The horrendous exploitation of the porters of the Inca trail is nothing new. For decades, many righteous people and media outlets across the web have echoed the porters’ struggle to get better working conditions. At last, such deplorable working conditions seem to have finally come to an end, at least on paper, which is what the new 31614 porter’s law, approved by the Peruvian Congress and signed by the Peruvian president Pedro Castillo, appears to bring about.
For those who don’t know about the mistreatment of porters, an overwhelming majority of these hard-working men and women complain about carrying excessive weight in their bundles, way beyond the 20KG /45l limit. Also, they receive poor salaries, lack food, proper sleeping conditions, and inadequate gear to haul the necessary supplies for tourists to accomplish this famous trek.
Read this article to get acquainted with the struggle of the porters working conditions.
Despite the good intentions behind the conception of this new law, many questions, big and small, have popped up regarding the implementation of such a law and its actual effects on porters, tourists, and tour operators alike.
What is the new law, and how is it different from the previous one?
On a fundamental level, some aspects of the previous law have remained, such as the weight limits that porters carry, which are 20kg (45 lbs) for men and 15kg (34 lbs) for women. Also, tour operators are obliged to provide porters with food and proper camping gear, such as suitable clothing for the trekking activity, including shoes, sleeping pads, and tents.
What is new
The new law requires that the new salary that porters make for an entire four-day trip is 140 USD, which is more than double what they earn in 2022. Also, Tour operators must provide porters with a health insurance plan and provide an accident insurance policy.
In addition, the Peruvian government agrees to build shelters for porters to sleep on the trail and implements the area of rapid assistance in case of accidents with the permanent stay of health personnel.
Furthermore, porters must rest for five days before they start another trip and 30% of the resources collected by the Ministry of Culture and SERNANP, are assigned to the Regional Federation of Inca Trail Porters “Daniel Estrada Pérez” to promote and encourage the tourist activity, as well as to create a solidarity fund for porters to improve their working and social conditions.
What is missing and where things stand at the moment?
The new law does not consider the inclusion of women as something worth encouraging nor establish a mandatory quota of women to increase their participation in this industry.
Also, it needs to provide a clear path for enforcing this law to keep everyone involved accountable as it assigns the task of enforcing it to SUNAFIL, a well know government institution with a dubious reputation regarding the enforcement of fair labor practices.
Moreover, the current law protecting porters has been in place since 2003. Despite the differences between the new and old laws, the problem has always been how to enforce them properly.
The greediness of some operators and real hurdles to effectively run a sustainable model on the Inca trail added to corruption, and the collaboration of some park rangers in the Machu Picchu sanctuary has always had porters on the losing side. Moreover, the porter’s federation doesn’t have a say in how operators are held accountable, which substantially limits their ability to find meaningful change. Under these circumstances, what happened before will likely happen again as no clear path to enforce the new law has been established.
It is worth noting that the exploitative conditions of Inca Trail porters were caused mainly by irresponsible tour operators trying to maximize their profits and corrupt government officials in charge of enforcing the law turning a blind eye to these horrible conditions.
Some dishonest tour operators make sure porters go across the first checkpoint carrying the maximum weight allowed. However, using several tricks to ‘avoid being caught,’; they force the porters to carry extra weight as soon as they reach the first campsite.
This problem is not exclusive to the tour outlets. Corruption runs rampant in almost every Peruvian public institution. According to a survey made in 2022, 80% of people believe corruption is the main problem in Peru. The numbers don’t lie; corruption has plagued even the highest spheres of power in Peru. Three out of four ex-Peruvian presidents are in jail, expecting extradition or facing criminal charges for corruption, while one other committed suicide before getting arrested for the same reasons.
In June 2022, a group of Peru’s Ministry of Culture employees (locally known as GERCETUR), including the Machu Picchu park director, was sacked after protests demanding their heads took place in Machu Picchu. As always, corruption was at the center of it. Later, authorities discovered that people were buying Machu Picchu tickets to resell at higher prices, all with the collaboration of workers inside this Peruvian institution.
What does this mean anyway?
No matter how good of a law this is, porters will again be at the mercy of corrupt tour operators and their acolytes within the park institutions. ‘It would be very naive to think these park rangers will enforce the new law faithfully. Historically their role has been to follow the wishes of powerful tour operators turning a blind eye to the abusive practices against porters’;, said Miguel Mayta from the porters federation.
The real problem
Honest tour operators have always experienced a conflict between the service they provide tourists and the number of porters available to deliver that. It has always been a complex issue to deal with. The park laws regulate the amount of weight and porters allowed on the Inca trail, which limits the array of things provided for tourists.
