Colombian workers, their unions along with students, indigenous and Afro-Colombian and environmental groups took to the streets today in the third nationwide march to protest government moves that would reduce worker-rights protections, pensions and funding for education and increase electricity costs. The protests also demand full implementation of the 2016 peace accords.
The protests started on November 21, when an estimated 250,000 Colombians marched in cities across the country, driven by a coalition of unions—the Central Workers’ Union (CUT), Confederation of Colombian Workers (CTC), General Labor Confederation (CGT) and the Confederation of Pensioners of Colombia (CPC)—and now have been joined by a wide array of civil society organizations that formed the coalition of protesters, the “Mesa del Paro.”
The coalition presented the government with 13 requests, including repeal of new laws that make it easier to eliminate many labor rights protections and give a massive tax break for big corporations while cutting back on basic services for working people.
Colombians also are protesting the government’s moves to privatize the pension system, base pension payments below the minimum wage and increase the cost of electricity by 35 percent, according the Colombian union federation CUT, a longstanding Solidarity Center partner, which represents 500,000 members. In addition, they are decrying the government’s inaction on the murders of community leaders and activists, as well as corruption draining the public coffers.
Following the November 21 protests, the government initially agreed with requests by the Mesa de Paro to hold a dialogue, but the government called for members of the military, police and corporate representatives to join in the discussions. The government ultimately accepted a direct and exclusive dialogue with the Mesa de Paro on December 2. The December 4 protests are part of ongoing actions to ensure the government pursues an agreement.
Five people were killed in the protests that began on November 21, and hundreds injured.
Rodríguez, former president of the Union of Middle School Teachers (COPEMH), disappeared October 28 on the way to the bus in Tegucigalpa’s historic center, according to the Committee of Relatives of Disappeared Detainees in Honduras (COFADEH).
“They cut his throat, kidnapped him and threw him into the river,” said Rodriguez’ wife Martha de Rodríguez, who spoke with COFADEH.
According to the Network Against Anti-Union Violence in Honduras, which tracks attacks on worker rights defenders, including union members and leaders, Rodríguez could have been targeted because of his activism as a land rights defender, his stance against electoral fraud, his recent opposition to proposed government privatization of essential public services, or some combination of the three. Tens of thousands of people have taken part in protests since April, when the government announced deep cuts to education and health services.
Spending on education and culture has dropped from 33 percent of the national budget to 20 percent over the past decade, with wages and infrastructure spending frozen. Some 40 percent of emergency rooms have inadequate medical coverage, according to the Honduras National Commission for Human Rights. Educators and health care workers say privatizing health and education systems will further decrease services and lead to layoffs.
The assault on Rodríguez also was meant to send a signal to others engaged in social protests, according to the Network, which says members of some of the country’s teacher unions have been harassed and intimidated for their involvement in the protests, with the president of another teacher union repeatedly threatened and nearly kidnapped. The Network is a Solidarity Center partner.
The teacher unions are members of the Platform for the Defense of Health and Public Education, a coalition of union and community organizations, which led the protests this past spring against cuts to public services. Security forces repeatedly responded by firing at protesters with live ammunition and tear gas.
Teachers demanded Rodríguez’s safe return in protest downtown. Credit: Network Against Anti-Union Violence
“We are here demonstrating before our society so that society realizes what is happening to our friend Jaime, who is so valuable to the popular struggles in our country,” he said.
From his hospital bed, his throat visibly cut, Rodríguez agreed with a colleague who told him, “We won’t step back,” adding, “Onward!”
In 2012, the AFL-CIO and 26 Honduran unions and civil society organizations filed a complaint under the labor chapter of Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). The complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Trade and Labor Affairs, alleges the Honduran government failed to enforce worker rights under its labor laws. In an October 2018 report, the U.S. Trade and Labor Affairs office said Honduras had made no progress on any of the emblematic cases since 2012.
In a recent letter to the U.S. Labor Department and U.S. Trade Representative, several members of Congress expressed “deep concern” regarding Honduras’s “continued violation” of CAFTA’s labor chapter, and noted that despite some progress, Honduras “continues to commit serious violations of the labor chapter on a regular basis.”
More than 40 labor organizations in Haiti joined a call for vast nationwide legal reforms, including free and fair elections and the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse. The move follows weeks of massive demonstrations against rampant government corruption and wasteful spending that has devastated the economy.
The most recent round of protests began September 2, sparked by fuel shortages, spiraling inflation, a lack of safe drinking water, environmental degradation and food scarcity. Factories, schools, and businesses have sporadically closed with the near daily protests. In one of the largest rallies to date, thousands turned out on Sunday in a peaceful demonstration, with human rights organizations, popular artists, and business leaders joining unions, young workers and the many others hard-hit by the country’s economic crisis.
