Call goes out for solidarity with striking Colombian palm oil workers

(IUF) Thousands of palm oil workers in the Puerto Wilches district of Colombia are now on a general strike to defend collective bargaining and oppose the spread of casualization [hiring of temporary workers] and precarious work on palm oil farms.

Their dispute dates back to early August when a major company, Palmas Oleaginosas Bucarelia, refused to enter into meaningful negotiations with the international union of food, agriculture and hospitality workers, IUF, -affiliated SINTRAINAGRO for the renewal of the collective agreement.

Bucarelia instead proposed to cut benefits, to restrict union activity on the farm and to increase precarious work through more use of Associated Labour Cooperatives (Cooperativas de Trabajo Asociado (CTAs – see below). At the end of August, Bucarelia workers decided to call a strike and set up a protest camp in front of the company.

SINTRAINAGRO asked Colombia’s Ministry of Social Protection to intervene to try to resolve the dispute and on Sept. 6, the ministry called a tripartite meeting to analyze the conflict and to explore possible ways forward. The IUF’s regional office, REL-UITA and the Colombian trade union confederation, CUT were also invited to the meeting.

However the company continued with its intransigent position and insisted on acceptance of its opening proposal i.e. cuts in premiums and benefits and increased use of outsourced. At the end of September workers from the other palm oil farms in the area decide to join the strike.

Tension in the region rocketed on October 12. While workers were attending a meeting at the local office of the Ministry of Labour in Bucaramanga, the employers brought in carloads of people from other municipalities to try to force workers to return to the farms. These “protesters” were accompanied by the police and the mayor of Puerto Wilches. SINTRAINAGRO has complained to national and regional authorities and to the Human Rights Commission about the police increasing tension in the region and their harassment of strikers.

The union has now issued a global call for solidarity. On October 22, SINTRAINAGRO convened a general assembly in Puerto Wilches with workers from the striking farms, national and regional representatives of the CUT, the Union Sindial Obrera and 22 campesino organizations, NGOs and human rights groups. The assembly adopted a 5- point declaration of support for the striking Puerto Wilches workers.

You can support their struggle!

REL-UITA has set up a campaign page to send a message directly to the President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos. The message is a statement of support for SINTRAINAGRO and the striking Puerto Wilches workers in their struggle to renew their CBA and to oppose a form of outsourcing which, the message explains, “is responsible for job insecurity, poverty and hunger in Colombia”. The message calls on the President to intervene urgently and “take the necessary steps for early signing of a new collective agreement”. Click here to send the message to President Santos.

What are CTAs?

Over 2 million Colombians are employed through Associative Labour Cooperatives (CTAs) in the sugar, palm oil, health, mining and port industries. CTAs enable companies to subcontract workers through third-party intermediaries without the responsibility of providing contracts and basic benefits to employees.

Workers in CTAs have no collective bargaining rights, and companies don’t respect even the basic labour standards. Unions have been fighting the spread of CTAs for several years. In 2008 the IUF and SINTRAINAGRO supported a strike of sugar cane [workers resisting CTAs.

Production of palm oil in Colombia has rocketed in recent years – the area under palm oil cultivation has tripled. Colombia is now the 5th largest producer globally and the largest in Latin America.

According to FEDAPALMA, the palm oil producers’ organization, 80,000 Colombians work in the palm oil sector. When palm oil was first introduced into Colombia it was mainly for domestic consumption but since 1990 palm oil exports have increased significantly and now make up an important part of Colombian agro-industrial exports.

Editor’s note: Despite opposition from U.S. unions and other sectors of the population, the U.S. Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed into law this month the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

U.S. unions have been opposed to such a deal because of the violence against Colombian labor leaders and union members.

In a statement last month AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said 22 union leaders have been killed so far this year in Colombia, including 15 since the Colombian government’s labor action plan went into effect. The plan is supposed to end the violence against workers, but has been largely ineffective, according to Trumka.

“While the new government may have good intentions, unfortunately, on the ground, Colombian working families are neither safer nor more able to exercise their basic rights. Colombia continues to be the most dangerous place in the world to be a union member,” he said.

Trumka also says Colombia is suppressing the rights of indigenous people and the country’s minority Afro-Colombian community

Photo: Palm oil and maize farm in Colombia. (CIMMYT/CC)