A shark in tuna clothing


Upon their return from Colombia, Swedish journalists Gunnar Brulin and Malin Klingzell-Brulin, of the Scandinavian magazine Mål & Medel, published several articles chronicling the situation of SEATECH workers in Cartagena. Here, Sirel reproduces one of their stories.


At the City Gross supermarket in Stockholm, we buy canned tuna imported from Colombia and sold under the brand name Natuna for ten kronor a can.


But with every can we’re not just buying a serving of protein-rich fish. Packed inside the shiny tin is also a dirty story of how a transnational corporation employs ethical marketing to give an appearance of fairness and responsibility it doesn’t live up to.


Mål & Medel traveled to the port city of Cartagena, in Colombia, to meet with the union of workers of the tuna canning factory. Their account portrayed an employer that is far from being fair and responsible.


Violence and threats behind a screen of ethical marketing


A few months ago, we received an uninterrupted stream of alarming reports from the IUF on the situation of the Food Industry Workers’ Union (USTRIAL), a recently-formed labor organization that groups the workers of SEATECH, a tuna canning factory located in Colombia.


These reports denounced mass layoffs of union members, harassment against the president of the labor organization, and the blocking of the entrance of the factory.


In November, we traveled to Colombia to meet with the members of this union. As we were preparing our luggage, we made sure to pack a can of their tuna bought at the City Gross supermarket in Stockholm, to show them how our lives are connected even though we are so far apart.


Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world for trade union activities. Forty union leaders are killed every year in the country. By September of this year, the death toll was already at 37. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface, we find threats, harassment, abuses, and unequal distribution of power and wealth. Only 5 percent of all Colombian workers are unionized.


The SEATECH factory is located in the port city of Cartagena, in the northern coast of Colombia. The secretary of the union, Pedro Londoño, met us at the airport, under heavy rain. The day is bleak and the streets are flooded, but Pedro Londoño greets us with a friendly smile that makes us feel welcome.




“Come on,” he cheers us on, “They’re waiting for us.”


After dropping our bags at the hotel, we stop by a union association at the University, where Pedro picks up some press releases just printed out. Then we continue by taxi, bordering the port until we reach an industrial area called El Bosque, which is 20 minutes away by car. That’s where USTRIA headquarters are temporarily located. 

“The company has security guards shadowing me all day, following my every move. They’re doing it to scare me and to stop me from talking to the other workers. They’ve isolated me completely. The psychological pressure is enormous and threatening. Everyone’s afraid to talk to me, because they don’t want to risk their jobs.” - Fredis Marrugo, USTRIAL president


“We just formed our association, on August 7, so we don’t have our own space yet and we’re using the headquarters of the Coca-Cola workers’ union. These facilities also house the Manos Muertas (literally, ‘dead hands’) association, an organization that helps workers who have suffered occupational injuries,” Pedro tells us as we park next to the popular softdrink factory.


The headquarters are made up of several small rooms equipped with computers and a kitchen area. In one of these rooms we find Fredis Marrugo, president of USTRIAL, waiting for us. He’s not alone. Seated in a row of plastic chairs arranged along the walls are several women, including Edna Guzmán, president of Manos Muertas.


All these women have suffered occupational injuries. Their hands have been destroyed  by a task that requires nonstop, repetitive movements over long working hours at an extremely demanding pace. They meet regularly at these union headquarters to help each other.


“Our union supports the organization of workers afflicted with occupational injuries. Many workers from the canning factory are also members of this association,” Fredis Marrugo tells us.


He asks us what we know about the tuna canning factory and the labor association they’ve recently formed. We tell him we know what we’ve read on the Rel-UITA (IUF Latin America) website, and that their products are sold in large supermarkets in Stockholm where we usually shop.


A familiar can


We bring out the can of tuna we bought in City Gross before leaving Sweden. Fredis Marrugo and the women recognize it immediately as one of the products they manufacture there. The fact that the label is in Swedish and the brand is Natuna instead of Van Camp’s is part of SEATECH’s business strategy.


“What we make for export usually carries the labels of the importing country,” Fredis Marrugo explains.



Fredis Marrugo is a refrigeration technician. He knows a great deal about SEATECH, and what he doesn’t know is probably not worth knowing. He’s been working at the factory since it began operating some 20 years ago.


Pedro Londoño has left the press releases on the table, and now Fredis Marrugo picks one up to look at and starts telling us how the company has stepped up its harassment. The situation is alarming.


“The company has security guards shadowing me all day, following my every move. They’re doing it to scare me and to stop me from talking to the other workers. They’ve isolated me completely. The psychological pressure is enormous and threatening. Everyone’s afraid to talk to me, because they don’t want to risk their jobs,” he says.


Marrugo says he’s taped abusive phone calls he’s received on his cell. We ask him to give us a copy to take back with us. Two days ago, the harassment escalated when security guards asked Fredis to hand over his cell phone. When he refused, one of the guards pushed Fredis so violently that he fell to the floor and hit his head.


