Colombia Women’s Soccer Team Tackles Discrimination

Colombia Women’s Soccer Team Tackles Discrimination

(En Español).

Vanessa Cordoba, a goalkeeper on Colombia’s women’s national soccer team, is familiar with tough challenges. But when she debated whether to join some of her teammates’ high-profile campaign to end gender discrimination in the women’s soccer league, she had to confront a barrier many women in her position face: fear of losing her job.

“There is a point in life where you choose,” she said in a recent interview at the Solidarity Center. “And I decided I’m going to do it.”

Cordoba and other women soccer players are now pursuing an industry-wide collective bargaining agreement that includes the men’s teams.

“That’s the only way we can change things in soccer, says Cordoba. “We have more power if we bargain for the entire sector.”

Training Equipment: Two Medicine Balls and Beat-up Boxes

Colombia, soccer, gender discrimination, Solidarity Center

Colombia’s Atlético Huila women’s soccer players were forced to sleep on the airport floor following their championship win. Credit: Fare.net

Colombia’s professional female soccer team, launched in 1998, played in the 2011 and 2015 World Cup as well as at the Olympic Games in the same years. The professional women’s league was created in 2017, and in the following year, Colombia’s Atlético Huila won the Copa Libertadores, South America’s most important club-level tournament.

Yet women players are paid less than the men and only get three-month contracts, while men play on multiyear contracts. The men train in state-of-the-art gyms; women players’ equipment consists of two medicine balls and beat-up boxes to practice jumping. The Colombia Football Federation (FCF) even eliminated their $20 a day training stipend. A video on social media in December shows the Atlético Huila women’s soccer players forced to sleep on the airport floor following their championship win.

Their marginalization was compounded, says Cordoba, when Adidas used star player James Rodríguez to represent the men’s team for unveiling new jerseys, but recruited a former Miss Universe, Paulina Vega Dieppa, to promote the women’s jerseys. Cordoba expressed her displeasure about the move on social media.

“I understand that for publicity’s sake, they preferred to give the jersey to Paulina Vega, but in terms of respect and merit, THE PLAYERS count as well,” she Tweeted, a message the media quickly twisted into a Soccer Player v. Miss Universe narrative. Reflecting on her comments today she says, “If we are talking about marketing, development of the women’s league is a big part of the overall goal.”

In retaliation for some women speaking up about their treatment, the FCF cancelled the women’s soccer season in 2018.

‘We’re Not Afraid Anymore. We’re Here to Speak Up’

Colombia, Isabella Echeverri, Melissa Ortiz, women's soccer, gender discrimination, Solidarity CenterThe longstanding gender discrimination against women players burst into the public in February, when former professional soccer players and Colombia national team players Isabella Echeverri and Melissa Ortiz released a video to highlight the disparities with their male counterparts, stating, “We’re not afraid anymore. We’re here to speak up.”

The video went viral, setting off a national dialogue at a time when the top-ranked U.S. women’s soccer team filed a lawsuit against U.S. Soccer alleging discrimination, and Latin America’s #NiUnaMenos (Not One More) movement campaigned for an end to sexual harassment and gender-based violence.

A handful of women soccer players gathered for a press conference in March to publicly back up Ortiz and Echeverri. Cordoba was among them.

“I figured my career would end after the press conference,” she said.

The women players were attacked by employers and a member of Congress, but their bold move also encouraged women and men players in some of Colombia’s many soccer leagues to speak up about sexual harassment they experienced, and at least one coach has been fired as a result.

“These things have been going on for a while, but what we did opened the door for a lot of things to come out into the public eye,” says Cordoba.

And while the FCF said it would rather shut down women’s soccer than act against coaches and staff allegedly implicated in the scandals, the women players, supported by the men’s teams and backed by the public and high-level government officials, succeeded in pressuring the FCF to resume the games this past summer. Cordoba and all the women who stood with her at the press conference were among the players.

