This article is currently available in Spanish only!
PASO has launched a new campaign in coalition with Sintrasodimac, a young, up-and coming union that represents employees at Homecenter, a retail giant in Colombia. Our staff will help research labor conditions at various stores and distribution centers, develop communications strategies, and conduct advocacy work in Colombia and internationally.
PASO has partnered with UNI Americas to provide comprehensive accompaniment for Sintrasodimac, whose long-term goals include growth, the achievement of improved labor conditions through collective bargaining, and the construction of a revived, more powerful, and more democratic labor movement in Colombia.
Homecenter is operated by a business partnership set up between Chilean multinational Falabella (49%) and Corona, a Colombia-based company (51%). Outside of Colombia, Falabella is active in Chile, Peru, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. According to its website, the group “is one of the largest in Latin America. Its commercial activities are developed in various areas, principally department stores, shopping centers, home improvement warehouses, the commercial finance company CMR, a bank, and Falabella insurance. Today, these businesses make up South America’s most important chain” (translation ours). Corona is a Colombian company that makes and sells construction and home improvement products and has, according to its website, “19 manufacturing plants in Colombia, three in the US, three in Mexico and one in Brazil… generating more than 14,000 jobs” (translation ours).
UNI Americas represents four million workers in the Americas and the Caribbean, and is the regional branch of UNI Global Union, which represents 20 million members of some 9000 unions from 140 countries around the globe.
Last year more than 1,000 new members joined the unions PASO accompanies!
We protect Colombian activists and empower organizers across international borders as agents of change in the struggle for justice in the workplace, environmental protection and lasting social equality through physical accompaniment, grassroots education, organizing, research and advocacy.
The company Enertem SAS, known by its employees in Puerto Gaitan as Bristol, oversees electrical supplies needed to extract oil from Rubiales, Colombia’s largest petroleum reserve. However, the company refused to recognize the union membership of approximately 40 workers this year, alleging their activities are not specific to the oil industry.
Colombia’s industrial petroleum sector union USO filed a grievance with the Labor Ministry in April but has yet to receive any type of response.
In addition, Enertem/Bristol has pressured employees to distance themselves from USO, in what would seem to be a clear violation of workers’ freedom of association.
PASO, USO and their international partners UNITE, UNISON, and the United Steelworkers will continue to monitor this situation closely and work with the appropriate authorities to remedy any illegal behavior or violations of labor rights on the part of subcontracting companies in Colombia’s oil sector.
Read an International Dockworkers Council (IDC) motion in solidarity with Buenaventura HERE.
Read a letter from UK union UNITE in solidarity with Buenaventura HERE.
The following article was first published by In These Times, on Jun 14, 2017.
What You Need to Know About the General Strike That Just Swept Colombia’s Largest Port
Neil Martin and Isaias Cifuentes
Little-noticed by the English-language media, the Colombian city of Buenaventura was brought to a standstill by a weeks-long civic strike, in which Afro-Colombian communities won major commitments from the Colombian government. Waged from May 16 through June 6, the mass protest was organized by people demanding that the government declare a state of social and economic emergency and provide basic quality-of-life improvements for a population that has been targeted by systematic human rights violations for decades. Buenaventura’s ports generate $1.8 billion in yearly revenue, but most of it its 400,000 residents—90 percent of whom are Afro-Colombian—live in poverty.
The mass protest was organized by religious figures, social justice groups, unions, students, community councils and Indigenous people. The first several days of the strike resembled a city-wide block party, with dancing and music concentrated around dozens of peaceful roadblocks. Representatives of the departmental and national governments began to negotiate with the Strike Committee.
But, in the midst of talks, riot police swept through the city in an attempt to restore the flow of vehicular traffic, shooting tear gas into high-density residential neighborhoods. This crackdown provoked a night of havoc, during which several of Buenaventura’s commercial establishments had their windows smashed and goods taken. When protests resumed, they were marked by ongoing confrontations between the police and protesters until June 6, when an agreement was reached between the government and the Strike Committee.
The government’s violent response to the demonstrations has been decried by many, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and a group of U.S. congressional representatives. Buenaventura’s communities ended the strike with celebrations, applauding commitments made by the government that, if met, will end decades of what locals refer to as “state abandonment” and “robbery.” Roughly $517 million is to be spent on development and public services in housing, education, healthcare, infrastructure and water and sewage systems.
Although the strike has been lauded as a success, it also fits into a pattern in Colombia in which communities that represent specific regions or economic sectors see protest as their only option to achieve social change or attract the attention of the government. And once they take this action, their mobilizations tend to be met with violent repression.
