Peruvian agricultural workers’ strike met with violent repression

Agricultural workers are mobilizing to demand that the Peruvian government and Congress follow through on their promise to pass a law granting labor rights and ensuring better working conditions for workers in this sector

December 23, 2020 by José Carlos Llerena
Police repressed agricultural workers on the Panamerican highway in the Chao district in Virú. Photo: Gian Masko Angulo

On December 21, hundreds of agricultural workers from Peru embarked on a fresh agrarian strike, blocking highways along the Peruvian coast, in rejection of the failure of Congress to pass a new agrarian law. The new law would guarantee the labor rights of workers in agribusiness and would seek to improve what workers have deemed “slavery work conditions” that they have suffered under for nearly 20 years under the former Agrarian Promotion Law.

In the beginning of December, the workers had carried out a similar strike and forced the Congress to commit to passing a fresh law, however they have failed to do so. This week’s protest has been met with heavy repression from police and the military forces and so far 25 workers have been injured.

Peru is at the juncture of multiple crises, which came to the surface in the recent national people’s uprising of November 14 against the parliamentary coup carried out on November 9. The political crisis has deep roots, and has been on full display since 2017 due to the judicial investigations surrounding the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht and corruption cases involving many elected officials. This political element collided with the social and economic crises in the country which have been deepened during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic amid rising levels of poverty, unemployment and lack of access to basic resources like water, education, and healthcare. Peru also has one of the highest rates of infection and mortality from COVID-19 globally with a little under one million confirmed cases and over 37,000 deaths.

Following the mass protests in November, different social protests of construction workers, teachers, health workers, mining workers, etc found a new political environment within Peruvian society to push their demands forward. In this context on November 30, hundreds of agricultural workers called for an agrarian strike and blocked the Panamerican Highway in the southern coastal province of Ica

In a few days, agricultural workers from the northern coast had joined the strike. They demanded for a better salary -many of them are paid below the minimum wage- and better labor conditions for the work they do for agribusiness companies which export products such as Hass avocados, asparagus, blueberries and grapes.

The roots of the problem are in the Agrarian Promotion Law, approved during Fujimori’s neoliberal dictatorial regime in the nineties. This law is also known as the Chlimper Law because it was brought forward by José Chlimper, a businessman and Agrarian Minister in Fujimori’s government. The law had the goal of granting benefits to the agribusiness sector in order for Peru to compete in the global market.

One of the benefits granted by this law was to create a special labor regime for agribusiness activities as well as a special tax regime. The labor framework in the law entitled and encouraged agribusiness companies to hire workers under outsourcing schemes, grant temporary work contracts, to not pay labor benefits such as vacation, and unemployment insurance. It also allowed them to prevent workers from joining unions and to pay a lower percentage for public health insurance than outlined in the general labor code. The tax benefit granted to agribusiness companies was to pay just 15% for income tax instead of the normal rate of 30%.

The social and economic crisis highlighted by the pandemic has exposed the precarious situation of thousands of workers within the agribusiness sector, which many compare to slavery conditions suffered before the Agrarian Reform of 1969. This has also shone light on issues regarding the reasoning behind the Agrarian Promotion Law and its validity until now. First, the context that justified the approval of such a law has changed. Now, Peruvian agribusiness companies are competitive in the global market, so there is more reason to award these benefits. Meanwhile, while exports have grown for many years, the salaries of workers have not experienced any significant increase. The use of temporary contracts also loses its justification because technological developments have allowed agricultural activity to occur throughout the entire year.

Advances and setbacks

On December 5, after many days of arduous mobilizing on the highway, a young worker Jorge Muñoz, 19 years old, was murdered by the Police forces. The same day, dialogue began with representatives of the new transition government led by liberal Francisco Sagasti, and the workers won their first battle: Peruvian Congress derogated the slavery Promotion Agrarian Law.

Both the National Government and Congress expressed their political will to approve a new agrarian law as soon as possible, in accordance with agreements achieved with workers. However, they have yet to fulfill these promises, which is what brought out thousands of workers to the highways once again. Their failure to fulfill these promises and address the precarious situation of thousands of workers in the agribusiness sector is likely due to the pressure of Peruvian oligarchy over the Peruvian State using its concentrated corporate media, and an ongoing dispute between the Government and Congress.

While most political leaders are either silent accomplices or actively opposing advances in this regard by criticizing the impact of blocking highways, only the left leader Verónika Mendoza, presidential candidate of the New Peru Movement has spoken in favor of the historically forgotten interests of agricultural workers. She has proposed a “Second Agrarian Reform”- and has demanded that the Government and Congress find solutions to this problem in order to avoid the death of any Peruvian.

José Carlos Llerena is a popular educator and member of the Peruvian organization La Junta.