Agricultural workers exposed to Covid-19 infection risks in Ecuador and Peru

ARTICLE | 2 April 2020

Unsustainable business practices risk exacerbating the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and threatening the lives and livelihoods of workers and communities already at risk.

In Latin America several countries have declared states of emergency and adopted protective measures such as curfews, quarantines and school and workplace closures to limit the spread. However, in Ecuador and Peru agricultural workers say they are exposed to working conditions that put them at risk of being infected, while fearing they will lose their jobs if they stay at home.

In both countries, the agricultural sectors apply less strict labour laws than others and can, for example, keep workers on temporary contracts for long periods which puts them in a precarious situation if they fall ill.

According to human rights organisation La Comisión de Derechos Humanos de Ica (CODEHICA), workers in Peru’s Ica valley report being threatened with dismissal if they fail to show up for work, even if they feel ill or belong to a high-risk group. Agricultural company vehicles transporting them to work are usually crowded and workers cannot maintain a safe distance as recommended by health authorities.

“There is not enough protection for the workers. They sometimes have to drink water from the same glasses when they are in the fields,” says CODEHICA director Gustavo Echegaray.

The Ica valley in southern Peru is a major producer of fruits and vegetables such as asparagus, avocados and grapes for export to European supermarkets. Swedwatch and Diakonia have worked with CODEHICA to highlight the severe human rights and environmental impacts of the industry in the valley. Excessive use of water for commercial crops leaves workers and their families with poor access to clean water and sanitation and increases their risk of infection as the coronavirus spreads.

In Ecuador, the labour rights organisation Asociación Sindical de Trabajadores Agrícolas y Campesinos (ASTAC), reports a lack of protective measures in the banana sector. Many workers in plantations producing bananas for export have no social security coverage and little access to adequate health care. According to ASTAC, respiratory problems are already widespread due to the heavy use of pesticides and workers worry about becoming seriously ill if they are infected.

ASTAC’s women’s coordinator Maricela Guzman says many women work excessive hours and are concerned about vulnerable family members at home alone. Workers often live in extended families with very young and elderly in the same household, often staying in poor and crowded conditions which can exacerbate the risk of the virus spreading throughout the community.

“Companies purchasing Ecuadorian bananas should put pressure on their suppliers to protect agricultural workers including providing adequate protective gear and offering decent working hours. They should also pay a fair price for our bananas,” she says.

Both ASTAC and CODEHICA have called on authorities and companies to take urgent measures to protect the health and wellbeing of workers.

Photo credit: Lari-Honkanen