Simón Santana Farías




Simón Santana, a victim of unsafe
working conditions in Uruguay


The transnational corporation Bimbo faces court actions
over fatal work accident


Simón was only 25. He was told to clean a machine that was running. The company was not complying with mandatory safety standards. He was working unsupervised. The machine had no protective guards. His belt was caught in the moving gears. His mother Alicia Farías denounced that his death could have been prevented. The case has been brought before civil and criminal courts, as well as labor courts, where a hearing was held on Monday, December 8.



Simón Santana Farías was about to turn 26. That fatal day he had been working for three and a half hours, cleaning a cooling machine in the company Panificadora Bimbo del Uruguay S.A., located in the outskirts of Montevideo, where he had started working in early 2008.


There had been cutbacks in personnel and on that day Simón was alone and unsupervised when his belt was caught in the machine’s gears. A whole 15 minutes went by before anyone came to his aid, but nothing could be done to save him. Simón Santana’s death exposed the total disregard for safety in the workplace exhibited by transnational corporations in Uruguay, corporations that come to the region in search of cheap labor and refuse to implement proper safety measures. According to reports by the International Union of Food Workers (IUF) and Uruguay’s trade union federation, PIT-CNT the situation of workers in the transnational corporations that operate in Uruguay is characterized by low wages and a young, inexperienced workforce, with workers that are constantly rotated or replaced if they so much as attempt to form a trade union. Simón’s mother, 50-year-old Alicia Farías (who named her son after Simón Riquelo, one of the children disappeared by the Uruguayan police forces during the dictatorship), is demanding justice. But above all, she does not want her son’s death to have been in vain and is calling for occupational safety to be considered a human right. “We can’t allow multinational corporations to have no regard for human integrity, to treat it as if it were worthless. It’s not that we didn’t expect it, but we can’t allow them to come here and take advantage of us, paying meager wages and not guaranteeing even the most basic safety conditions,” she told LA REPUBLICA. The outcome of an investigation conducted by inspectors of the Ministry of Labor and Social Security (MTSS) confirmed that the company was operating in violation of several provisions of the Occupational Accident Prevention Act (Law No. 5032), its regulatory Decree No. 406/1988, and Decree No. 103/1996 which ratifies UNIT (the Uruguayan Technical Standards Institute) guidelines. The company was not complying with applicable regulations in force, and if the machine had had protection guards, the accident would have never occurred. The Simón Santana case is now being investigated in a civil court proceeding (where the conciliation hearing failed), in a criminal court proceeding (where Judge Graciela Eustachio is conducting an inquiry), and in a labor court proceeding, under which a hearing was held at MTSS headquarters in Montevideo on December 8.


The importance of the name Simón


“During the last years of the dictatorship and the democratic transition, we formed Mate Luna, a community of puppeteers, and we used to perform with other cultural groups like Girasol. We lived in a cooperative in the working-class neighborhood of Peñarol. We formed the puppeteer group and worked with the kids in Firulete, a children’s carnival outfit. In 1982, I got pregnant and we initially thought it was going to be a girl. That was when we first heard Sara Méndez’ story and how her infant son, Simón Riquelo, had been taken away from her. Then, on November 24 of that year, my son was born, and my husband, Ronald Santana, and I both immediately decided to name him Simón, after the missing baby,” Alicia Farías recalls. Alicia’s face lights up when she remembers those years, a time when she participated in numerous mobilizations, soup kitchens, cooperatives and social activities, taking her puppet show and her two kids, baby Simón and his older brother Facundo, across the country. The two boys were present, in their parents’ arms, at significant events in the early 1980s, like the historic May 1st march -the first after so many years of dictatorship- and the huge rally for democracy at the Obelisco that came to be known as the “river of freedom,” where Mate Luna set up a giant puppet next to the tent of the human rights organization Serpaj. Simón and Facundo grew up behind the puppet stage. “Simón was a restless boy. He even got lost in the crowd at some of these activities. We would take our eyes off him for a second and he’d be gone, but then a little while later he’d be right next to the stage and the sound crew would be calling for his parents to come fetch him,” says Alicia, and laughs at the memory of her small son, and for a moment all the pain she’s been suffering these last three months evaporates. In the late 1990s, Alicia’s marriage breaks up and she emigrates to Brazil with her children. Simón was 15 when they moved and he had already completed a computer maintenance and assembly course. In Curitiba, Brazil, he continued with his technical training in computers. In late 2007, they came back to Uruguay. Simón could only find work in a cleaning company and it was that experience that helped him secure a position in the bread manufacturer Bimbo. “Simón was a good kid, he always followed the orders that his superiors gave him,” Alicia says.


