This post from CIP Intern Anthony Dest offers a trenchant overview of the recent increase in labor ferment in Colombia – and the Colombian government’s troubling response.
While calling into question the efficacy of both the economic and judicial systems, recent labor strikes also demonstrate that respect for workers’ rights is still low in Colombia.
The Sugar Cane Cutters’ Strike
Sugar cane cutters in Valle del Cauca (the department of which Cali is the capital) have been on strike since September 15th. Despite massive economic losses caused by the strike, the workers have not been able to make any progress in meeting basic demands.
These demands hinge on moving away from a “worker cooperative model” to one in which they directly engage, and establish contracts with, ASOCAÃ‘A (the Colombian sugar cane business conglomerate). Colombian cane cutters are among the poorest and most disadvantaged workers in the country, and they are the basis of the profitable ethanol and biofuel industries. Yet the government has not offered them support.
The strikers have faced attacks from the Minister of Social Protection Diego Palacios, who called them “vandals” and implied that they are tied to guerrillas. Palacios’ remarks have not only attempted to debase the strike’s political content, but have also made participants vulnerable to retribution from illegal armed actors. According to Senator AlexÃ¡nder LÃ³pez, the Uribe administration’s allegations that the strikes are in some way associated with or are supported by the FARC “are calamitous assertions that [show that the Uribe administration] is trying to criminalize social struggles and will therefore give [the administration] the pretext to dismantle the peaceful movement of the sugar cane cutters.”
Government use of its security forces to break up the protests has resulted in at least forty injuries of participating workers. This type of official response to a strike that addresses legitimate grievances clearly sends the wrong message to both Colombians and the international community.
The Judicial Strike
In addition to the sugar strike, there is also a judicial workers’ strike, which is causing an enormous back-up in the courts. Colombia’s judicial branch, which includes judges, clerks and other government employees who work in the courts, has been on strike for a month because its workers have not been given a constitutionally guaranteed raise. This raise is of significant importance to some of the poorest paid judges in Latin America. One would think that fair salaries for judges would be a high priority in Colombia, where impunity is one of the greatest impediments to establishing public security. In the mean time, the government, unable to strike a deal, has been forced to name interim judges in order to maintain some sort of mobility in the courts. This has been the longest judicial strike since 1997.
Uribe’s commitment to labor rights?
These strikes do little to better Uribe’s standing with organized labor, whose clout has been critical in delaying consideration of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in the U.S. Congress. The Uribe government’s pro-FTA lobby effort has been hampered by a reversal of progress against union violence. At least forty trade unionists have been murdered in the first eight months of this year, compared to 39 murdered in all of last year. This badly undermines the message that Colombia has sought to send.