Patrick O’Hare is an anthropologist who studies recycling economies in South America. We are publishing Patrick’s translation of a transcript from an interview he conducted with Eduardo, a Pervuian factory worker who described his job in a plastic bag plant during the pandemic.
Eduardo (Ex trabajador de Norsac, Trujillo, Perú)
The company I worked for is the only plastic bag factory in Trujillo: it doesn’t have any competitors here. The competition is in Chiclayo, which is 4 hours away, and in Lima, which is 8 hours away. There are a lot of things that people don’t know about what it’s like inside, the exploitation, the abuse. For example, in my case I had a boss who was the worst. Because of my way of being, principally due to having lived abroad, I’ve learned to value myself. I’ve always liked working, always. I always put work first, always try to do my best, to give it 100%. But in this case, the bonus that we should have earned for dealing with waste in the factory, the boss took it. I didn’t see the funny side of that. So he could get our bonus he demanded more and more from us, he increased the speed of the machines, we almost became robots. Again and again we took out the waste: to produce, to produce, to produce. And this person treated workers badly, even those who had been there for longer than me, who had worked at the company for a long time. And it made me feel angry and impotent. When he tried to treat me badly, to intimidate me, I always put the brakes on that, because I’ve never liked to be treated badly. If there’s something that I’m not doing well, just tell me or show me how to do it better: don’t shout or swear at me. But well, what can a worker do against a boss? The worker can’t do anything because the boss is a tyrant. I lasted the time I did there because I had worked hard and learned. If I hadn’t known anything, if I hadn’t learned anything, they would have had me out of there like a shot. The other thing I was telling you about was that there was lots of work to do. Last year, at one point 50% of the workers had COVID and we kept working. Say that in one area 4 people out of 8 got COVID: that didn’t mean that the workload was halved, rather that the 4 who were left had to double their productivity. The work didn’t stop, whatever happened, it didn’t stop. And that was what the work with the rubbish was like, last year.
I’ve got a few ex-workmates who I’m in contact with and they say that now, in contrast, there is hardly any work, that it goes from bad to worse. Few workers inside the plant, and little work. What happened? The competition returned to work and took their clients back. Now that the pandemic is getting under control, the competition is levelling out and the clients who had come to us are going back to other companies. And what about us, who worked 12 hours a day all year? With the money they made from us the company bought machinery. They bought machinery like crazy and didn’t give us anything, a tip. Oh well, that’s life. In February things started to even out and our orders went down. And since the orders went down, they started to let people go. They started to look for excuses to sack people. They suspended people for no reason. In my case, for instance, I was suspended twice for things that I hadn’t done, and which I said that I hadn’t done. But arguing with them just makes things worse. I was also working there when I got COVID last year, because the majority of the workers got infected. I almost died alone because my wife and children were in Lima and I was here working. When I finally recovered and went back to work at the plant, they deducted the time that I had missed from my holiday pay. I disputed this and everything but in the end, yes, they took the time from my holiday pay, which clearly shouldn’t have been the case. Yes, in the pandemic, I was hit hard, very hard, and made it out alive by the skin of my teeth. Thank god I’m now OK. There are some long-term health effects, such as a cough, but I’m OK, despite having received no benefits from the company. They had said that they would take care of it, that any worker who got COVID shouldn’t come in to work and the business would take care of it, give us sick pay. We couldn’t get through to the number for health insurance though and we were scared, because people were dying, so many people were dying. The company had said that we shouldn’t come in if we were feeling bad, that we should do the test, and if it came out positive then we would automatically be entitled to sick pay. I got COVID, I was tested, the test result was positive, but they didn’t put me down for sick leave, they put me down as on holiday. I was owned a month’s holiday leave and they discounted 12 days from this. If I had come in and worked on those days I would have earned at least 400 soles more. I lost… but what can you do?
As I was saying, the company started reducing its workforce, suspending people. For instance, I earned 35 soles a day but if you were suspended, they didn’t take 35 soles from you but more like 100 because you also lost the night-shift bonus, the weekend bonus and so on, so the suspension was a killer, you ended up with very little in your pay check. And the company started getting people to use up their holiday leave as well, since there wasn’t enough work. I used to work 6 months and then renew for another 6 months, then it was 3 months for another 3 months, and then finally my contract was renewed for just a month. Then I was told that my contact wouldn’t be renewed and that was that. I’ve got compañeros who say that I should take them to a tribunal but you need money for something like that. I’m not usually the kind of guy to take an employer to a tribunal; sometimes I get angry, furious though because I was only one year away from my contract being made permanent, stable. People think you because you’ve been there for a year, or 4 or 5, then you have been able to save up money but the money we had saved up with the company was given out during the pandemic. Through something called the CTS, the company has to put money into a savings account for the workers. We’re talking about around 1200 soles a year, so in 4 years almost 5,000 soles. But they offered this money to the workers during the pandemic, once last year and once this year. And I had to accept it because I had been suspended and I had to keep up with the rent. My wife was out of work and she’s only recently started working again. To avoid us getting in to debt she took the kids to live with her mother, who is 70 and who also was prevented from selling things in her little shop, her fruit and veg, her groceries. So she had to be taken care of, as well as a brother who is disabled and doesn’t earn money or receive any benefits. I’m the one who has always tried to help the family, tried not to show them when I’m in trouble, tried to ‘drink the river alone’ as the expression has it. But I can’t help feeling frustrated and impotent and that’s when I feel like taking the company to a tribunal. Because when they renewed my contract the last time they made me sign a piece of paper but I didn’t get a copy of it, and that probably covered their backs. I’m a big boy, and I’ve never worried about work before. I know that things are like this because of the pandemic, and that there are better times ahead. Next year will be better, I’m sure, when the pandemic has passed…
Back at the factory I’ve heard that they are still firing people. And what makes me most mad is that we worked like animals, we worked like hell. On the odd occasion you might get sick or miss a shift and it was fine. Now that production is down, however, they have started to bother people, to suspend them without due cause, to stop renewing their contracts. And what makes me mad is that at least I wanted to finish the year, for them at least to tell me ‘Señor Gutierrez, you know what, I’m afraid we are not going to renew your contract’. They couldn’t even do that: they simply created a list and my name was not on the list. When I went to human resources, the person who I should have been able to speak to wasn’t there. And when my contract finished they wouldn’t let me back inside the plant. What gentlemen, right? Anyway, I’ve just started a new job thank God, new compañeros, new friendships, good people. A couple who take the time to explain things – you always learn something new. The only problem is the commute – two hours there and two hours back. As I told you, I never thought that I’d find myself harvesting blueberries, something that I used to sell [in the fruit shop in Buenos Aires]. But anything can be learned, it’s never too late to learn something new.