UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Colombia's sugar cane cutters: still fighting for their rights

A delegation from UNISON’s Northern region is currently visiting Colombia. This is the first of a series of reports sent into UNISONActive by the delegation: Colombia has one of the most challenging political climates in the world. The extreme implementation of neoliberal policies has seen the erosion of core workers’ rights, and the marginalisation of communities. In this context the struggle of the Corteros (sugar cane cutters) is significant.

In 2008 the Corteros in Cauca Valley, South West Colombia, were engaged in an historic two-month strike against sugar companies wanting to erode their already minimal employment rights. These are men who work 13 hour days, 365 days a year, without holiday or sick pay. Many are injured carrying out their work, which is physically one of the most demanding.

They pay a significant amount of their wages for health insurance which often when they need to use it to access healthcare they are denied, being told that their health insurance doesn’t’ contemplate their illness. Many have long waits for treatment, or receive no healthcare at all, leaving them too injured to work, and without any income as they do not receive sick pay, even when injured carrying out their work.

The companies, supported by the government, want to rescind the concessions won by the workers in the strike of 2008. The proposed Free Trade Agreement with the United States will make it easier to do this.

There is already a system whereby workers are employed by ‘co-operatives’ which essentially means they are subcontracted and as such are not directly employed by the Sugar Cane Companies, meaning that they have even less rights, have no collective bargaining rights as they are not directly employed, have no permanent contract, and they are also banned from joining a trade union.

Many activists have lost their jobs and their names are shared between the Companies so have no hope of finding new work. The Free Trade Agreement will allow employment law, and workers’ rights to be further undermined, and the concept of co-operatives to be embedded. It is important to use all lobbying opportunities to campaign to amend the Free Trade Agreement between now and when it is next debated in September.

The Corteros understand the sugar cane industry is changing, and new technology will mean further mechanisation, and reduce the number of workers needed. They believe, however, that the Companies and the Government have a responsibility to provide social and economic support to the communities who have provided the sugar cane industry with workers, and enabled them to make a profit. Without some political and financial support the Corteros communities will be destroyed. Most already live in poverty, any further erosion of their ability to work and be financially sustained they have no chance of getting out of poverty.

International support is critical for the Corteros, both in their current struggles against the attempts to further erode their employment rights, the proposals under the Free Trade Agreement, and in the fight for the future of their communities.

As such the international community needs to provide solidarity by using all avenues possible to campaign for reform to the Free Trade Agreement; to provide worker to worker solidarity; and to support them in telling their story, and providing financial support in their struggle.