Ecuador government legislates in face of mounting pressures

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The government of the world's largest banana exporting country has this week announced labour law reforms that would tighten rules on social security registration and extend breastfeeding and childcare rights for working mothers.

The government is also reported to be preparing stricter legislation on aerial spraying of chemicals in and around banana plantations. This comes at a time when consumers – as well as affected workers and communities - are increasingly concerned about conditions in the Ecuadorian industry.

New legislation in the shape of the Law for the Defence of Workers' Rights, which is about to be published in the Official Journal, includes a range of new measures. Employers will be given six months to register all their employees with the national social security system or face fines, although those who have not done so in the last three years will not be sanctioned.

Working mothers, who currently have the right to eight 15-minute breaks a day for nine months for breastfeeding their children, will have that right extended to a period of 12 months after birth. Companies who employ more than 50 people will also be required to provide childcare facilities in the workplace.

For several years, there has been growing concern from workers and those living in and around banana plantations about the health effects of aerially sprayed fungicides. José Giler Vera (pictured), General Secretary of the Guayas Banana Workers' Association, affiliated to national agroindustrial workers' federation FENACLE, was the most recent to denounce the ‘indiscriminate spraying that takes place when workers are in the fields or eating lunch’. The Association is organising talks and training workshops for workers and the local population. ‘We have also been informing the authorities and pressing them to put in place proper legislation’, added Giler.  A recent workshop was addressed by medical toxicologist, Dr Raul Harari, whose Quito-based organisation IFA has been alerting people to the health dangers of chemicals used in banana production for many years.

According to sources close to the Environment Ministry, the government is now preparing legislation to ensure that spraying does not take place within 200 metres of housing and water-courses.

These legislative moves come as the voice of concerned consumers are being heard more and more regularly. A German TV documentary on 'The Price of Bananas' and the Belgian consumers' organisation Test-Achats have both recently highlighted social and environmental issues in the Ecuadorian banana industry. In a statement to the media this week the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade criticised the lack of consultation by German TV with government authorities: ‘The country is working to ensure rigorous control of products used against the different crop diseases, and a pesticide registration body has been established.’. On the issue of labour exploitation, the Ministry spokesperson stated that ‘companies now have to ensure that all agricultural workers can exercise their universal right to healthcare and social security and that they pay wages that improve the distribution of wealth.’ The government also noted that all forms of child labour are now prohibited.

Sources : El Comercio, Quito, 26th September ; FENACLE, Guayaquil, 25th September ; www.test-achats.be, 25th September.