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With Medardo Cuestas

Inversiones Palo Alto Gnecco Espinosa:

A slave-driving company stuck

in the feudal era


As of last week, 185 workers laid off by this palm oil planting and processing company in the Ciénaga region are occupying the Palo Alto establishment. Sirel spoke with Medardo Cuestas, treasury secretary of the National Union of Agroindustry Workers (SINTRAINAGRO), who visited the site and gives an account of the situation.

-When did you travel to Ciénaga and what did you find there?
-I went on Friday the 15th, the day of the incident, and got as far as the city of Santa Marta, which is where the Palo Alto establishment is located. There I met with the Union's governing committee and other representatives of the 185 workers who have been fired by the Inversiones Palo Alto Gnecco Espinosa company. Many of these workers had been with the company as long as 30 years, and the more recently hired had worked for five or six years.

We were informed that the manager, Ramón Tovar, was under Police protection, and also had personal bodyguards and was guarded by heavily armed civilians. The workers are still occupying the establishment, as at the gates there are groups of people from the so-called “associated work cooperatives” ready to take over the place, replacing the workers.

The workers give a very frightening account of the incident that occurred there last week. Members of these armed groups came into the establishment firing guns against the workers, who had to run for cover. Then the Police arrived, but instead of protecting and guarding the unarmed workers, they protected the aggressors, the manager and a representative of the Municipality who was there.

Tovar said that the workers had been dismissed and that they were no longer his responsibility, even though no dismissal papers have been signed yet. He added that if these workers wanted to continue working, they would have to accept a new contract and start anew. Otherwise he would hire associated work cooperatives and would take no responsibility for whatever happened.

He said all this in front of the Police, the municipal representative and the other armed men who were present at that moment.

-How did you react to that situation?
-One has to be very careful when faced with such feudal practices, because they can hurt someone at any time and nobody would know who's responsible. So we realized that we must remain united and have everyone very well identified, so that we won't be infiltrated by someone looking to cause another incident.

We were able to do that and we have started denouncing the situation both in the country and abroad. That very afternoon, on Friday, the man who was responsible for the morning's threats and gunfire, Alexander Ramírez, went up to the workers and told them, right there in front of the Police, that he was going to shoot out anyone who stayed and occupied the establishment.

The violence that day was such that several employees who worked close to management were thrown out into the street, giving them practically no time to pick up their things. This happened to the nurse who was forced out, in her underwear almost, from the house where she lives and works, and it was the case of other employees -a secretary and a production chief- who were also abused and had their belongings thrown out into the street.

The company's behavior is dreadful; it was even telling people with 25 years or more on the job -workers who are near retirement- to sign a new contract and begin afresh. It's outrageous to see the sad state these people are in and how they are abused by these slave-driving companies.  


We see this as a serious violation of labor and human rights; and we say that shooting at unarmed, peaceful civilians is a criminal act.

-Do you know what's happening today?
-I was just informed that things have improved slightly, that the Police has changed its attitude and is now protecting the workers. This morning the municipal mayor visited the site to hear the workers' version of what happened on Friday and file the corresponding reports.

But this was only possible thanks to the quick actions by the IUF, the United Workers’ Federation (CUT) and SINTRAINAGRO, and their appeals to the national government and the international labor movement.

-What is your evaluation of the situation today? What can happen?
-I'm just afraid that there may be a confrontation, because this manager is very intolerant and is always looking to provoke the workers. It's like he's living in the past, because he imposes semi-slavery working conditions.

-What is the social situation in that region?
It's one of enormous poverty and great destitution. People are living on less than the minimum wage and have absolutely no opportunities. The worst, though, is that the area is rife with illegal armed groups, bands of hired guns who impose the law of the companies.

These people run the area like their own backyard. Moreover, palm oil crops are grown in very solitary conditions -huge plantations with almost nobody living on them. Who's going to go in there to protect the workers? They're exposed to the rule of hired guns and the total impunity with which these immoral businesses operate.

-Is illiteracy and hunger widespread?
-Yes, pretty much.

-How much does the average palm oil laborer earn?
-The minimum wage in Colombia is currently 265 dollars a month, and in palm oil production nobody earns more than 230 dollars working full time. The conflict with these 185 workers began because they were defending that pay; they weren't even claiming their full rights.

The company's behavior is dreadful; it was even telling people with 25 years or more on the job -workers who are near retirement- to sign a new contract and begin afresh. It's outrageous to see the sad state these people are in and how they are abused by these slave-driving companies.

The situation is truly shocking, and hard to believe if you don't witness it firsthand. SINTRAINAGRO sees its share of conflict with other companies, but we've never been up against something like this; never before had we dealt with a company that goes as far as committing crimes, violating the fundamental human rights of their workers.

It's truly an appalling situation. What happens, also, is that in Urabá, the banana region, for example, the Union has a long-established relationship with the companies that operate there, and has reached significant agreements that have been maintained over the years. That creates a very different reality, which is continuously put to the test but never comes to such condemnable extremes of repression, intimidation and manipulation.

-Are there any meetings scheduled now?
-Yes. A meeting between the authorities of the Labor Ministry and the Union was scheduled for today. And the company's legal representatives are being summoned to begin discussing all of these issues.

-What's the situation of the injured worker?
-Fortunately, he's out of danger. His wound has been treated and he's recovering well. But it's a miracle that nobody was killed or seriously injured. 



From Montevideo, Carlos Amorín


January 26, 2010




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