Meanwhile, these communities suffer hyper-exploitation and displacement under trade regimes that are global in scale. Buenaventura is Colombia’s largest port and an integral part of Colombia’s trade with the United States, European Union and partner countries in the Pacific Alliance trade block. As a result, port expansion has surged in recent years, promoted by multinational companies including Group TCB, International Container Terminal Services and PSA International. These megaprojects, as well as industrial storage facilities and a touristic wharf renovation project, have contributed to the displacement of urban neighborhoods in the city’s center. Some 20 million tons of freight pass through the city each year, generating more than 2 billion dollars, while roughly 60 percent of the population lives in poverty and 65 percent is unemployed.
Buenaventura is a case study in the challenges associated with the transition to neoliberal policies in the Global South. Colombia’s ports were privatized in 1993, causing drastic reductions in public revenue for Buenaventura and opening a new era of slavery-like working conditions for port employees. In the early 2000s, water services were privatized, and they have deteriorated steadily since. Currently 60 percent of properties have access to sewage system and 76 percent to running water, even though Buenaventura is surrounded by 16 rivers. The city’s hospital closed recently, and educational infrastructure is crumbling. A once robust fishing industry is now little more than a graveyard of rusting ships.
Simultaneously, the dispute for territorial control between factions in Colombia’s civil war has fueled the displacement of the city residents, half of whom are recognized by the state as victims of armed conflict. This, combined with the drug trade and extortion-oriented gangs, has led to more than a thousand homicides in the last ten years and one of the highest rates of internally displaced personas in the hemisphere.
Meanwhile, an almost complete lack of oversight by the national government has led to widespread corruption. The political class sees public resources as booty that is up for the taking, and the city’s catastrophic conditions are largely the responsibility of political parties and regional figures who have ruled the city in alliance the national elite. Figures for attendance in Buenaventura’s public schools exceed the actual number of students by 50,000 children. Former liberal party mayors—including Édgar Roberto Carabalí Mallarino, Freddy Fernando Salas Guaitotó, Jaime Mosquera Borja and Bartolo Valencia Ramos—have been investigated and convicted in corruption cases. One was murdered. The drug trade and paramilitary structures have expanded their activities to include ‘influence trafficking,’ coercion and the purchase of votes—all of which help to conserve the power of the ruling class
All of these factors added to the humanitarian and social crisis in Buenaventura, which boiled over into a 22-day civic strike. While the strike has been suspended, communities demanding dignity and justice face a long struggle ahead.
Photography: Nadège Mazars / Hans Lucas
Did you know American consumers buy 78% of the flowers produced in Colombia, and will spend roughly two billion dollars on this product flowers this Mother’s Day?
Did you know that 65% of the workers who produce these flowers near Bogota are women? Or that these employees only earn around $8.5 per day? That they have been working an average of 84 hours every week for the last month – in preparation for Mother’s Day -with no days off, sometimes sleeping at their work sites?
Read PASO’s new report HERE.
PASO recently accompanied Colombian flower employees to conduct a worker-led investigation, and produce a report, on labor conditions in this sector. Surveys revealed patterns of union-busting, work-related disabilities, and sexual harassment targeting female employees. Some of the more alarming figures:
- 71% of those employees surveyed believed that overtime in peak seasons was obligatory, although laws and regulations state otherwise.
- 16% of employees were working these long houses despite having been diagnosed with conditions such as tendonitis, carpel tunnel syndrome, and torn rotator cuffs, to avoid being fired due to their medical conditions.
- 50% of employees felt their health had been negatively impacted by their jobs; percentages increase with the number of years worked – 76% of those who had worked for more than 20 years suffered from medical conditions, almost all related to repetitive actions at work.
- 20% of the women surveyed reported having suffered sexual harassment or knowing female coworkers who had.
- Less than 200 employees in the Colombian flower sector, of an estimated 13,000, belong to a union.
HELP US SPREAD THE WORD ABOUT THIS SCANDALOUS SITUATION!!! We can raise awareness this weekend among consumers on Facebook and Twitter, and by tagging the Colombian Labor Ministry @MintrabajoCol and @asocolflores
SHARE OUR FACEBOOK POST HERE!
Neil Martin; first published by Labor Notes on March 24, 2017
Sixty thousand women childcare workers in Colombia are on the verge of winning pensions and back pay, after decades of making just half the minimum wage.
Their union, Sintracihobi, has been able to achieve these remarkable results—despite representing only a minority of employees in the childcare sector—with an approach that combines legal action, political advocacy, and mass mobilization.
Sintracihobi has led a 25-year struggle to defend publicly-funded childcare programs and to end discriminatory labor practices that have targeted some of the country’s most vulnerable female and minority workers, excluding them from pension payments and minimum wages.
