Leonila Murillo, a decades-long leader in Buenaventura, Colombia, and Angel Miguel Conde Tapia, a Colombian palm oil worker and union vice president are among the extraordinary leaders and activists who will be honored for their dedication to improving the lives of workers and their communities during the Solidarity Center 20th Anniversary celebration in Washington, D.C., tomorrow.
The evening event features AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler and also will honor U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown for his leadership to protect worker rights, and the Honduran labor movement for its dedication to achieving rights for workers in difficult and sometimes deadly conditions. Special guest U.S. Rep. Karen Bass will deliver remarks. (There’s still time to sponsor the event or buy tickets to attend!)
The day begins with a launch of the Solidarity Center-supported book, Informal Workers and Collective Action: A Global Perspective, and panel discussions featuring U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal and international worker rights activists. (Find out more about the free book event and RSVP here.)
On the Frontlines of Social Justice Unionism
Murillo, 81, has long been on frontlines to achieve social justice in her community. Most recently the mother of six children, 13 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren was among tens of thousands of peaceful protesters in Buenaventura who took to the streets for 22 days in May demanding peace and dignity after years of neglect by leaders in Bogota, the capital. Many of the port city’s 400,000 predominately Afro-Colombian inhabitants live in abject poverty without access to proper hospitals, schools, roads and other basic services.
On June 6, the government agreed to invest more than $500 million in the long-neglected city over the next decade. Buenaventura’s thriving port accounts for 60 percent of the country’s maritime trade and in 2014, generated $2 billion in tax revenue. Only 3 percent of that revenue is reinvested in the city, where residents are primarily Afro-Colombians.
Murillo, who leads 1,000 women in the organization Women in Black of the Pacific Route, and served as president of her neighborhood district’s Council of Community Action, also has worked for 29 years as a child caregiver, known as “community mother.” She was among leaders of the struggle by community mothers to gain pension benefits, going on strike in 2013 and winning promises from the government to give the women, who work as “independent contractors” the same benefits as directly employed caregivers. So far, the community mothers have seen no pension benefits.
“That’s why I’m here [in the United States]—to denounce that, to say that there are women who are dying and never getting their pensions,” Murillo says, speaking through a translator.
Palm Oil Workers Stand Strong in Face of Danger
As a palm oil worker in Colombia, Conde Tapia, hacks through the fruit with a machete, cleans branches and performs field maintenance on one of the country’s large agricultural plantations. A 29-year union member and now vice president of the palm oil union SINTRAINAGRO, he has sacrificed much to improve working conditions. Conde Tapia says he nearly lost his life when a gunman targeted him for his union work. Luckily, the gun pointed at him did not fire. But Conde Tapia has sent some of his children out of the area for their safety. Other union activists have had similar experiences.
Like the Buenaventura community, where workers say unfair job subcontracting is taking away family sustaining wages and social protections, palm oil workers in Colombia are regularly hired as subcontractors, enabling employers to avoid paying living wages and benefits granted in union contracts. In 2011, 15,000 subcontracted palm oil workers went on strike, and union leaders from four palm companies successfully initiated a process by which workers would gain formal employment status—success that vastly increased union affiliation.
In recognizing the incredible sacrifices of Murillo and Conde Tapia, the Solidarity Center honors the struggles of all Colombians in Buenaventura and across palm oil plantations who strive to improve their lives and their families’ future.
The Colombia Port Workers’ union is calling on the Ministry of Labor to follow up on promises it made during a congressional hearing this week and resume discussions with the union and the Buenaventura Port Society over formalizing 3,500 illegally outsourced workers in Buenaventura, Colombia’s largest port.
Solidarity Center union partners, organized within the Mesa Inter-Sindical coordinating body in Buenaventura, facilitated this week’s meeting in the Senate. The Solidarity Center has helped union partners to establish and build relationships with congressional allies, including Sen. Antonio Navarro, who visited the port in Buenaventura at the invitation of the port workers’ union in February.
The union (Unión Portuaria) is seeking an accord with the Port Society and government that establishes direct, indefinite employment contracts that include family-supporting wages, health care, severance, pension benefits and coverage by the union’s collective bargaining agreement.
Like the port workers, most workers in the city are classified as informal economy workers and excluded from the country’s labor protections, toiling in jobs that lack a minimum wage, workplace safety and other fundamental protections.