“It’s an opportunity to grow...”


Simón was really excited when he was hired by Bimbo. “It’s a factory and a great opportunity to grow, you know? I won’t be washing windows forever,” he told his mother. He began working in January 2008 and quickly became an efficient worker of the Mexican-based transnational corporation. He was assigned to cleaning tasks in the Maintenance Department. But in May he suffered his first accident when he cut his hand on a heavy sheet of steel that slipped from his grip. “He almost cut a tendon,” Alicia explains. He was only given a couple of sick days covered by the State Insurance Bank, and then he had to go back to work. “I thought that that was the worst risk he would have to face. I was under the impression that he worked in a very large bakery or something, cleaning trays and that sort of thing. One day he told me about a special task he had to do every two weeks, which was cleaning that cooling machine. He didn’t want to do that. I even told him to ask if he could work in the plant and he told me that he was thinking of applying for a transfer, but to work in another plant in Paraguay, where he had more possibilities of being promoted. He had discussed this with the company’s counselor. But he wasn’t a very ambitious boy; he was different from his brother in that sense.” Meanwhile, Simón would not give up his passion for computers. He sold his cell phone, took out a loan, and started buying parts to build his own computer. He even assembled a computer for a coworker. "His brother, Facundo, told me that he was very good at it. It was what he really loved. He would come home from work and go straight to his computer things. He also loved the movies and music. He listened to bands like No Te Va Gustar, Bajofondo, Omar, and Bersuit. He was a wholesome boy, although he wasn’t very much into sports. He was very close to his family.” Shortly after being hired by Bimbo, Simón told his mother that there had been some labor problems there. The workers were not organized in a trade union, and the workforce was made up mostly of young people who were paid low wages and did not last long on the job. A classic example of how a transnational corporation operates. The cleaning crew consisted of five people, but four months ago the company fired two of them when it cut back on personnel. “I spoke to some of his coworkers after what happened, and I could tell that they were afraid,” Alicia says.


“Caught in the gears and pulled in” 


On September 3, Simón went to work like on any ordinary day. Three hours later he would suffer a serious work accident that would cost him his life. There are contradictory versions of how the accident happened. Simón’s mother was told one thing by company officers, and the police reports say another thing. The company ordered that one of the cooling machines be cleaned while it was running, and Simón was alone, working by himself, when his belt got caught on the gears and he was pulled into the machine. The investigation would reveal that he was trapped in the machine for 15 minutes before anyone came to his aid. According to the report of the Ministry of Labor and Social Security’s General Inspection Office: “During the cleaning of cooling machine #1 and as the worker came near the equipment’s access area, where there is a gap in the platform and the machine’s transmission system is located, the worker’s belt was caught in the transmission system and he was pulled into the machine.”


According to the investigation conducted by the MTSS’ General Inspection Office, Simón “was probably trying to go from one side of the platform to the other when the safety belt he was wearing got caught in the cooling machine’s transmission system, snagged by the moving discs that had no protective guards.” The MTSS report -a copy of which LA REPUBLICA was able to obtain- also indicates that the fatal accident occurred due to both technical and human errors. With respect to the technical error, there was a “mechanical hazard” because the system had no safety shields, “thus exposing the workers to the risk of being dragged, crushed and trapped.” The investigation report goes on to say that the machine was running, there was no safety procedure in place, nor were there any safety signs. With respect to the human error, it points out that “the company failed to identify the mechanical hazard (posed by the transmission system and unguarded moving parts” and states that “the task of supervision is performed simultaneously with other tasks” and “it is evident that the supervisor performs the same tasks as the workers he supervises, and must do it at the same time, so that supervision is not constant.”


