After 22 days of peaceful protests, workers, unions and other civil society groups in Buenaventura, the country’s largest port city, won a landmark agreement with the Colombian government. On June 6, the government agreed to invest more than $500 million in the long-neglected city over the next decade. United Nations officials, senators and local politicians witnessed the signing of the agreement. A bill securing the funding is scheduled to be submitted to Congress on July 20.
Following the agreement, the elected strike committee, representing a coalition of 66 civil society organizations in Buenaventura, suspended the civic strike for one month to assess the government’s compliance with its pledge. In the lead up to the July 20 deadline, local groups will continue to negotiate decent employment and improved water services, sanitation, healthcare, education, housing and other social initiatives.
On May 16, tens of thousands of peaceful protesters took to the streets 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.
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.
Many residents work in the port without the protection of Colombia’s labor code. The Port Workers’ Union (Unión Portuaria) is pushing to incorporate them into a collective bargaining agreement that would establish direct, indefinite employment contracts that include a living wage and provisions for health and pension benefits.
Beginning on the fourth day of demonstrations, the peaceful protests were disrupted by a national police force crackdown, with 41 reported arrests, dozens injured and at least one death. Human rights groups condemned the government’s decision to deploy riot police against peaceful demonstrations—in a city deprived even of a local, publicly-funded security service.
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.