One Union, One Contract

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For Vanessa Cordoba, a goalkeeper for Colombia women’s national soccer, tackling gender discrimination was one of her biggest challenges. Photo from Cordoba Twitter

Members of the all-male FCF Executive Committee refused for months to meet with the women represented by the National Association of Professional Soccer Players union, ACOLFUTPRO, about their demands for equal treatment, but have since come to the table. The Solidarity Center is supporting the women players in their efforts and is assisting ACOLFUTPRO in preparing a proposal for negotiations with the Colombian Soccer Federation, and another to establish a sectorwide bargaining policy with the labor ministry.

Additionally, the Solidarity Center helped the union engage the national Ombudsman’s Office, which filed a constitutional complaint for gender discrimination against the employers of the individual soccer clubs and the federation. The Solidarity Center documented players’ testimonies and contributed legal arguments that form the basis of the complaint. In August 2019, Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the women players, ordering both the employers and ACOLFUTPRO to present plans for gender equality.

Cordoba, who graduated from Ohio University with a degree in communications, also works at Caracol, one of Bogatá’s top radio stations. Her father, Oscar Cordoba, a former star soccer player, at first sought to protect her from the controversy, but ultimately supports her efforts.

“I’m very passionate about gender equality,” she says. “Women’s soccer was able to open the door to change soccer in Colombia.”

Colombia Palm Workers Win Landmark Agreement

Colombia Palm Workers Win Landmark Agreement

Some 750 palm workers at Colombia’s largest plantation yesterday signed a landmark agreement with their employer, Indupalma, culminating a years-long effort in which many workers risked their lives to achieve decent wages and safe working conditions. The workers formed a union and fought to force the company to sign a formalization accord and negotiate a collective bargaining agreement.

Colombia, Indupalma, palm workers, union, worker rights, Solidarity Center

Jorge Castillo, SINTRAINAGRO president, Indupalma management and Colombia’s vice minister of labor sign a landmark contract with far-reaching rights for palm workers. Credit: SINTRAINAGRO

The subcontracted workers—who labor for below-poverty wages and are not covered by the country’s labor laws—will now become permanent employees, with health coverage and union representation. They will no longer be required to pay for their own tools, oxen and other animal care or transport—expenses that often left them in debt to their employer. The contract doubles or triples their wages, provides compensation for work-related injury and illness and establishes safety and health measures.

In January 2018, the palm workers walked off the Indupalma plantation in San Alberto demanding the employer formalize their jobs, with a vast majority casting their ballots for a strike despite their status as subcontracted or “cooperative workers,” which prohibits collective action.

Palm Workers Risked Their Lives in Decades-Long Struggle for Rights

In the early 2000s, companies converted permanently employed palm workers to “cooperative’ status, requiring them to join and pay dues to phony cooperatives—structures that enable companies to evade legal responsibilities under the labor law. Eventually, only 600 palm workers out of 6,000 in the palm producing region in the center of the country were permanent employees, and workers say when they protested their brutal working conditions, they often were threatened or physically attacked by paramilitary forces.

The strike and subsequent agreement at Indupalma caps efforts by palm workers to achieve rights on the job at plantations across Colombia, a struggle that often met brutal retaliation: Up to 130 union activists were assassinated and members of five union executive committees were forced to flee for their lives five times in the past 25 years.

Joining together in a “Pacto Obrero” (coalition of workers), workers throughout Colombia’s palm sector have organized plantation by plantation since 2013, winning contracts that ensure direct hiring and living wages. With support from palm workers at other plantations, the Indupalma strike became so large that the vice minister of labor helped negotiate a preliminary pact in mid-2018.

Palm Workers Made Gains with Global Support

Throughout, palm workers received support from Colombia’s Central Union of Workers (CUT), the AFL-CIO and Solidarity Center, along with a regional labor rights center (CAL); the National Agroindustrial Union, SINTRAINAGRO; and the Corporation for Justice and Freedom (CJL).

Solidarity Center’s engagement with palm workers is part of its larger program in Colombia that supports worksite and industry-wide organizing, intensive education on labor rights under the legal framework that came out of the Labor Action Plan, and legal support for worker demands for access to justice. The Solidarity Center also helped workers develop connections with local, national and political leaders, including members of the U.S. Congress, with whom their meetings provided important political support for ending violence against palm worker activists.

