Repression Meets Striking Sugarcane Workers in Colombia
News from Colombia |
on: Saturday, 20 September 2008
Police and soldiers have attacked large numbers of striking sugarcane workers in southwest Colombia after they began industrial action in an attempt to improve what have been described as "slave like" working conditions. Over 10,000 workers have walked out after months of unsuccessful attempts to negotiate with the owners of the sugar mills and plantations involved.
The workers began their strike on September 15th in the departments of Cauca, Risarlada and Valle after constant refusals by the Sugar Cane Growers' Association, ASOCANA, to negotiate with them for better working conditions.
Conditions for the sugarcane workers, who earn less than $50 (USD) a week, are appalling. The working day is 14 hours, seven days a week, and no proper employment contracts are provided meaning workers must pay for their own healthcare and do no not receive pensions, sick pay or holiday time. The workers are also demanding protective clothing as they regularly suffer from skin and respiratory illnesses due to the pesticides and other chemicals used in the plantations.
Because their contracts are with agencies (known as cooperatives in Colombia) they are treated as self employed meaning that they cannot organise unions, bargain collectively for wages, etc. This has released the owners from any labour obligations.
The strikers, who are asking for better pay, shorter hours, a healthier working environment and formal labour contacts that recognise trade unions, were met with violence on the first day of their protest when hundreds of soldiers and police officers arrived at the eight sugar mills involved. At one mill over 100 strikers were injured whilst at the 'Providencia' mill 13 people were injured after ESMAD riot police and troops of the 'Codazzi' Battalion of the Colombian Army attacked them.
According to witnesses the security forces, along with private security guards hired by the owners, randomly attacked the workers. Among those hurt was the regional president of the CUT trade union federation Alvaro Vega who was hospitalised after being savagely beaten.
Intimidation has continued in the last few days as unknown men, sometimes accompanied by members of the police or army, have arrived to film and photograph the strikers. Some fear that the men could be linked to the paramilitary death squads that regularly target trade unionists in Colombia and that have documented links to the security forces.
The strikers have established permanent camps and picket lines outside of the mills involved and latest reports from the area say that the security forces have established roadblocks and are not allowing food or water to reach the workers. The situation is believed to be most critical at the 'Central Tumaco' mill where there is a heavy police presence.