Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Pineapple workers: dignity in the face of oppression

Anna Cooper of Banana Link talks about her experiences meeting workers in Costa Rica.

I arrived in Siquirres in the South Atlantic coast of Costa Rica, with my Banana Link colleague Iain Farquhar, after a long and slow journey of multiple planes, taxis and buses. We were welcomed by the friendly and familiar faces at the SITRAP office – our base during the Consumers International case study research.

Tom, Felicity, Anna, Jenny, Carlos
Despite working for Banana Link for a number of years on issues along banana and pineapple supply chains, I arrived with what seemed like a daunting number of questions about the realities on the ground in the Costa Rican pineapple industry. It was exciting to think of what lay ahead in the next two weeks, after which these questions would all be answered - hopefully!

The first week was spent travelling round the plantations and communities in the Atlantic coast, visiting workers and community activists in their homes, at plantation accommodation or at the local trade union offices. Carlos Arguedas, the SITRAP Health and Safety Officer, was our devoted and dependable guide.

Many of the workers lived with their families in very basic housing made out of wood and corrugated iron with mud floors. Some did have concrete houses but generally only when the wives were working too, bringing in two incomes into the household. Some of the bachelor workers – mainly Nicaraguans who had left their families to come and work in Costa Rica – lived in accommodation provided by the company.

The interviews with workers were very open – they all had their own story to tell and different information about the working conditions on the plantations depending on their role, how long they’d been there, whether or not they were union members etc.

It was quite difficult to find women workers that were prepared to talk to us; there was a lot of fear amongst workers who were worried that if they spoke to us and the company found out, then they may lose their jobs. However, we luckily managed to find a number of workers who were glad of the opportunity to speak out and share their experiences of working on the plantations, in the knowledge that this information would get back to the consumers in Europe who are buying the pineapples they produce.

On return to the UK I then had the mammoth task of writing up the case study research into a full technical report - I won’t bore you with the details of this bit! The report was then used to inform Consumers International and the Guardian filmmakers in preparation for the filming trip to Costa Rica in June.

I returned to Costa Rica with the Guardian journalist, Felicity Lawrence, and the film director, Tom Pearson (both pictured) – all of us with worries of torrential rain in the middle of the Costa Rican monsoon season! I was really looking forward to seeing everyone again back in Costa Rica, this time with the very different role of assisting the filming trip on the ground and doing the translation for the journalist and director.

We had ten days to make the film and luckily this time, due to the previous research done in March, we had a pretty good idea of the people we needed to visit and the questions we needed to ask to get the right footage for the film.

This time the experience in Costa Rica was very different – rather than sitting down with workers and community activists for a few hours to talk about their story in their own time, everything had to be much more precise and well planned. The task of language translation therefore seemed to also be one of cultural translation too; mediating the laid back and relaxed tempo of Costa Rican life with the fast and exact demands of UK film production! Thanks to the unwavering support from our local guide, Carlos (pictured), the filming trip was a real success and an amazing experience to be a part of.

Looking back, the most inspiring part of the research and filming process for me has got to be the people I met in Costa Rica – the workers, their families, trade unionists, community activists – all with their own story to tell. Many of them had suffered life times of poverty and repression but their dignity, morality and generosity in the face of these struggles was a powerful reminder of the strength of the human spirit, and one I will never forget.

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