Poverty wages, forced and unpaid overtime, poor safety conditions, obstruction to free associations and discrimination against pregnant workers – these were just some of the accusations that have been levelled against the largest mango production companies in Peru, in a report produced by SOMO (the Dutch Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations) last year. A year has passed since then and it would seem nothing – from either side of the argument – has really changed.
You might think working conditions in the Peruvian mango industry have little relevance to your own life, but if you have bought or eaten a mango in the last year it will very likely have been a Peruvian one. Mangoes are, of course, a seasonal fruit which means suppliers will import stock from various parts of the world depending on the time of the year, and from December to March, Peru is one of very few countries that will be harvesting the fruit for direct export to the UK.
But do conditions in the Peruvian mango industry measure up to the expectations of the ethically conscious European consumer? SOMO's report, complied with the help of Peruvian NGO Asociacion Aurora Vivar, suggests not. The report, (and the video that goes with it), features interviews with workers from three of the largest companies in the Peruvian mango industry: Camposol, Sunshine, and Saturno. These interviewees claim that they or their colleagues have been intimidated and even fired for being members of unions, that the company often failed to include overtime pay at the end of the month, and that workers who had consequently refused to work overtime were likely to have been sacked and never rehired by the company.
The report triggered a furious reaction from the criticised companies, with Camposol going as far as to initiate legal proceedings against SOMO. Both it and Sunshine claim that the NGO committed a series of factual and procedural errors whilst compiling the report. “They never took the trouble even to contact us directly, they only sent us the completed report,” says Sofia Wong, Commercial Manager at Sunshine. SOMO views things very differently. “We have heard this outrageous accusation from their lawyer already,” says Sanne van der Wal, co-author of the report. “Our research partner in Peru contacted the companies on numerous occasions, but they were never interested in cooperating.”
Regardless of the truth about whether such contact ever took place, the companies claim that the vast majority of the accusations in SOMO’s report are utterly false: “In a formal company like Camposol, which is listed on the stock exchange, we take more care than anyone else to assure that we comply with the law,” says Francesca Carnesella, who is the company’s Corporate Affairs Manager.
On the issue of trade unions for example, she points out that the company has three trade unions representing workers in different sectors, and that they would never obstruct the creation of new ones. “If they wanted to create one in Piura tomorrow they could do it in an hour,” she adds.
Juan Herrera, General Secretary of The Trade Union of Agrarian Workers of Peru, SITAG begs to differ. “There is regular intimidation of workers who ask to form unions in the mango industry in Piura. We have spoken to numerous people who have confirmed this", he maintains.
In response to this and other accusations, both Camposol and Sunshine say that they could never get away with such flagrant abuses of the law, such as obstructing freedom of association (even if they wanted to), because they are regularly subjected to independent and government inspections. William Arteaga, head of Agro-Industry Sector at PromPeru - the government body in charge of promoting exports - confirms this, and adds: “If any worker ever has a complaint against a company, they can go straight to the local office of the Labour Ministry and 24 hours later, there will be an inspection of that organisation.”
Van der Wal claims he has seen these types of official responses before. ”It is always a popular tactic of companies to say 'we get audited by independent inspection bodies which are held to global standards, we are certified by international audits etc.' Increasingly, however, we have found that these audits themselves are flawed, failing to pick up on those issues bothering the workers and not least because the workers do not feel comfortable talking to the inspectors.” Van der Wal claims that SOMO's strength lies in its ability to succeed where these audits fail. “We have a different perspective on labour conditions, because we are able to create a situation in which workers feel more free to talk about their problems.”
The interviews are indeed, difficult to explain away. I asked the representatives of Camposol, direct, why they thought mango workers had reached these conclusions if there were no abuses within the company. Francesca Carnesella did admit that the interviews were, of course, genuine, but suggested that perhaps the employee interviewees might have been thinking of a different era: “I think a lot of these people are thinking and talking about older concepts and habits. The company as it is today was formed together in 2008, before that it was property of another family. Perhaps before they had this type of behaviour.”
There are though certain facts which both sides agree on, such as the wages of the workers and the types of contracts they are engaged under. For SOMO and Aurora Vivar, the problem is not just a case of infringements of the law, rather that the laws and regulations themselves in Peru, particularly in the agricultural industry, are not conducive to beneficial working conditions. “The legislation in Peru was made to liberalise production and allow for investment. This is working very well, production is now booming with the country becoming more and more important as an agricultural supplier. The downside of that though is that working conditions suffer,” admits van del Wal. “If you look at the working conditions in neighbouring Chile, they are far better,” adds Betsey Valdivia, Director of Aurora Vivar.
SOMO says that the salary that workers receive – usually around the Peruvian minimum wage of 675 Nuevo Soles or about £175 per month - is a poverty wage, and that the practise of keeping workers on short-term seasonal contracts means that both salaries and benefits of the workers rarely improve. Camposol maintains the stance that it cannot be blamed for paying the industry standard: “People say, 'but these workers gain the minimum wage'. Well, before they earned nothing, or they were working informally, without any protection from the state,” says Francesa Carnesella. As for the contracts, there is agreement from companies that they are the only way for companies farming seasonal produce to operate. “The three month contract law is important, it leads to more jobs,” says Fardi Gil, owner of a small mango exporting company.
William Orteague of PromPeru admits that the conditions may not be as good as those in other countries, but stresses that they are nevertheless striving to improve them. “Of course a worker in Peru does not earn the same as a worker in the United States or Europe, but conditions are improving and we aim to one day reach the same level as the developed nations... In the case of Chile, the difference is that the Chileans have 40 years of experience in agricultural industry, whereas we have barely 20."
Ultimately, it is clear that the two sides in this debate view things from two very different and seemingly irreconcilable perspectives. From Camposol’s perspective, the company has brought formality, improved conditions and secure jobs to areas where none existed before, whilst for SOMO, the big companies are still taking advantage of business-friendly laws to exploit a working population and get away with making the minimum commitment to human rights that is legally allowable.