Washington Orellano - leader of the port worker's association threatened with legal action for criticising his employers. Interview recorded and translated by Jan Nimmo, Puerto Bolívar, Ecuador, May 2003
My name is Washington Orellana. I'm general secretary of the Puerto Bolívar Port Workers' Association. The organisation is based in Puerto Bolívar, in El Oro province. The workers, within and without the organisation, are all fighting for a better future and so that our labour and written constitutional laws are respected. Our struggle started in 2002 and we've sustained our struggle to the present day. Basically, the rights of the workers shouldn't be trampled on by the companies and their owners. We want to free the workers and give them some self-esteem.
The continuing situation that we have here in Puerto Bolivar is critical. We eat out in the open. We don't eat like any decent person should, with dignity, as a person who works and generates wealth for this province and for Ecuador ought to. Other anomalies I could mention: we're not registered with Social Security. As a result of our struggle we've won that right. It is not something we have just won; it is something that already existed within the law, the constitution and the Social Security system. Every worker must by law be registered with the Social Security system and we have managed to achieve that. We've been fighting for getting our benefits paid, for workers to get paid what they are due. We're fighting for the workers to get paid the benefits stipulated by the Labour Code. The companies, which are known as the Port Freight Operators (OPC), work within the port area. They have a permit from the port authorities and the DIME (Merchant Navy and Ports of Ecuador) for working there.
We especially want international organisations to know about the real situation facing the Ecuadorian port workers. Now that we have achieved something the workers have more self-respect. We are fighting to give our kids a better future. We don't want them to live like us: filling boats with thousands of banana boxes, working there for days and nights. It's just like the days when slavery existed. We want to get ourselves out of this situation.
Because of this struggle for justice I am on a trial something which was instigated by an extremely wealthy man from El Oro province, Mr. Servio Serrano Correa, vice- manager in CABANA. He brought a court case against because of some articles which appeared in the press in which I denounced the fact that companies operating in the port were taking the money from the workers. They are the ones making profit, not the workers. The case is still being processed. We hope that the judges are going to be fair and they are going to give the right verdict under the labour law. The workers know that I'm involved in this case because of our struggle. These are problems that concern us all. We have to fight and to keep on fighting. And that's what there is to know about our association; about what we've done and what still have to do.
We have been in negotiations with the manager and the President (of the Republic), the new civil servants workers who have been in place since the new government came to power. It's unacceptable that workers are still treated like this, where their human rights are trampled over. We want a decent canteen. We are asking for clean drinking water, not a dirty bucket where all the sweaty port workers have dip in their glasses. We want the companies to ask for a space for a canteen, or to build one. Otherwise, they should pay for workers' meals and the stipends established by law. We are also thinking about a project for getting an area, which already exists for this, and to create an infrastructure which gives the workers' dignity. In other countries people in prison eat better and have more
dignity than workers here do. This is our reality. Workers have to be supported; they are the ones who generate wealth for this country. Bananas are an export product. In other countries port workers get better wages.
We earn a pittance, just a rate fixed by the government of $0.03. We want to change this. We hope to fix a stable price with this government, on which we've pinned our hopes, an amount which relates to the basic shopping basket, which is cost more than $360 (per month). Currently we are earning less than half of this. What kind of wages are we getting?
How can we, the workers, survive on that? We want to thank the people who are helping us to get out of this situation. We want to get out of this situation. This problem is harming not only the workers but also our families.
As regards solidarity, we ask trade unions to give us support and energy and advise onhow we should maintain our sacrifices and the constancy of our struggle, how we can keep on fighting. The struggle has just begun. The working class will continue to fight for a better future for the entire population of Ecuador.