The union has drawn on innovative protest tactics, often incorporating traditional cultural actions like Afro-Colombian dances with member-led peaceful occupation of public spaces. Equally important, it has relied on a back-to-basics organizing strategy, holding the endless assemblies, rallies, and meetings all over the country necessary to move thousands of people into action.
STRIKE AND TOPLESS PROTEST
The government provides childcare for 1.2 million of the country’s most vulnerable families through a state agency, the Colombian Family Welfare Institute (ICBF), which subcontracts 120,000 childcare workers through various intermediaries. Almost all are women.
These workers traditionally earned less than half the national minimum wage, approximately $200 per month, despite working long hours and putting their own homes at ICBF’s disposal.
A 2012 Constitutional Court decision ordered ICBF to pay all workers the minimum wage, plus healthcare and pension benefits, but the agency refused to comply. So Sintracihobi organized a month-long national strike in October 2013 to pressure the ICBF and the Treasury Ministry to comply with the decision. Thousands of women participated.
Childcare workers set up encampments outside the offices of ICBF. Three weeks into the strike, a group of women in their fifties and sixties resorted to a topless protest in Bogota’s Bolivar Square, drawing increased media attention. In response, the Treasury finally set aside funding to meet the union’s demands.
But big problems remained. Many of Colombia’s childcare providers continue to work into their seventies and eighties, often with work-related disabilities.
The court-mandated pension payments, issued from 2014 on, provided a solution for the next generation of workers—but not for the women who had worked since ICBF programs were launched in the 1980s.
On top of this, the Colombian government has begun to promote the private administration of state-funded childcare programs. Service contracts are being denied to the traditional worker- and parent-run childcare “associations” and instead awarded to “child development centers” run by private NGOs.
A study from the University of the Andes indicated that this predominantly private model is four times as expensive and yields similar results in terms of children’s development. And it has led to the dismissals of thousands of workers over the age of 50 or who suffer from work-related illnesses—with no compensation.
Meanwhile the ICBF and its director Christina Plazas, appointed by President Juan Manuel Santos, have come under policymakers’ scrutiny for alleged nepotism and misappropriation of funds. In early 2016 the union denounced a humanitarian crisis, documenting cases around the country where children enrolled in ICBF programs were dying of malnutrition. The crisis drew wide coverage in the national press.
On April 4, 2016, Sintracihobi went on strike again. Eight thousand women stopped work. Childcare providers marched, sang, danced, set up tents, and camped outside ICBF offices in 24 cities and towns. Other unions, students, and taxi drivers provided the strikers with food and other necessities.
The union demanded that ICBF fix problems with access to food for the children in its programs, end nepotistic contracting practices that favored private foundations, guarantee labor stability for childcare workers, and provide a solution for the pre-2014 outstanding pension payments.
The strike again attracted lots of national press coverage, which put pressure on Director Plazas. The message was simple: bad management, broken promises, and corruption at ICBF had caused a human rights crisis. Children were starving while sick, elderly, and disabled women were forced to keep working to make ends meet. Even in a country where the mass media vilifies unions, this message could not be ignored.
Direct action and news media attention gave the union enough leverage to build a base of support among elected officials and government oversight agencies. That allowed Sintracihobi to negotiate directly with ICBF, as opposed to individual employers.
After a week of negotiations, the union reached an agreement with the ICBF, ranking officials from the ombudsman and inspector general’s offices, and six senators to meet workers’ demands through legislation and internal ICBF policy reforms to be rolled out over the following months.
Sintracihobi then worked with this coalition of senators, led by longtime ally Alexander Lopez of the left-leaning coalition party Polo, to draft and pass comprehensive legislation, establishing that:
- food provided by ICBF must meet nutritional instead of caloric criteria
- childcare providers must be reimbursed for the costs of equipment such as stoves and refrigerators
- a pension subsidy equivalent to the minimum wage must be made available to women who have worked in ICBF programs for more than 20 years
The legislation also improved job security for outsourced ICBF workers and opened the door to the possibility that these jobs could be brought into the public sector in the future.
Colombia’s congress approved the bill in December, but Santos has refused to sign it into law. However, this came on the heels of a landmark decision in which the Colombian Constitutional Court ruled that ICBF must pay pension and back pay to childcare workers for years worked prior to 2014.
The joy was short-lived, however. Just a day after the court’s decision, three members of the union’s legal team received death threats.
The culprit has not been identified, but the motive would seem to be tied to the pending implementation of the ruling—one puts the cost at $285 million.
Anti-union violence has been on the decline recently in Colombia. Still, an average of 27 union activists were murdered annually between 2011 and 2015.
It’s clear that the government will look for ways to avoid complying with the sentence. That’s the union’s next big challenge.
ROOTS OF SUCCESS
Sintracihobi’s national leaders are childcare workers who devote their free time to the union. Olinda Garcia, president since 1989, spends almost every weekend traveling around the country to support and help organize local branches.