The AFL-CIO and five Colombian labor organizations raised the issue of abusive subcontracting in a May 2016 trade submission under the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement (CTPA) and the U.S. Department of Labor twice reviewed Colombia’s progress in addressing the worker rights violations highlighted in the 2016 U.S. trade submission. In January 2018, the Labor Department’s second review urged the government to “take additional effective measures to combat abusive subcontracting and collective pacts, including improving application of existing laws and adopting and implementing new legal instruments where necessary.”

Colombian Palm Workers Gain Long-Sought Recognition

Colombian Palm Workers Gain Long-Sought Recognition

After years of hardship for workers due to illegal corporate employment practices and a lack of recognition of their rights, a Colombian union of subcontracted palm workers won direct employment contracts for 730 of its members. Successful negotiations followed a 20-day strike earlier this year that brought management of the largest palm oil producer in the country, Indupalma, to the table.

Colombia, palm oil workers, Solidarity Center

Jorge Castillo, UGTTA president, conducts the ratification vote for the accord. Credit: Digna Palma

Last year, the palm oil workers formed the General Union of Third-Party Agribusiness Workers (UGTTA). Despite the region’s history of threats and violence against workers who form unions, the UGTTA has grown from 248 to some 1,010 members. The union reports four members received death threats in 2018.

The Ministry of Labor determined in 2016 that Indupalma illegally subcontracted the majority of its 1,200-person workforce. The company imposed a model of phony cooperatives, essentially classifying workers as owners without labor rights or decent working conditions. As subcontracted workers, the palm oil workers had no rights under Colombia’s labor laws, including the minimum wage, freedom of association and the right to negotiate working conditions. They walked off the job outside San Alberto January 25 to demand formal work status.

Beginning in 2017, a broad coalition of palm workers’ unions known as the Worker Pact (Pacto Obrero) provided critical organizing and advocacy support, which, in addition to a sound legal strategy and international pressure, prompted the Ministry of Labor to intervene and facilitate a negotiation that led to a formalization accord between UGTTA and Indupalma.

The accord finalized on March 15 calls for the creation of two new affiliate companies (with sufficient capital and investment to meet legal obligations to the workforce) that will directly employ workers from two Indupalma work sites in the Magdalena Medio region. The accord also explicitly abolishes the use of the cooperative model. This process is to be completed by August 2018.

The union unanimously ratified the accord and has expressed deep gratitude for the solidarity it has received. The 730 members who will become direct employees will enjoy the full protection of the labor law and will be entitled to the minimum wage, social security benefits, health and safety standards, and organizing and collective bargaining rights. This win has lifted the entire San Alberto community, as families anticipate that improved wages and job security will provide additional resources that benefit their households and help educate their children.

The Solidarity Center will continue to work alongside the UGTTA and Pacto Obrero to monitor enforcement of the accord.

Colombia Palm Workers Win Landmark Agreement

1,000 Colombia Palm Oil Workers Win Pre-Agreement

More than 1,000 palm oil workers in Colombia ended a 20-day strike this week after winning a preliminary agreement with the Indupalma plantation that takes first steps toward formalizing their work status.

Colombia, strike, palm oil workers, Solidarity Center

A banner on the plantation describes the palm oil workers’ struggle for decent treatment on the job. Credit: Solidarity Center/Lauren Stewart

As subcontracted workers, the palm oil workers have no rights under Colombia’s labor laws, including the minimum wage, freedom of association and the right to negotiate working conditions. They walked off the job outside San Alberto January 25 to demand formal work status.

Under the preliminary agreement, the union and the employer will determine by March 7 which employees qualify for formalized status, and will then negotiate the details of the formalization process, with a September 7 deadline.

