Luz de America, Ecuador – Carlos and Maria spent their childhood working more than 10 hours a day on a plantation, earning less than minimum wage. They never got days off while living in overcrowded camps with no electricity or clean drinking water, they said.
The couple, who spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition that their last name be kept secret, met during that time and spent most of their lives together, eventually marrying and having eight children. Maria had to work during her pregnancies, she said, and received no medical care during the delivery.
“There was no light. We used lighters and candles to light up the night,” Maria recalls, speaking on the terrace of the family’s small, cramped house in Luz de America, Ecuador. We were enslaved and mistreated. The camps were full of families, so we had no room to sleep in. Sometimes we had to sleep in the kitchen.”
Carlos, who started working at Furukawa Plantaciones in the 1980s when he was just seven, said he couldn’t go to school because the nearest one was 10 km on foot.
“We lived like beasts,” he said. “We asked for changes, but we never got them. All they cared about was money, not workers. We had no insurance or legal benefits. Our living conditions were inhuman.”
The couple, who said they were fired after protesting working conditions in 2019, are part of a group of more than 100 current and former employees seeking legal compensation from Furukawa, a Japanese company that operated in the Ecuadorian cities of Santo . Domingo, Los Rios and Esmeraldas for about six decades. The workers, mostly of African descent, harvested abaca, a plant that yields a type of fiber used in products such as tea bags and currency.
Workers say that despite the company raking in millions of dollars in profits, they earned less than minimum wage and were denied basic services and job protections. In 2019, the Ecuadorian ombudsman service released a report referring to a pervasive system of servitude and “modern slavery” on Furukawa plantations. It details numerous violations, including child labour, insufficient wages and a lack of safety features.
Subsequent state investigations culminated last month, when an Ecuadorian judge ruled that a criminal trial against Furukawa on charges of “trafficking for labor exploitation” could proceed, in what observers say is a landmark decision for labor rights in the country and beyond.
According to Alejandro Morales, a lawyer representing the affected workers, the case has the “potential to eradicate modern slavery and colonial practices,” which continue to this day.
“The importance of this case cannot be overemphasized as it highlights the continued existence of… modern slavery in this country since colonial times,” Morales told Al Jazeera, noting that the case “ is not an isolated incident in the agribusiness industry”.
The workers he represents, who will take part in the upcoming trial, say they are seeking financial compensation for the years spent in harsh conditions.
The road to this crossroads has been a long one. Following the 2019 ombudsman’s report and subsequent government investigation, the Ecuadorian Ministry of Labor ordered Furukawa to temporarily halt operations, and the state issued a public apology for failing to prevent human rights violations on the plantations.
A court in Santo Domingo ordered the company in 2021 to compensate employees who filed complaints. But workers who spoke to Al Jazeera last month said they have yet to receive compensation as long as the business continues.
For its part, Furukawa claims it followed all protocols and made reparations after past complaints, including the demolition of camps. Attorney Pedro Jerves, defending one of the company’s managers, told Al Jazeera that the workers had agreed to their terms of employment, adding that Furukawa has taken numerous steps to ensure its operations meet all relevant standards.
“We have followed safety protocols and today we installed drinking water tanks and electricity. We’ve done social work that shows that people do indeed live well,” Jerves said. The company has consistently rejected allegations that conditions on the plantations were similar to modern day slavery.
For members of the African community in Ecuador, it is about protecting fundamental human rights.
Jaqui Gallegos, an activist of African descent, told Al Jazeera that the treatment of workers is “deeply rooted in structural racism that persists in the culture,” with Afro-Ecuadorians across the country facing widespread discrimination. It is reported that more than 40 percent of Afro-Ecuadorians live below the poverty line and face difficulties in accessing education and employment.
Meanwhile, former Furukawa employees hope that justice will prevail and that they will one day receive compensation.
Adela, a 67-year-old woman who has spent most of her life working on the plantations, told Al Jazeera that she hopes the children in her community today “can go to school and have a better future, and … prevent this story from happening.” is repeated. ”.
Carlos and Maria, who are still struggling to make ends meet, are also determined to break the circle and ensure a better future for their own sons and daughters. While they talk, their young children play nearby with a handful of old toys, occasionally interrupting their parents to ask for snacks or drinks.
“Corporate abuse still pierces our hearts like daggers… (but) despite the many lives lost, we, the survivors, will continue to fight this war,” Maria said. “We will not rest until justice is done.”
This story was produced with the support of One World Media and the International Women’s Media Foundation.