|Jhonsson Torres is vice president of SINALCORTEROS, a strong voice for Colombian sugarcane workers.
September 28, 2012—Sugarcane cutting is physically demanding and dangerous work. Colombian cane cutters toil in the heat, harvesting the vegetation by hand. Yet while their contributions to a growing and increasingly profitable biofuel industry are significant, workers had seen their rights, wages and working conditions steadily erode, leaving many workers and their families in poverty.
This was not always so. Jhonsson Torres, 28, has worked in the sugar sector for 11 years—following in the footsteps of his father. The current vice president of SINALCORTEROS, an agricultural union, Torres said his father was able to build a home and care for his family on a sugarcane cutter’s wages. When Torres’ mother suffered a brain hemorrhage, she had access to medical care.
Prior to the reform of Colombian labor law in 1990, cane cutters were directly hired by the companies they worked for—and they belonged to a union. That legislation, however, allowed for subcontracting of work through labor intermediaries called “associated work cooperatives,” or CTAs, which severed the relationship between employer and employee. The sugarcane workers lost their wage jobs, their social security and their right to freedom of association.
“The law ended labor stability for workers. This was when the plantations took advantage and removed the cane cutters from collective bargaining agreements. We became contractors,” he said. “My father made good money. We lost all that.”
Their diminished legal status negated the cane cutters’ ability to raise concerns about health and safety issues and demand the pay to which they were due, said Torres.
“The conditions were inhumane, and there was no one to defend us. They made us work 15 to 17 hours a day. And we had to cut ‘hot cane’— they would light up the plantations, burn the cane and force us to cut it while it was hot,” said Torres. “We had a lot of brothers who died, who had heart attacks. We have people who can’t retire because they didn’t have their social security paid.
“All the benefits my father had—bonuses, education, housing allowances, social security—were denied to us. You could end your day and, if you didn’t work extra hours, sometimes you were fired. This was what motivated the strike of 2005.”
The sugarcane cutters tried to form a union and affiliate to a sugar-refinery workers’ union. However, because they were contractors and not directly hired by their employer, the union said they could not affiliate. So, the cutters formed their own union.
“We founded our union, we registered our union, but the companies wouldn’t accept our union or recognize us,” said Torres. “We were harassed. We were persecuted. I was fired twice by my company. “
The workers spent three years fighting for recognition, which ultimately came following a 59-day strike across eight plantations in 2008.
“This was not considered a decent job, and we were not respected. But the strike was strong and visible. We gained respect. We won the right to negotiate with the company and the right to organize,” Torres said.
The Dangers of Success
Today, SINALCORTEROS grown to a membership of several thousands, and continues to fight for direct hiring of sugar cane cutters.
“The situation for us has improved considerably. We went from a union that was not legally recognized to a large agricultural union. We went from zero to a collective bargaining agreement. This touches a lot of interests. Many people don’t like that we are a strong, powerful union,” said Torres.
Building power for workers has brought the wrath of other interests. Torres and his fellow union members are under death threats for their work to protect the rights of cane cutters. And they have every reason to take the threats seriously: SINALCORTEROS’ general secretary, Daniel Aguirre, was shot to death while walking with his wife in April of this year.
Torres said: “The biggest problem is security. This has changed my life. I’ve had to change the way I live. I had to move from my home because of security concerns. I have not had a normal life. I have a public life—in front of friends and enemies—and in this situation, you have to know who to be with, and who not to.”
Domestic and international support and pressure—from unions and other organizations—has helped strengthen the cane cutters’ cause, and may offer some protection, Torres said.
“We did this with the support of Colombia’s Polo Democrático, national union centers, global union federations and the Solidarity Center,” Torres said. “We, as cane cutters, feel stronger. We know the reality that we didn’t know before. We can work more objectively. And because of the pressure, companies feel obligated to directly hire workers.”
Torres added: “The Solidarity Center has played a fundamental, active role in this. We have received training and accompaniment. It has helped us to get our message out and has helped us with our reports and complaints, especially safety concerns, which has helped us solve conflicts and problems.”
In addition to programmatic activities in Colombia, the Solidarity Center stands at the side and advocates on behalf of unions in their struggle to advance worker rights and defend the safety of their leaders and members.