In the Joint Declaration for a National Rescue Government, issued October 11, more than 100 organizations—including three Solidarity Center union partners–urge all segments of society to join together to demand a return of public services and implementation of an emergency program for the most vulnerable groups. The Joint Declaration also seeks an end to the culture of impunity in the judicial system and demands a clean accounting of public finances.
A Solidarity Center survey this year found that the daily minimum wage for export apparel workers in Haiti is $5.07—more than four times less than the estimated cost of living. These workers—the majority of whom are women who support families—are forced to toil longer for less due to diminished purchasing power and are unable to cover daily necessities, including food.
“The High Cost of Low Wages in Haiti,” which tracked living expenses for garment workers from September 2018 through March 2019, recommends the government increase the minimum wage to an estimated $18.30 per day and allow workers to select their own representatives to the country’s tripartite minimum wage committee. Unions are advocating for these measures and raise them as key remedies to addressing the crisis underway.
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’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.”
‘We’re Not Afraid Anymore. We’re Here to Speak Up’
The 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.
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.”
Callers to a recent radio show about taxi workers in Jordan had many questions, including:
Why are taxi drivers classified as independent contractors rather than as employees who are eligible for better wages and benefits?
Why do Jordan’s laws prohibit taxi drivers from joining the country’s transport workers union?
The worker-centered radio show, Workers of the Country (عمال البلد), launched in July by the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Jordan (FITU), offers the audience an opportunity to hear worker struggles and connects workers with the union—several callers to the August program asked how they could join FITU.
Hosted by Mohammad Al Ersan, in cooperation with FITU President Suleiman Al Jamani, the show has featured union activists and experts on domestic worker rights, labor law and sexual harassment and gender-based violence at work. Peppered with clips from worker rallies and opportunities for the audience to engage with speakers, the show offers a rare look at the day-to-day lives of working people and their efforts to improve their lives and livelihoods.
The segment on taxi drivers highlighted the drivers’ challenges in making a living, a struggle they share with “gig workers” and those in the informal economy around the world. As “self-employed” workers, the nearly 70,000 taxi drivers are excluded from labor laws, and so have no contract, paid leave, retirement or other social protections, Al Seryani said on the show. To make enough to get by, they work long shifts, up to 18 hours per day, which endangers drivers and passengers, he said, and they have suffered for decades without fundamental labor rights.
A union member who called in reinforced Al Seryani, saying the union was established because of the oppression the drivers face, and Manasour Murad, a member of Parliament who also called in said the Ministry of Transport lacks the strategic planning necessary to provide efficient transportation services, including the ability to improve drivers’ working conditions.
Workers’ Struggles, Union Support
In bringing workers’ struggles to the forefront, the 50-minute program probes issues rarely highlighted in the mainstream media yet which are fundamental to the country’s economy and the working people who build it. Fundamental to the discussions are the ways in which unions enable workers to achieve a voice in improving their workplaces and standing up for their rights.
For instance, in exploring sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence (GBVH) at work during the show’s second segment, guests highlighted the role of unions in defending workers who experience GBVH on the job and how unions are a resource for assisting workers in reporting abuse while preventing retaliation for standing up for the right to a violence-free workplace. Wijdan Abu Ghanam, leader of the FITU women’s committee, Reema Khaled, an agriculture union activist, and Reem Aslan, a working women’s rights activist and founding member of the Association Sadaqa, a Jordanian women’s rights association, took part in the discussion.
In an another program, Salem Al Mefleh, a lawyer in Jordan, discussed migrant domestic worker rights and the difficulty in enforcing laws to protect them. The segment also featured Hayel Al Zenen, director of the country’s domestic worker directorate, and a domestic worker activist from Ethiopia who discussed how migrant domestic workers in Jordan often labor 24 hours with little food and no leave. Some employers refuse to let them leave the house and never even pay their wages, according to the activist, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her job.
With an estimated 440,000 to 540,000 migrant workers in a country with fewer than 10 million people, migrant workers are an essential part of the economy yet have few rights under labor laws, including the ability to form unions—a situation all-too often replicated across Gulf countries and around the world.
Meeting the Challenges of Restrictive New Labor Laws
The labor law also now makes it easier for employers to arbitrarily fire workers, says attorney and women’s rights activist Hala Ahed, who joined Hamada Abu Nijmeh, director of the Worker Center, in a discussion on the new labor codes. Further, independent unions like FITU are now unable to register as unions under the labor law.
Despite the challenges, Al Seryani says that as an independent union, FITU has achieved significant victories for workers in improving wages and working conditions, a message the country’s new worker-centered radio program is conveying each week through the voices of workers themselves.
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