The president of a local branch of Colombia’s National Union of Agricultural Workers (SINTRAINAGRO) was fatally shot by gunmen on a motorcycle on July 1 while watching his son play soccer.
Alberto Román Acosta González led the Guacarí SINTRAINAGRO branch in Colombia’s Valle del Cauca. The Guacarí branch, along with other SINTRAINAGRO branches that represent sugar workers in the region, have been engaged in a 10-year, coordinated effort to formalize workers’ jobs and secure basic labor rights. According to Rhett Doumitt, Solidarity Center country program director, sugar workers and their unions have faced extreme violence in response to organizing efforts and their demands to end informal employment, which deprives workers of social protection and rights.
SINTRAINAGRO is an affiliate of the global food, farm and hotel union, IUF, which has written Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to “demand a full and transparent investigation into this latest assassination and adequate measures to protect union leaders and members.” In 2013, Juan Carlos Pérez Muñoz, a union member in Colombia, was gunned down on his way to board a bus to the Cauca River Valley, where he worked in the sugarcane fields.
Last month, Colombia was listed as among the 10 worst countries for worker rights in the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) Global Rights Index. On June 21, a group of armed and masked men forcibly abducted and murdered Mauricio Fernando López Vélez, national vice president of the Union of Workers of Public Universities (SINTRAUNAL) and professor at Valle University, from his family’s farm in Buenos Aires, Cauca.
Up until the past few years, Colombia was the deadliest country for union leaders and members, with several thousand murdered over decades. The majority of those cases remain unsolved.
“Colombia remains one of the worst violators of trade union rights with a horrendous record for impunity regarding the murders of trade unionists,” according to the report. “Threats, violence and intimidation against trade unionists have a deep-rooted culture in Colombia and have continued apace in 2017.”
Sugarcane cutters work for up to 14 hours a day and make as little as $194 a month.
SINTRAINAGRO, affiliated with the global food, farm and hotel union IUF, won direct, permanent contracts for cane cutters at the Risaralda mill in western Colombia’s Cauca Valley. The breakthrough agreement was signed on March 5 after 500 cane cutters launched an indefinite strike on March 2 and were brutally attacked by state anti-riot forces and company guards the following day. The assault resulted in dozens of injured strikers and left local union leader Carlos Ossa Trejos in critical condition.
Agreement was reached following intensive negotiations involving the union, the national executive of the CUT and the Ministry of Labor.
Prior to this agreement, cane cutters with many years of work were being employed on limited fixed-term contracts, and mechanization has further depressed wages. The agreement commits the company to providing open-ended, permanent employment contracts “in accordance with ILO (International Labor Organization) decent work standards” to all SINTRAINAGRO cutters, who will be employed by a Risaralda subsidiary to be established within 10 weeks. The company cannot fire or refuse to hire strikers, must “ensure the application of the principles of equality and non-discrimination” in assigning work and will establish mechanisms for ensuring payment of social security contributions, among other measures.
“This government wants to create an atmosphere of terror against anyone who dares to raise their head. However, workers and their families are losing their fear and defending their right to employment and decent living conditions” said SINTRAINAGRO’s Mauricio Ramos. “Once again it has been shown that mobilization, pressure and peaceful struggle are the tools for claiming rights.”
Crossposted from the IUF.
Family and friends attend the funeral of slain trade unionist, Juan Carlos Pérez Muñoz. Credit: Robinson Cook
Juan Carlos Pérez Muñoz, a trade union member in Colombia, was gunned down last week on his way to board a bus to the Cauca River Valley where he worked in the sugarcane fields.
The death of Pérez, 30, a leader in the SINTRAINAGRO union’s struggle for living wages and decent working conditions at the La Cabaña sugar plantation, came just days after two rallies by sugarcane workers. The workers were protesting the firing of 87 employees of the La Cabaña and 24 employees Maria Luisa plantations. Since December, when the sugarcane workers collectively began pushing for workplace improvements through SINTRAINAGRO, workers have been subjected to threatening phone calls and other forms of harassment, and the company has refused to negotiate.
“Anti-union violence and the victimization of the workers is still growing,” the union federation CUT (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Colombia), said in a statement. In Colombia, “the rights of workers continue to be violated,” CUT Human Rights Director Alberto Vanegas Zuluaga, told Colombia Reports.
Sugarcane development is a thriving business in Valle del Cauca. Nearly half its cultivated area is devoted to sugarcane production as either raw sugar or ethanol, about one-third of it for export. Sugarcane cutters work as long as 14 hours per day and make as little as $200 a month. Because they are largely subcontracted, they receive no health care or pensions and must provide their own safety equipment—and have no recourse if they are injured on the job.
Colombia remains the deadliest country for union leaders and members. In 2012, 19 trade unionists were murdered and there were at least 10 attempted murders, according to the Colombian non-governmental organization, Escuela Nacional Sindical. The International TradeUnion Confederation (ITUC) says that although some efforts have been made to investigate these crimes, the majority of the cases reported by trade union organizations remain unsolved.
In recent meetings with the Minister of Labor and the Minister of the Interior, SINTRAINAGRO and CUT denounced the violence and threats to leaders and members of the sugarcane workers’ union and to SINTRAINAGRO’s national leadership and asked the governmentto provide protection. They made clear that without government protection, more unionists would be killed. Perez was gunned down a few days later, leaving behind his wife, Luz Aidé, and son.