The packed room of port workers stood in silent commemoration of Daniel Aguirre, a man who dedicated his life to the struggle of the sugar cane cutters of Valle del Cauca, Colombia. As the salty breezes from the Pacific coast filled the room and ships that carry 60 percent of Colombia’s commerce through the port of Buenaventura drifted by, the port workers called out in unison: Daniel Aguirre- Presente, Presente, Presente! Evoking Daniel´s name and honoring his life´s work the morning after his murder at the Public Hearing on labor formalization that was held in Buenaventura on April 28th was both pertinent and meaningful as the death of this trade union member highlights Colombia’s continuing labor rights violations in the wake of Obama´s assurance of full compliance with the Labor Action Plan.
Daniel Aguirre, age 35, father of 3 young girls, was a founding member of Sinalcorteros, a union of sugar cane cutters, and was a leader in the massive 2008 cane cutters’ strike that set a precedent for the labor movement in the region. Daniel is the first trade union member killed since President Obama announced at the Summit of the Americas that the implementation of the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia will take place May 15th, implementation that was contingent on the fulfillment of commitments in the Labor Action Plan to address serious issues regarding workers´ rights, violence and impunity.
Daniel Aguirre is the seventh trade union member killed this year alone in Colombia (the fourth in Valle del Cauca). This follows thirty union member deaths in 2011, even though in April of that same year the Labor Action Plan was signed into agreement. Despite the promises of this document to address all the intimidations, abuses and murders faced by the Colombian labor movement, violence and widespread impunity remain. Colombia is still the deadliest country in the world to be a trade union member, and there is still 95 percent impunity for cases of violence against trade unionists.
The port workers in Buenaventura are equally aware that the promises in the Labor Action Plan have fallen short of becoming a reality. While the Labor Action Plan promised to eliminate the misuse of sham cooperatives and other forms of intermediation in the hiring process which deny workers their rights as defined by the Colombian labor code, including the right to collective bargaining, these indirect forms of employment are not the exception, but rather the rule: in 2009, nearly 1.4 million workers were part of sham cooperatives, compared to 820,000 workers in a union and only 253,000 (1%) covered by a collective bargaining agreement.
This situation is particularly severe in the ports of Buenaventura, where 97 percent of the 6,000 workers do not have direct contracts or retirement, overtime and health benefits. Despite helping to facilitate the flow of billions of dollars through the port on a daily basis, the prevailing economic system ensures that the workers and their community do not see a fair share of the economic activity that goes through their hands.
We express our deep solidarity with and support of the workers who are raising their voices to demand their fundamental rights to life and dignified work. We will continue to pressure the government of the United States demanding that the Free Trade Agreement is not implemented until the promises of the Labor Action Plan are fulfilled, and that the memory of Daniel Aguirre and the voices of the port workers are honored.