“We have good turnout when we organize protests and strikes,” she said, “because we show results and because we spend a lot of time teaching our members and supporters about their legal rights and how they have been denied.”
The childcare workers have also gained support by fighting for good public services for children and vulnerable families. “Our union demands that our members provide quality childcare,” said Stella Hoyos, a national officer and childcare provider from Popayan, “and that the government offer adequate nutrition, age-specific pedagogy, and equal treatment for all children.” These issues are given priority in the union’s political advocacy work.
Less than 4 percent of Colombia’s workers are union members, but this number has increased every year since 2012. Sintracihobi’s work provides an example for other unions in Colombia and internationally. It demonstrates how a well-organized minority can use direct action plus public opinion to win major benefits for all workers in a given sector.
Neil Martin is the executive director of PASO International. UNISON, the U.K.’s largest public sector union, supports PASO to develop communications, member education, and external organizing strategies in partnership with Sintracihobi.
Operations at Colombia’s largest oil concession, Rubiales, changed hands in 2016 from multinational Pacific E&P to Colombia’s Ecopetrol. Since the transition oil and energy sector USO has launched an external organizing campaign with the region’s workers, resulting in some 300 new members and opening possibilities for further growth in the region.
With the support of PASO, Justice for Colombia, and international unions UNISON and Workers Uniting, USO has staffed a team composed of organizers, attorneys, and international observers to coordinate this work in the inaccessible reaches of Puerto Gaitan, Meta, a region torn by corruption, weak institutional oversight, and the resurgence of paramilitary organizations.
An analysis of labor violations in the region has revealed practices such as the application of short-term contracts through outsourcing firms, wages lower than those provided in other parts of the country, working hours that exceed legal limits with no overtime pay, a two-tier structure in which direct workers are paid more than outsourced employees, violations of requirements to provide jobs for the local population, and anti-union repression.
USO is currently engaging with cafeteria service provider Duflo, for example, in representation of workers who have sought the union’s help in fighting discontinuous shifts during which employees work on a given day from 6am-9am, 1pm-3pm, and 4pm-6pm with no pay in between these hours.
Meanwhile, an arbitration panel has ordered Pacific E&P, still one of the largest operators in the region, to re-open a collective bargaining process with USO on February 20, that has been on hold for more than a year. Read USO’s press release HERE (Spanish only).
USO is confident that the leadership it provides in these procedures, as well as working to enforce its national bargaining agreement with Ecopetrol, will continue to attract new members, even in a municipality marked by a history of intense anti-union tactics on the part of oil companies, their subsidiaries, and a vast array of industry outsourcing companies.
Aldemar Parra Garcia, the president of the community organization Asociacion Apícola de El Hatillo, was shot on January 8 in the coal mining town of El Paso, northern Cesar. Contagio Radio reported that Parra was shot by hired assassins and had received death threats related to his activism in opposition to the relocation of the El Hatillo community due to the environmental impacts of local coal mining operations.
According to the article, “This area in the Cesar department has been affected for years by mining activities. Within a radius of 30 km encompassing [the neighboring towns of] La Jagua and La Loma, there are seven projects belonging to five companies. The mines that surround Boqueron, Plan Bonito, and El Hatillo include Calenturitas operated by Prodeco, Descanso Norte and Pribbenow operated by Drummond, and El Hatillo/La Francia operated by Colombian Natural Resources (CNR)” (our translation).
PASO and its international allies urge the Colombian authorities to investigate this crime, protect community and environmental activists, and provide measures to ensure the safety of human rights defenders in the region of Cesar and throughout the country.
On Friday, November 18, death threats were sent to three members of the coalition working to protect the labor rights of Colombia’s public sector childcare workers represented by the union Sintracihobi.
Juan David Gomez, a staff member with Colombian Senator Alexander Lopez’ legislative team, and Daniel Marin, a union attorney at Mantilla, Marin y Alvarez, received separate text messages (images below) in which they were informed they would be dismembered if they continued working in the Bogota area. The only connection between these two professionals is their work with Sintracihobi, where they collaborate to defend labor rights and quality services in the childcare programs run by the Colombian Institute for Family Welfare.
Andres Leon, a staff member at Sintracihobi who works closely with Marin and Gomez, also received an anonymous phone call in which he was intimidated and insulted with similar language. Leon was employed by PASO from May through October, 2016.
We urge the international community to work with Colombian authorities in order to ensure the safety of these three individuals, as well as all of those working with the Sintracihobi coalition, including union officials and PASO staff, so that we can continue to peacefully defend the human rights of millions of the most vulnerable Colombian children.
For additional information please contact email@example.com or (Col) 311 561 8403.