Media silence


The family’s attorney, Luis Rodríguez Turrina, is confident that the evidence gathered in the technical investigations will be enough to prove that the company is responsible for Simón Santana’s death, and his only concern is that the media have practically ignored the case. “When it happened it was featured on the news of one of the local TV networks, but nothing more has been said about it since then,” he points out. The silence surrounding Simón’s death also extends to Bimbo workers, as the company adopted a business-as-usual attitude and only closed down the plant the night of the accident, and it only did so to the place the guards and protective shields that the fatal machine had been missing before the accident.


“The following day, Bimbo trucks were already out on the street distributing the company’s bread products,” Alicia Farías says. She wrote an open letter to the public, denouncing her son’s death, and the letter is now being distributed worldwide by the IUF’s Latin American Regional Office. The case has also been taken up by Uruguay’s trade union federation, PIT-CNT, whose leader Walter Migliónico told LA REPUBLICA that 60 percent of all occupational accidents in Uruguay occur among workers who have very few months on the job.


“When tasks are organized in such a way that workers are exposed to the hazard of coming into contact with machinery, things usually turn out badly,” he said. “We don’t want this to happen again. I don’t want Simón’s death to have been in vain. I don’t know…. we just can’t allow multinational corporations to have no regard for human integrity, as if it were worthless. It’s not that we didn’t expect it, but we can’t allow them to come here and take advantage of us, paying meager wages and not guaranteeing even a minimum of safety measures. Labor laws were violated here. These companies don’t care about anything. If we don’t like how things are, they close down their plants and relocate somewhere else. That’s how many have been acting. They have capital, and they go where labor is cheapest and where it won’t stir up any trouble. There’s a lot of talk lately of making the streets safe, and it is true that we’re living in dangerous times. But my son died because of something that could’ve been avoided; he died because the company he worked at failed to implement proper safety measures,” Simón’s mother told LA REPUBLICA.


The Bimbo bear in Uruguay


The Bimbo brand, identified with a cute little bear, is the leading bread company in the world and it is owned by independent economic conglomerates based in Mexico and Spain.


The company was born in Mexico in 1945 and twenty years later opened a branch in Granollers, Barcelona. In 1978, the entire stock of the Spanish division was sold, and later, in 2001, the stock was purchased by the Sara Lee Bakery Group. Meanwhile, the Mexican-based Grupo Bimbo expanded to 18 countries of Latin America, Europe and Asia, and now has a total of 70 plants and 900 distribution centers, employing over 80 thousand workers.


In 2004 its sales were worth 4.76 billion dollars. In January 2006, Bimbo entered the Uruguayan market through the acquisition of three companies -Walter M. Doldán, Kaiser, and Los Sorchantes-, making a 7-million-dollar investment. A year later it purchased Pancatalán and then El Maestro Cubano. It presently holds 90 percent of the market of manufactured bread products, and 25 percent of the cookies, crackers and baked snacks market. Now it is set to take on the chocolate market, through its latest acquisition, the local company Plucky S.A., a family business that obtained the Ricard chocolate brand along with the machinery of the bankrupt Pernigotti company.


Quick fix


“In Uruguay, employers are responsible under the law for providing a safe working environment for their workers. This duty was established as early as 1915, with the Occupational Accident Prevention Act. It is the counterpart to the worker’s subordination under the work contract. When you work for someone, you are placed in position of subordination, because that someone is going to tell you what you have to do. This is a fact recognized by law. But the law also recognizes that the counterpart to the worker’s subordination is that employers have an obligation to provide a safe working environment for their workers. This law is crystal clear: as of it enactment, employers are bound by a duty to implement proper safety measures to prevent workers from suffering accidents when using machinery. Work accidents are not just caused by bad luck or Divine punishment; they are the result of how work is organized. Employers have an objective responsibility; they have the duty to provide safe conditions. After the accident, the company fixed the problem in only four hours. All it had to do was put a small plate over the unprotected area and secure it with four bolts. No large engineering project was necessary; just a protective guard to cover the gears that cost Simón his life,” the PIT-CNT labor leader Walter Migliónico explained to LA REPUBLICA .


“The accident would not have occurred”


“The investigation reveals that the accident was the result of the multiple causes identified and the company’s failure to comply with applicable occupational safety and health regulations. If the cooling machine’s transmission system had been properly protected, this accident would not have occurred.” These are the conclusions of the report from the investigation conducted by the MTSS work inspector.


Roger Rodríguez

Republished from de La República, Uruguay

December 9, 2008




Photos: Patricia Iglesias


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