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COLOMBIA: Sugar Workers Strike for Basic Rights

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Oct 7 2008 (IPS) - "We sugar cane cutters are neither delinquents nor terrorists; we are honest workers demanding respect for our rights," say Colombia’s cane harvesters, who have been on strike since Sept. 15, demanding basic rights.

The government of rightwing President Álvaro Uribe, who says the strike is instigated by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, has treated it as a national security issue.

Anti-riot police brutally cracked down on the strikers, their leaders have been intimidated and harassed, and a military base was the site of the president’s meeting with the country’s biggest sugar cane producers, who are represented by the Colombian Sugar Cane Growers' Association (ASOCAÑA).

"They are fighting for a work contract, for the existence of a labour relationship between employers and workers," said the president of the Confederation of Colombian Workers (CTC), Apecides Alviz.

The CTC and the rest of the country’s central trade unions celebrated Tuesday the World Day for Decent Work, organised by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

The cane cutters presented their demands on Jul. 14 to ASOCAÑA, in the name of 19,000 workers active in the sugar industry in the Cauca river valley, in the provinces of Valle del Cauca in the west and Cauca in the southwest. No agreement has yet been reached.

The sugar industry workers, who are employed indirectly as outsourced workers by the 13 large sugar mills and ethanol (alcohol fuel) plants grouped together in ASOCAÑA, are seeking a living wage, minimal working, environmental and occupational health and safety conditions, and improved social spending in at least 12 sugar cane producing districts.

Their main goal is to end outsourcing practices by employers and achieve work contracts for and the direct hiring of all of the industry’s workers.

The union is also seeking recognition and pay for sick days, as well as controls to ensure that the cane cut by the workers is accurately weighed in the fields.

"We have not prompted any expressions of violence against installations or persons," says the statement by the workers, who call for support for those who "have given the best years of their lives so that the owners of the sugar and ethanol industry could amass enormous fortunes."

Most of Colombia’s sugar cane workers are black, and their working conditions today do not appear to be much better than those of their slave ancestors.

The workers and their families live in squalid, overcrowded conditions along the edges of the vast cane plantations in Valle del Cauca, a hot, humid plains region known for its breathtaking natural beauty and considered Colombia’s second-most fertile area, after the savannah of Bogotá in the centre of the country.

In a statement on the conditions faced by the sugar cane workers, Nasa Indians in the neighbouring province of Cauca, represented by the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN), said the cutters are "worse off than slaves, because they have no masters who would have to feed them and guarantee them a roof for shelter in exchange for their relentless exploitation."

In colonial times, indigenous people were originally used as slave labour to harvest sugar cane in Latin America. However, they were replaced by slaves from Africa, who were better able to withstand the harsh work and conditions.

The pay earned by the cutters – who are mainly men – depends on how many tons of sugar cane a day that they are able to cut and carry to the scales, which are exclusively controlled by the outsourcing companies or the sugar mills.

Around a dozen cane cutters have camped out since Sept. 23 in the Plaza de Bolívar in Bogotá, the capital, where they describe their working conditions to anyone who cares to listen, as part of their impromptu awareness-raising campaign.

Sugar cane harvesters work seven days a week, with just one day off a month. If they are sick, they must send someone to work in their place, or they lose their job.

They leave home at 5:00 AM and return sometime between 6:00 and 9:00 PM. The women get up at 3:00 AM to make the men’s breakfast and lunch. The work itself, cutting cane with a machete, is backbreaking, hazardous labour.

When they reach the sugar cane field in the morning, 90 workers are assigned to cut the cane on a 5,000-square-metre lot. If they are unable to finish that day, the next day they are assigned a smaller area, which brings them less pay. That means workers tend to stay in the fields between 12 and 16 hours a day, to finish the lot to which they have been assigned.

The accounting is kept by the "associated labour cooperatives" (CTAs), bodies that were designed by the Colombian government in the late 1990s as part of a labour reform so that companies no longer have to pay contributions to social security and other benefits. The CTAs also make collective bargaining agreements impossible.

"By belonging to the cooperative, we are at the same time worker and boss," was how cane cutter Efraín Muñoz described the arrangement.

"The raison d’etre of these cooperatives is simply to bring down the price of labour," said leftwing Senator Jorge Enrique Robledo in a Jun. 17 debate in the Senate.

Cane cutters go through around five machetes a month, as well as three or four files to keep them sharp. The workers also need gloves, ankle protectors, work clothes and leather shoes – all of which they must pay for out of their own pockets. They also have to cover their own transportation costs, which absorb one-seventh of their wages.

The CTAs deduct 20 percent of their wages, and make it obligatory for their members to maintain savings accounts – which cost eight to 13 dollars a month in fees – where their wages are deposited.

The sugar cane workers must also cover the entire cost of their health, pension and labour insurance contributions. If they had stable work contracts, their employers would have to cover two-thirds of the contributions, and would pay them a transportation subsidy.

According to Agriculture Minister Andrés Felipe Arias, sugar cane industry workers earn 450 dollars a month.

But after all of the deductions and costs, they actually take home between 133 and 155 dollars a month.

The poverty line, as set by the governmental Economic and Social Policy Council, stands at 118 dollars per person per month. And the cost of the basic needs basket is estimated by the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE) at 422 dollars a month for a family of four.

The latest available DANE studies, from 2006, show that 56 percent of Colombian workers earn less than 222 dollars a month, which is currently the minimum monthly wage.

In the past, Valle del Cauca province produced more than 2.5 million tons of sugar a year, while domestic prices ranged between 30 and 50 cents a pound, compared to 12 cents a pound on the international market.

But now the sugar mills are also producing ethanol, which is twice as costly as petrol. And to do so, they receive between 100 and 120 million dollars a year in subsidies from the government, which has made a mix of 10 percent ethanol in petrol mandatory in all cities of more than 500,000 people.

The government initially argued that the subsidy to plants producing ethanol was aimed at guaranteeing the jobs of sugar cane workers. But in Valle del Cauca, there are a growing number of sugar cane cutting machines.

The government is not willing to negotiate with the striking workers because addressing any of their demands "would imply an overhaul of the rules governing the cooperatives, and would set a precedent running counter to the system of precarious labour that forms the basis of this economy," Camilo González, a former government minister and former candidate for governor of Cauca, told IPS.

The sugar mills "depend on the current rules of the game and state subsidies," said González, who is head of the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (INDEPAZ). "There is a lot of talk about a free market, but these are companies that are tied to a ‘fettered’ market, with guaranteed sales and semi-slave labour – a paradox in times of neoliberalism."

ITUC secretary general Guy Ryder said "The Colombian government must fulfil its constitutional duty to defend, protect and promote workers’ rights. The situation of the sugar cane harvesters is unendurable and a solution must be found immediately." ITUC represents 168 million workers in 155 countries and territories and has 311 national affiliates.

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