focus on female agricultural workers.
Despite evidence pointing to the existence of widespread violations similar to those that occur in the asparagus industry, the U.S. signed the agreement with Peru in 2006 without requiring any changes to the current labor law, which has proven inadequate in preventing these types of abuses. As a trade partner of Peru through the U.S.-Peru free trade agreement and the Andean Trade Preference Act, the United States is indirectly supporting this systematic violation of international labor rights standards. Treatment and labor law enforcement regarding temporary and subcontracted workers was a very contentious issue during the negotiation of U.S.-Peru Free Trade Agreement, which was implemented at the end of Bush's tenure. The Peruvian Government and US Trade Representative Ron Kirk have promised to increase law enforcement to protect temporary workers, but many civil society groups and U.S. members of Congress still feely strongly that the trade implementation measures will not be sufficient to strengthen labor standards.
There are numerous International Labor Organization Conventions, like Conventions 183, 100, and 111, which protect womens' rights in the workplace. Unfortunately, while Peru has ratified both Conventions 100 and 111, they have not ratified the third, and they have been unable to enforce the rights outlined. The United States has ratified none of the three conventions in question.