Coffee pickers are forgotten workers, lawmakers told

A supreme court magistrate brought up one of Costa Rica’s dirty little secrets when she visited lawmakers Wednesday.

The magistrate is Julia Varela Araya, who is a member of the Sala Segunda of the Corte Suprema de Justicia. This is the chamber that handles labor appeals.

Everyone knows that Costa Rican labor law is strict. There are mandatory payments for social charges and medical fees, and every employee is entitle to a Christmas bonus, the aguinaldo.

That is unless you are a migrant coffee picker from Panamá. An estimated 70 percent of the seasonal workers who come to Costa Rica are from that country. They are the  Ngöbe, a native group whose members live in much the same way that their ancestors did when Christopher Columbus visited in 1502.

They are a proud people, but they keep their distance. They can be seen on weekends in the central parks of the southern Costa Rican communities at coffee harvest time. The women wear long, colorful dresses.

The magistrate said the Costa Rica has positioned itself as a country of human rights, adding that the country should address the situation of the migrant workers whose rights often are overlooked.

She estimated to the Comisión Permanente Especial de Derechos Humanos that thousands of cases involving the native coffee picketers never reach the Sala Segunda because the migrants have no rights.

And when the migrants push for payment of Christmas  aguinaldos or other benefits they are due, they are told that their labor relationship is voluntary, said the magistrate.

Coffee pickers are paid by the basket, so it is easy for farmers to say that they are independent workers instead of employees.

About 30,000 people work in the collection of coffee each year. Frequently whole families are in the cafetales, including tots.

Only about 2,000  Ngöbe live in Costa Rica. The rest are from northern Panamá, and they cross the border effortlessly.

Less that half the individuals are literate, and most live in extreme poverty on their reserves in the neighboring country.

The defensora de los habitantes also has made a push for better working conditions for the coffee harvesters. The defensora, Monserrat Solano, told the same legislative commission in March that the Ngöbe people on the coffee farms in the Los Santos zone do not have adequate health services, and sometimes not even adequate water.

The migrant workers have no health insurance or insurance for job-related injuries. She said that the health workers at the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social only care for the migrants’ children and pregnant women.

She cited a case where 40 workers claimed their salaries had been withheld, but by the time the legal process moved ahead, the workers had gone home.  The temporary living conditions sometimes also are grim, she said.

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