Colombia | SEATECH




With Maribel Acosta

SEATECH shreds more than just tuna

“I worked myself to the bone for the company and got kicked to the curb”




We met up with Maribel at a noisy supermarket cafeteria in downtown Cartagena. Even though Edna Guzmán –a former SEATECH worker and president of Fundación Manos Muertas– warns me that she’s lost a lot of weight, I’m taken aback by her appearance. Then I realize her haggard looks are a reflection of her profound sadness.


-How old were you when you started working?

-I was thirty something. I can’t remember the date exactly. Ever since I fell ill, I’m having trouble remembering things clearly. But it was when my husband left me alone with our four children. That was when I decided to start working at SEATECH.


-Can you remember what tasks you performed at the company?

-Yes, I was in charge of tuna processing. 


-What was your job like?

-Well, it was very demanding work. We had to meet high production quotas and if we didn’t reach our target, we’d get fired.


The job was characterized by constant repetitive movements and high-speed processing.


But I had no choice. I couldn’t quit because I had four kids to raise and I was the sole breadwinner. All day my hands ached, my lungs suffered and my back hurt…


-How early did your workday start?

-We clocked in at the plant at seven a.m. 


-What time did you have to get up?

-At 4 a.m., because I had to make breakfast for my kids and leave their lunch and dinner ready.


-And what time did you usually finish work?

-We didn’t have a set time. We could work until 5 p.m. or go on until as late as 11 p.m. I’d usually get home at 11 p.m.


-What did you do when you got home?

-When I got home from work the kids would be asleep already. So I wouldn’t see them all day. I only got to see them for a few minutes in the morning.


I’d usually try to have something to eat and take a bath to get the stench of fish off me. But most of the time I’d fall asleep on a chair in the dining room. 


-You mentioned the pain in your back and hands…

-Yes, but I had to keep going without slowing down, or I’d lose my job.


Most times I’d take something for the pain and put an elastic bandage on so I could keep working. One time I had an allergic reaction and got sick, but even though it was obviously caused by the work we were doing at the plant, the company threatened to fire me if I didn’t get better. They were afraid I would contaminate the fish! My body was covered in spots, but when they finally sent a doctor to see me, they had cleared up. It felt like a miracle, because a lot of my fellow workers weren’t so lucky and lost their jobs over that allergy. 


I started feeling constant pain in my hands, back and lungs. But then it got really bad and I began to feel extremely exhausted all the time. My fingers got numb, things slipped from my hands and the pain spread to my arms and shoulders.

-Did you have any breaks during your workday?

-Practically none, because we spent most of the half hour they gave us for lunch standing on line at the cafeteria. 


-Were tuna processing tasks performed on your feet? 

-Yes, we had to stand all day.


-How many days a week did you work?

-Usually from Monday through Friday, but there were many weeks that we also worked Saturdays.


-Did you have time off when you worked for the company? 

-No. We never had a real vacation. The company just gave us time off when production was low or the plant was being cleaned. But that “time off” –if you can call it that– was not paid leave.


-When did you start feeling ill? Do you remember how it began?

-I started feeling constant pain in my hands, back and lungs. But then it got really bad and I began to feel extremely exhausted all the time. My fingers got numb, things slipped from my hands and the pain spread to my arms and shoulders. 


That was when the symptoms got worse, and I asked by boss permission to go to the infirmary. When the doctor saw me he found my chest was all swollen and he gave me a pass to get a check-up at the clinic.


That was my last day of work. I had to have emergency surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome.


-When was that?

-In 2007.


-And are you in pain all the time now?

-Yes, the pain is constant and it’s not always in the same place. Some days I wake up with pain in my hands, other days the pain will be in my back or shoulders.


-You’ve lost a lot of weight…

-When I started working, I weighed 82 kilos. When I was at my worst I was down to 40 kilos and I had to see a nutritionist to help me gain some weight back. Right now I weigh 50 kilos, and I’m a pretty tall person.


-Are you working now?

-I can’t work anymore. My last attempt at work was putting a food stand in front of my house, but I burnt my hand because I couldn’t hold the pots.


Also, like I said before, I suffer from memory loss and lack of concentration. I can hardly go out on my own now, because I get lost and lose track of where I am or what I’m doing. 


-What do you live on?

-Fundación Manos Muertas (literally, “Dead Hands Foundation,” an organization that helps workers who have suffered occupational injuries) helped me get a pension. It’s not much of a monthly income, but I’m very grateful for this help. 


-And what does the company give you?

-Nothing! And that really hurts. I devoted years of my life to the company, putting in hours and hours despite the bad working conditions, and I feel totally cheated.


The company took no responsibility whatsoever and has given me nothing. I worked myself to the bone for the company and got kicked to the curb. If I’d known what was in store for me, I would’ve never worked there. 


I have debts to repay, and there’s a huge difference between my pension and what I used to earn. I receive a minimum wage now, and that’s obviously not enough to support myself.


I live with one of my sons, who doesn’t have a job, and the money from the pension is all I have to pay bills and debts and to support the two of us. Most of the time I have to rely on credit to buy my groceries, and the debts just keep getting bigger.


It’s a vicious circle I can’t get out of because I can’t work and earn more money. It’s a really sad way to live.


-Are there any other of your former fellow workers who are sick?

-Yes, many, but they’re afraid to lose their job if they speak out about their pain. It’s a very hard situation to deal with. I was lucky to get help from Fundación Manos Muertas, and I urge my former fellow workers to reach out to this organization, because I know what they’re going through.


I’ve talked with some of them and they tell me they feel alone and sad and they don’t know what to do. Depression is common among workers who suffer from these ailments, so it’s very important to have the support and companionship I received from Manos Muertas.


-You seem very sad…

-I am very sad. It’s very hard living this way. I also suffer from dizzy spells and headaches, and most recently I’ve started feeling pain in my knees.


I want to be the person I used to be, but the pain won’t let me.


From Cartagena, Gerardo Iglesias


September 19, 2011





Photo: Gerardo Iglesias

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