Colombia    TRADE UNIONS




Violence and its many manifestations



A valley of sugarcane,

a mountain of poverty

A history of sugar and strong ties


Like everywhere else in the world, the very lucrative sugar -and now ethanol- business is concentrated in the hands of very few who control and manipulate the economic and political workings of the very state.


In 2008, the 56-day strike in Valle del Cauca, southwestern Colombia, laid bare the hardships suffered by the people living in the towns scattered like gray islands in a green sea of sugarcane.


-“Look, son, the sugarcane and poverty you see around here go hand in hand,” sentences Adolfo Palacios, an old sugarcane cutter who has spent his entire life wielding a machete.


-“Were you able to save anything in all your years working as a cutter?” I ask him.

-“Yes, a wealth of sorrow,” he answers, a sarcastic smile on his face.


Social exclusion is the identifying mark of sugar production. Sugarcane came here by the hand of the Spanish conquistadors, and ever since it has fed on the most primitive of fertilizers: human exploitation.


In Valle del Cauca, cutters typically work grueling 12 to 14 hour days, and even so they spend most of the month begging for food.


This brutal exploitation goes hand in hand with the Associated Work Cooperatives, a scandalous form of labor fraud that is the distinguishing mark of Colombian agricultural production. These fake cooperatives have dropped anchor to bring down the cost of labor, avoid payment of social benefits, and elude payment of overtime and holiday hours. In addition, the members of these cooperatives are prevented from joining trade unions.


In the midst of the strike, I went back to speak with the old cane cutter again.

-“What is your greatest wish now?” Palacios shakes his head slowly, from side to side, pokes at the ravaged soil with his machete, mulling over my question, and then answers firmly…

-“An employer! That’s what I want! An employer!”


Forty-six days into the strike, all Palacios wanted was someone to negotiate with, someone who would show their face and take responsibility. The Associated Work Cooperatives play another, no less important role: that of  dematerializing the worker-employer relationship.


That way, by obscuring who’s who in the relationship, the many who are exploited by a handful cannot identify their exploiters.



A violence that does not let up

and the ILO blunders itself into a scandal

Tales of death and looking the other way


The sugarcane cutters strike began on September 15, 2008 and ended on November 11. That same year, 76 trade unionists were killed in the world, 49 of them were Colombian. In 2009, the death toll for unionists was 101 worldwide, almost half of them (48) were Colombian.


In 2010, an International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) report revealed that in the last decade six of every ten union activists killed in the world were Colombian. The report also indicated that from January 1, 1986 to April 30, 2010, a total of 2,832 unionists were killed in Colombia, and during that same period unionists suffered violent attacks at a rate of nine per week.


On June 5, 2010, the ILO, by some weird magic, removed Colombia from its black list of 25 countries penalized for violating international labor standards and failing to protect human rights.


In the first five months of 2010, an estimated 17 unionists had been murdered in Colombia, and by the end of the year the number of murders had risen to 51, according to the National School for Unions (Escuela Nacional Sindical). That was more than half of the 90 murders of unionists reported worldwide.


The same day that the ILO announced that everything was OK in Colombia, Hernán Abdiel Ordoñez Dorado was slain in the city of Cali. Hernán was the treasury officer of the Union of Prison Workers. He was gunned down by hired gunmen on motorcycle. He was 39 years old.


As the labor movement watched in outrage, Álvaro Uribe, president of Colombia, riding high on the ILO’s blunder, put the country up for sale to the United States and the European Union.




From Montevideo, Gerardo Iglesias


June 8, 2012







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