Since 2003, tour operators have substantially improved their clients’ services to stay competitive. For instance, they provide them with several free unnecessary excessive goodies, such as portable bathrooms, showers, cooking classes, and even free porters to carry their personal belongings. All of it has only exacerbated the working conditions of the porters as they have to transport these things while being deprived of the essential items to work decently, such as food, shelter, and proper bags to carry stuff.
Just think about this: Porters transport everything for hikers to have a comfortable adventure. Tourists eat well and sleep in warm tents, while porters starve during the day and sleep in bathrooms or tents without floors or insulation at night.
Will the new law work?
Hopefully, yes, although a great majority of porters believe that their ability to work freely is threatened by a clause in the law mandating that they rest for five days after every trip.
Also, the new law does not create the conditions for more women to be included in this industry, as it is much cheaper to hire men only to do this job. For instance, women porters carry 5kg less than men. To carry 60kg, tour operators prefer to hire 3 men instead of 4 women. Hiring women involves higher costs, more salaries, food, entrance fees, insurance, and other expenses.
Including women as porters on the Inca trail has been a difficult challenge. After a few years of moving forward to consolidate their presence on the Inca Trail, now this endeavor has become more challenging as it becomes an issue closely related to profit making.
Also, it might work effectively for a few months in the beginning, but once the dust settles, things are likely to go back to the same corruptive ways as before and might even get worse for porters considering the levels of corruption in Peru.
How will this affect travelers?
The bottom line is that the new law will increase the operational costs of the Inca Trail in 200% to 300% compared to those of 2022. Also, the prices of tours on the Inca Trail will increase by up to 50% or 100% more than the 2022 prices. This was announced by representatives of the Inca Trail tour operators in a Tv interview. It is improbable that operators will deliver tours without raising prices. Some tour operators are already in conversations with clients to voluntarily agree to pay the extra costs for trips they already signed up for, which implementing this law will mean.
Some travelers will likely look for cheaper alternatives, while others might withdraw their requests to hike on the Inca Trail. The problem with looking for cheaper alternatives is that it perpetuates why porters have fought for so long to get a new law—because the only way to implement cheaper alternatives will force the porters to illegally carry excess weight.
Moreover, cheap tours have a heavy toll on porters, especially those who offer free perks such as free porters, portable bathrooms or cooking classes.
A chance to turn things more sustainable and the role of tourists.
Now, more than ever, hiking on the Inca Trail provides a chance for hikers to play a positive fundamental role concerning sustainable travel.
First, by choosing an ethical tour operator and, secondly, by holding tour operators accountable for their labor practices.
The fact that tourists will pay more for these Inca trail tours gives them an excellent opportunity to demand that porters receive fair and decent treatment and that tour operators treat them with dignity and respect.
Furthermore, there is a massive risk for porters to be cheated again from these well-earned benefits even if good-hearted tourists agree to pay more for their tours. For decades, the bottom line has been all tour operators are cared for, and it is doubtful that that will change with the new law. I hate to say this, but chaos breeds opportunity; this is an excellent opportunity for irresponsible operators to make more money at the expense of tourists and porters.
The new law allows tour operators to rebrand themselves as sustainable, responsible, etc. Tourists will pay more, but on-the-ground conditions for porters might remain the same if tourists do not play their role as caretakers of the Inca trail porters that make their trips possible.
There is plenty of evidence to believe such a thing. For instance, for many years, tour operators have raised money speaking on behalf of the porters. During the pandemic, for example, some tour operators staged fundraisers to help their porters despite getting hundreds of thousands and even millions of USD distributed to tour operators through PPPs from the Peruvian government. To this point, we have yet to learn the fate of these funds, whether they followed up with helping the porters, the amount they gave them, or the form of help they gave them. But to date, the porters have received nothing, although they did not work for more than two years and were obliged to turn to farming or mining to care for their families. To add insult over injury, the fundraisers were done without the knowledge and permission of the porters, porters federation in complete disregard for the porters’ federation authority.
Any positive action, be it a law or an initiative to empower the porters,m coming from the Peruvian government or any private organization should be welcome and supported by all involved in the travel industry.
The time to treat porters as cattle while some people get rich from exploiting them should be cast into history’s dustbin. However, this will only happen when laws consider the opinion and consent of the Inca Trail porter’s leadership and when they are given the power to enforce these laws.
Without that, they are deprived of all means to safeguard their interests, especially when they have to confront the power of unethical powerful tour operators and corrupt government officials.
This new law may be good for the porters, but only time will tell. In the meantime, it’s up to trekkers to book with ethical and responsible tour operators and keep an eye on how porters are treated to ensure we don’t lose the hard-earned momentum we’ve gained.