“I felt dizzy and I couldn’t see clearly. I still have a bump on my head,” he says tipping his head so we can see where he was hit. “The doctor examined me and wrote up a report, which we included in the complaint filed with the police.”


What they’re trying to do with their harassment, threats, and violence is to make him resign, but he assures us that he won’t give in to their pressures.


“Are you in danger?” we ask him.


“Being a worker and an unionist in Colombia is dangerous, but somebody has to do it. Otherwise, we’ll never change anything. Years ago we had a union leader in the factory who felt so threatened that he was forced to leave Cartagena and flee to the United States.”


A two-faced corporation


He goes on to tell us how the transnational corporation has two faces, how it has built a pretty but false image of itself, which it shows outside Colombia, obtaining all sorts of certifications -environmental, sustainable fishery, and labor rights- with the aim of selling its products in global markets.


This is all proudly displayed in its English version website, and the Natuna products can be traced back to it through the Swedish wholesaler Bergendahls. On the website, the company tells us what a well-oiled operation it runs in its Cartagena factory.


However, while the company is busy prettying up its store front, it’s also at work in the back room looking for any loopholes in Colombia’s legislation that they can use to get around their responsibility for their workers. And apparently they’ve taken their efforts way beyond loopholes. Of the more than 1,500  people working at the factory, only 80 have a permanent contract. The rest are hired under outsourcing schemes.

 After the union was established and legally registered, management immediately began to repress the unionized workers. It fired 86 workers who had joined the union.


Fredis Marrugo is one of the few with a permanent contract. The rest are mostly administrative staff and foremen or managers. They have their own trade union association, Sintralimenticia, of which Fredis is vice president, but it’s a trade union in name only. In practice it’s actually a yellow union that depends on the company and has served as a kind of alibi to support the company’s claim that it is not violating the workers’ freedom of association.


Fredis Marrugo, Pedro Londoño, and Edna Guzmán, have been struggling for years alongside other workers to form a real union that can further their demands of permanent contracts, improved working environment, and suitable work pace. But they were always too few and, therefore, not strong enough.


In August, they finally achieved their goal. Some 119 workers, including both permanent and outsourced, formed the new union. It hasn’t been easy. They were forced to organize in silence, unable to make any announcements until everything was ready. Otherwise, the company would have tried to stop them.


After the union was established and legally registered, management immediately began to repress the unionized workers. It fired 86 workers who had joined the union.


“The reason management gave for firing them was the shortage of raw material, and it backed its claims with false witnesses,” Fredis Marrugo says.


As this repression was going on, a national and international campaign was organized to support the workers. The union has brought a complaint against the company for the illegal layoffs, with the support of legal advisors. A few days ago, 42 of the laid off workers were reinstated following a ruling from the labor court.


“It was a significant partial victory,” Fredis Marrugo admits.


The labor judge accepted the union’s allegations and concluded that the lack of raw material could not be invoked as grounds for dismissal in this case, as it was an artificial reason. The company had to reinstate the unionized workers it had fired. This ruling allowed the union to move forward with an action to enforce their right to be directly employed by the company they work for. They’ve already initiated a proceeding in that sense.


We asks if there were still any laid off workers.


“Yes, there are still 39 layoffs,” Marrugo says.


Judicial error


Pedro Londoño states that, for some reason, the judge mistakenly excluded him from the list of workers that were to be reinstated. It was material error, but apparently it can’t be fixed. I’m still laid off.


“It’s very tough,” Londoño says. “It’s been out of work for three months now. I have a wife and three kids to support, and my wife is sick. She used to work peeling prawns manually; that’s how she hurt her hands. She’ll have to find a different job, because there’s no money coming in now.”


Fredis Marrugo highlights that the company treats its workers poorly. “They work year after year, and they’re not hired under permanent contracts; they’re forced to work 12 or 14-hour days. When workers get sick, the company won’t even let them off to go see the doctor.”


We need a free union that has no links to the company so we can enforce our rights and make the company comply with the law,” Marrugo­ says. “Otherwise, this is a dictatorship. We have no freedom of expression. We have to keep our mouths shut.”


The following day, we accompany Fredis Marrugo and Pedro Londoño to an assembly held by SUTUMAC, the construction workers’ union. Some 100 union members listen attentively to Marrugo and Londoño as they explain their situation at the tuna canning factory, and the meeting ends with a resolution to offer the laid off workers economic aid.




Solidarity Campaign


The international federation of food industry workers, IUF, is closely following the situation at the SEATECH tuna canning factory in Colombia, characterized by the dismissal of unionized workers, harassment, and violence against the president of the union. Participants at the last meeting of the IUF’s Latin American Executive Committee drafted a protest letter (Resolution 001 of Nov. 10, 2010) addressed to the company’s executive directors. The letter was translated into English and sent to the president of Colombia and to the ILO, in Geneva.




From Stockholm Estocolmo

Gunnar Brulin and Malin Klingzell-Brulin

Mål & Medel  Rel-UITA

December 10, 2010






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