Representatives from the Colombia Ministry of Labor moderated the discussions between the employer and the workers’ union, the General Union of Third-Party Agribusiness Workers (UGTTA). Throughout the process, the workers and their union received support from the Central Union of Workers (CUT), AFL-CIO and Solidarity Center, along with a regional labor rights center (CAL); Escuela Nacional Sindical; the Corporation for Judicial Freedom (CJL); and Pacto Obrero, a coalition of unions in the palm sector.

Colombia, palm oil workers, strike, Solidarity Center

Palm oil workers stood strong during a 20-day strike at the Indupalma plantation in San Alberto. Credit: Solidarity Center/Lauren Stewart

Also this week, a delegation from the U.S. Department of Labor met with Colombian officials to follow up on the country’s progress with addressing noncompliance with labor provisions under the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. The AFL-CIO and five Colombian labor organizations, including CUT, filed a trade submission in 2016 that pointed to illegal subcontracting and other violations of the trade agreement.

Unlike workers who are recognized as employees, subcontracted palm oil workers must purchase their own tools, as well as join and pay dues to phony “cooperatives”—structures that enable companies to evade legal responsibilities under the labor law.

The palm oil workers formed UGTTA last year, and despite the region’s history of threats and violence against workers who unionize, the union has grown from 248 to some 1,010 members. The union reports four members have received death threats in 2018.

Palm Oil Workers Strike for Recognition as Employees

Palm Oil Workers Strike for Recognition as Employees

More than 1,000 palm oil workers on strike outside San Alberto, Colombia are seeking recognition as employees. As subcontracted workers, they have no rights under Colombia’s labor laws, including freedom of association and the right to negotiate working conditions.

The workers walked off the Indupalma plantation on Thursday, after 668 out of 682 palm oil workers cast their ballots for a strike in a vote observed by the regional director of the Colombia Ministry of Labor.

Unlike workers who are recognized as employees, subcontracted palm oil workers must purchase their own tools, as well as join and pay dues to phony “cooperatives”—structures that enable companies to evade legal responsibilities under the labor law.

Last year, the palm oil workers formed the General Union of Third-Party Agribusiness Workers (UGTTA), and despite the region’s history of threats and violence against workers who form unions, the union has grown from 248 to some 1,010 members. The union reports four members have received death threats in 2018.

The Solidarity Center accompanied labor leaders, including Andrey Piñeres (video, below) who was laid off from the palm oil plantation after he became active with the union, to a meeting yesterday in Bogota with Colombia’s vice minister of Labor Relations to update her on the situation.


“The union met and voted unanimously to go on strike because of the company’s “refusal to negotiate direct contracting for more than 1,200 workers,” he says, calling on unions and civil society organizations to support their struggle.

The union says it is encouraged that the San Alberto Mayor assured them that if they do not block roads, he will not call in the riot police force, which has a history of violent repression of worker protests.

Employer Unions, Illegal Subcontracting

Solidarity Center, Colombia, palm oil workers, strike, human rights

María Eugenia Aparicio Soto, Colombia’s vice minister for Labor Relations, meets with union leaders and Solidarity Center staff to discuss the palm oil worker strike. Credit: Colombia Labor Ministry

In 2016 the Colombian government fined the company more than $1 million for unlawful subcontracting and its use of 23 “cooperatives” to undermine workers’ rights. The company is appealing the ruling.

The AFL-CIO and five Colombian labor organizations raised the issue of abusive subcontracting in a May 2016 trade submission under the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement (CTPA). Even though the Colombian government has outlawed cooperatives for subcontracting of full-time workers who perform the same function as employees, the practice continues to occur within the palm oil industry and in other sectors.

In a 2017 U.S. Department of Labor review that assessed Colombia’s progress in addressing the worker rights violations highlighted in the 2016 U.S. trade submission, the agency expressed “significant concerns that the Ministry of Labor is not taking sufficient action to implement the new decrees or to otherwise enforce prohibitions on abusive subcontracting that may undermine the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining.”

Earlier this month, the Labor Department’s second review urged the government to “take additional effective measures to combat abusive subcontracting and collective pacts, including improving application of existing laws and adopting and implementing new legal instruments where necessary.”

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