400,000 Residents Lack Clean Water, Electricity
Buenaventura accounts for 60 percent of the country’s maritime trade and in 2014, generated $2 billion in tax revenue. Yet the 400,000 residents, more than 90 percent of whom are of African descent, live in grinding poverty. Buenaventura residents lack even the most basic services, including access to clean water, reliable electricity and functioning sewage systems. Health care, housing and the education system are also substandard. The city’s three past mayors are in prison for embezzling public funds.
The port workers’ union, in coalition with 66 civil society organizations in Buenaventura, are also calling on the Colombian government to fulfill promises it made to residents in 2014 regarding access to basic services and decent employment. Residents have waged a civic strike in response to government inaction, bringing commerce and port operations to a halt.
Since May 16, tens of thousands of peaceful protesters have taken to the streets to demand dignity and peace. Over the weekend, police attacked the peaceful protesters, killing at least one demonstrator and injuring dozens more, including children.
Protesters vow to continue the strike until the government meets their demands, including:
- Access to basic sanitation, infrastructure, and community-run public utility services.
- Access to preventative healthcare, quality treatment and traditional medicine.
- Passage of legal and political measures to generate decent jobs, labor formalization with direct hiring relationships, and the elimination of outsourcing and employment insecurity.
Workers in Buenaventura, Colombia, who are waging an indefinite work stoppage to call attention to the lack of jobs, good wages and basic public services in their community, have brought port operations and local commerce to a halt.
As the country’s largest seaport, Buenaventura accounts for 60 percent of the country’s maritime trade and in 2014, generated $2 billion in tax revenue. Yet residents, more than 90 percent of whom are of African descent, live in grinding poverty. The vast majority of workers toil in the city’s informal economy, most in jobs that lack a minimum wage, workplace safety and other fundamental protections, in large part because their jobs are illegally subcontracted and so excluded from the country’s labor protections. (Follow the protest on Twitter at #SomosBuenaventura)
Buenaventura residents lack even the most basic services, including potable water, reliable electricity and functioning sewage systems. The city’s already weak health system worsened in 2014 when its only public hospital closed, and now the nearest hospital for the city’s 400,000 residents is a three-hour drive away, in Cali. Housing and the education system are also substandard. The lack of economic opportunity and investment in the city have fed an environment of violence as the country attempts to emerge from a 50-year armed civil war.
Workers who attempt to form unions to improve their wages and working conditions often are threatened and fired, and unions report receiving phoned death threats from men claiming to belong to paramilitary organizations.
The current work action arises from the community-building efforts of a coalition of unions and Afro-Colombian, indigenous and student groups. In 2014, the groups first mobilized for dignity and peace.
Protests in Buenaventura coincide with work stoppages and demonstrations across Colombia, in which at least half a million people , including oil workers and salt miners in Meta and Manuare, are protesting broken promises by the national government to alleviate rampant state neglect, poverty, violence and corruption.
Afro-desendent women gathered in Medellin, Colombia, in April for the first domestic workers union congress. Credit: IDWF
In Colombia, “even when there’s an improvement in the overall economy, women don’t see any improvement,” says Sohely Rua Catañeda. As a result, many women who are unable to secure formal employment are forced into the informal sector to support themselves and their families, laboring as domestic workers or street vendors. Women in these low-paying jobs have limited or no access to social services and are unable to address workplace harassment or unsafe working conditions.
Rua Catañeda, secretary of women and labor at the Escuela Nacional Sindical(National Union School, ENS), Colombia’s pro-worker think tank, recently met with Solidarity Center staff and others to discuss current ENS research on women in the Colombian economy. The Colombian labor market is “a reflection of discrimination,” she says, a statement she bolsters with ENS research that points to cultural factors blocking women’s economic advancement.
Only 8.5 million of the 18.2 million working age women have jobs—compared with 12 million working age men who are employed—and the vast gender gap in workforce participation is largely due a type of cultural discrimination in which employers seek women who fit a certain ideal. And that ideal, says Rua Catañeda, is one that frequently excludes Afro-descendent women, those who are over age 40 and those without the financial resources to buy new clothes or get manicures.
“There’s a lot of pressure for women to invest in their outer appearance for jobs. Afro-descendent women will never have an opportunity for these jobs,” Employers’ preferences for blonde women with straight hair requires women to spend a lot of time “conforming to an image that is really not what we look like.”
