ICA, Peru – A portion of Peru’s main north-south highway remained shut down on Wednesday as farm workers in the Ica region continued their protest to demand the scrapping of a law that they say enables their exploitation by agri-business firms.
Those who work in the fields typically toil up to nine hours a day for around 30 soles ($8.40), Julio Alexi Ramos told EFE at the blockade set up in the wee hours of Monday on the outskirts of Ica city, 300km (190mi) south of Lima.
“We are exploited. All that’s missing is for them to use a stick or a whip to make us work,” protester Urbina said of area growers, who specialize in export crops such cranberries, asparagus and artichokes.
Billed as a temporary measure when it was enacted in 2000, the Agrarian Promotion Law was extended last year to 2031.
The legislation created a specific labor regime for seasonal farm workers along with favorable tax treatment for export-oriented agriculture, a sector that has seen its annual turnover soar over the last two decades from a few hundred-million dollars to nearly $8 billion.
Under the law, any field hand who works at least four hours is supposed to receive a minimum daily wage of 39.19 soles ($11).
Yet the text does not establish a maximum of working hours in a day, while allowing firms that recruit temporary help for employers to withhold substantial commissions from those workers’ pay.
Moreover, according to Ramos, companies limit the duration of contracts to three months so they can avoid providing benefits or paying severance.
The farm workers in Ica want the minimum daily wage to be set at 60 soles.
“What they pay us now isn’t even enough for breakfast,” one of the protesters told EFE.
A delegation from the national government arrived in Ica late Tuesday on a mission to “establish a space of dialogue and listen to the demands of the agrarian leaders, with the mediation of local authorities.”
But talks between the officials and representatives of the workers ended without agreement.
Meanwhile, hundreds of cars, truck and buses have been left stranded on the Panamericana Sur highway.
“There’s nothing to eat, there’s no water. I don’t have money and we’re waiting to be able to go,” Yui Sigoñes Vargas, traveling to Cuzco by bus with her three young children, told EFE.
“We know that their protest is just, but they have surprised us with the strike on the highway,” bus passenger Rosa Alvares said after being stuck in Ica for two nights. “We don’t have the economic or logistical means to go on for days.”