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Banana workers in Ecuador are facing an onslaught of illegal firings, violence, and intimidation as they try to exercise their rights to organize and strike, Human Rights Watch said today.

The violence has been concentrated at the Los Álamos plantation group on Ecuador's southwestern coast, where at least ten striking workers were shot on May 16 by assailants. Los Álamos is owned by the Noboa Corporation, whose owner, Álvaro Noboa, is a leading presidential candidate in Ecuador's October elections.

"The efforts to stop unions on the banana plantations have been going on for a long time, but now we're seeing a descent into pure thuggery," said Carol Pier, Labor Rights and Trade Researcher for Human Rights Watch. "The Ecuadorian government has a responsibility to prevent this kind of violence."

On April 25, Human Rights Watch released Tainted Harvest: Child Labor and Obstacles to Organizing on Ecuador's Banana Plantations, a 114-page report that detailed impediments to unionization and the widespread use of hazardous child labor on Ecuador's banana plantations.

In early March, workers from the Los Álamos plantation group petitioned the Ministry of Labor to recognize their recently-formed union. Shortly thereafter, approximately 124 Los Álamos workers were illegally fired, among them over a dozen union organizers. Although some workers were eventually allowed to resume their posts, others, including the union organizers, are still out of work.

In late April, the Ministry of Labor recognized three trade unions formed by the workers from Los Álamos, a positive step towards respecting workers' right to organize.

According to Ecuadorian workers' organizations, however, three more union activists were reportedly illegally fired on May 2. On May 6, largely in response to the firings, the workers of the Los Álamos plantation group declared a strike. Though a workers' organization allegedly requested police protection for the striking workers, none arrived until violence erupted.

At approximately 2:00 AM on the morning of May 16, between 200 and 400 hooded, armed men entered the Los Álamos plantation group, where workers living on the plantations were sleeping. Reports indicate that the hooded men banged on workers' doors with rifle butts, dragged roughly eighty of them from their homes, hit many with rifle butts, insulted them, looted their homes, and told many that they would be killed and dumped into the river. The hooded men also fired at at least one striking worker, injuring him critically and causing the subsequent amputation of his leg. Approximately six hours later, about six policemen reportedly arrived at the plantations.

"These actions, the illegal firings and the anti-striker violence, are blatant union-busting tactics and serious human rights abuses," said Pier. "They must not go unpunished."

The armed men remained on the Los Álamos premises throughout the day on May 16 and into the early evening, at which time they allegedly told all striking workers to leave the premises by 6:30 PM or be forcibly evicted. Shortly after 6:00 PM, with the workers showing no sign of leaving, the armed men allegedly began shooting, critically injuring one worker and injuring several others and a policeman. Reports indicate that at 8:00 PM, police reinforcements finally arrived and arrested approximately twenty of the armed thugs.

According to reports, the injured worker whose leg was later amputated needs blood transfusions, which he was allegedly initially denied because his employer failed to make mandatory Social Security payments as required by Ecuadorian law. To ensure that the injured worker received the necessary care, a workers' organization signed as guarantor.

"This is an example of what happens when you have weak labor laws and even weaker enforcement," said Pier. "Workers should not be threatened, beaten, or shot for exercising their constitutionally protected and internationally recognized human rights."

Human Rights Watch calls on the Ecuadorian government to undertake a comprehensive investigation of these disturbing reports of violence against striking banana workers. Anyone found responsible should be prosecuted. A complete investigation should examine whether these and any other perpetrators were hired by other interested parties, and if proven, those parties should also be brought to justice. The government must enforce its labor laws, which allow striking workers to remain on their employers' premises guarded by police and which state that police must take all necessary measures to guarantee the rights of striking workers and their employers and prevent entry into the workplace by agitators and strike breakers.

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