Seeking to improve the conditions of low-wage women workers, ENS is working to connect women with unions to strengthen their voice on the job so they can collectively improve wages and working conditions. ENS works closely with the Solidarity Center to support the Afro-Colombian Labor Council (Consejo Labor Afrocolombiano), founded last year by Afro-Colombian labor leaders and Colombian trade unions to advance racial inclusion in the labor movement and in Colombian society. Afro-Colombians comprise more than three-quarters of the country’s poor. Since then, Afro-Colombian women launched the Union of Domestic Service Workers (Unión de Trabajadoras del Servicio Domestíco, UTRASD) in Medellin, the first-ever union in Colombia created entirely by Afro-descendent women.
Rua Catañeda says the first step toward opening the labor market to women is to convey the extent of the problem to the Colombian public. Colombians, who see many women working in public places, think they have plenty of access to jobs, she says. Further, many women’s groups have focused on individualist, entrepreneurial solutions which in the past 10 years have seen few results.
But such solutions have not gone far to address most women’s economic struggles. “What you have are a lot of really tired women who have put a lot of work into their jobs and are poorer than ever before.”
Although recent legislation improving worker rights has passed, Rua Catañeda says technical and other reasons have prevented beneficial legislation from being enforced—making women’s increased membership and involvement in unions all the more critical
Agripina Hurtado discusses the goals of the new Afro-Colombian Labor Council. Credit: Tula Connell
Afro-Colombians are far likelier than other Colombian workers to earn less than the minimum wage and to be employed in jobs where they cannot form unions to improve their working conditions. And all of this exclusion “has a strong current of racial discrimination under it,” said Agripina Hurtado, the newly elected president of the Afro-Colombian Labor Council (Consejo Labor Afrocolombiano). A quarter of Colombia’s population is Afro-descendant, yet Afro-Colombians comprise more than three-quarters of the country’s poor.
Many Colombians neither recognize nor acknowledge discrimination against Afro-descendants, Hurtado said, and the council is working to raise awareness among lawmakers and the public about their working conditions. For instance, roughly 75 percent of the workforce in Colombia’s ports—primarily Afro-descendent—is employed under flexible non-labor contracts and consequently not allowed to join unions or bargain collectively.
Further, threats and violence against Afro-Colombian leaders and communities are causing high levels of forced displacement, especially along the Pacific Coast where large numbers of Afro-descendants live. Colombia is the deadliest country in the world for union activists, with 4,000 trade unionists murdered in the past 20 years, many of them Afro-Colombian. “The selective killing of union members is spreading fear” throughout the Afro-Colombian community, she said.
Founded in July 2012, the Afro-Colombian Labor Council seeks to promote the rights of Colombia’s Afro-descendent workers. The council includes representatives of the country’s three large trade union federations: the Unitary Workers Center, Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT); the Workers’ Confederation of Colombia, Confederación de Trabajadores de Colombia (CTC); and the General Workers Federation, Confederación General del Trabajo (CGT). The federations represent workers in the palm and sugar cane industries, as well as domestic workers, public-sector and port workers.
Hurtado said one of the council’s big goals is to ensure that port workers, sugarcane cutters and other workers who are currently hired casually or under subcontracting arrangements are hired under the formal labor contracts that the law requires. That way, they will be covered by the nation’s labor laws and allowed to collectively bargain with their employers. Some 65 percent of Afro-Colombians in the informal sector and 29 percent in the formal sector make less than the minimum wage, according to an in-depth study of the Afro-Colombian labor situation in four major Colombian cities by the National Union School (ENS), a Solidarity Center partner.
Speaking through a translator at the Solidarity Center in Washington, D.C., Monday, Hurtado said the government is taking steps to acknowledge the needs of Afro-Colombians, but only because of pressure from the international community. Overall, the government “doesn’t really take these issues seriously.” The council is working at the national and local levels of government to “insert the issue of racial discrimination into the discussion on wages and worker issues,” she said.
Hurtado, a leader of the public sector union USE (Union Sindical de Emcali), said one of the biggest obstacles is getting members of the Afro-Colombian community to self-identify as Afro-Colombians and join together to fight for their rights on the job and in their communities.
“We aren’t conscious we have these rights, and we don’t go out and fight for them. The government doesn’t recognize us because we are not organized.”
Hurtado and the Afro-Colombian Labor Council are working hard to change that.