The first national organization dedicated to the working conditions of Afro-descendants in Colombia was formed on July 14 in Cali. The new Afro-Colombian Labor Council will advance racial inclusion in the labor movement and in Colombian society.

The council was launched at a forum attended by 570 Colombian labor activists from the palm oil, sugar cane, domestic work, port, and public service sectors, who joined Afro-Colombian community activists, academics and local students. The forum was sponsored by the Solidarity Center, with the support of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), an AFL-CIO constituency group. The Solidarity Center has been working closely for many years with the Colombian labor movement to address specific worker rights issues affecting Afro-Colombian workers.

A quarter of Colombia’s population is Afro-descendant, yet Afro-Colombians comprise more than 50 percent of the country’s poor. While many community and non-governmental organizations are dedicated to defending the rights of vulnerable Afro-Colombians, this is the first national organization to explicitly tackle the exploitive working conditions that most Afro-descendants suffer.

“The success of this event was really a dream come true for us,” said Saray Castañeda, president of the Sindicato de Trabajadores y Empleados de la Educación (SINTRENEL), the public education workers union. “Now, we have the task of being the driving force behind policies for labor conditions for Afro-Colombians and demanding recognition for our professional capacities.”

According to the National Union School (ENS), which released the first in-depth study of the Afro-Colombian labor situation in four major Colombian cities, 65 percent of Afro-Colombians in the informal sector and 29 percent in the formal sector make less than the minimum wage. Additionally, ENS found an alarming disparity in the quality of employment available to Afro-Colombians despite their rates of educational attainment.

“The Solidarity Center knew through our ongoing work with Afro-Colombian workers and union leaders that there was intense interest in bringing together workers, union leaders, academics, and policy makers to focus on the dire situation of worker rights for Afro-Colombian workers,” said Rhett Doumitt, Solidarity Center country program director for Colombia. “But we were still impressed by the huge numbers of people who came to participate in this forum and move forward on this critical issue.”

The council will work with academics and cooperate with all three national union centers. CBTU participated in the public launch of the council and will have an ongoing role. Representatives of the Colombian government, including Presidential Adviser on Afro-Colombian Issues Oscar Gamboa, also attended the forum.

“It is historic that the Solidarity Center brought together such a large and diverse group to discuss labor issues and race,” said Harold Rogers, international relations secretary for CBTU. “This is a small, valiant step, and now it is up to the Afro-Colombian people to carry out what has started.”

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