By Nikki Drake
The Witness for Peace Colombia International Team recently accompanied the eleven-day Global Caravan for Peace and Democracy in Colombia, organized by Sinaltrainal, the Colombian Food Industry Workers Union. The purpose of the event was to bring together an international presence to monitor what is happening in Colombia, and along with several meetings in Bogotá, groups were sent out to different regions of the country to meet with union affiliates, workers, organizations, associations, and community members. The Caravan started on April 22nd, and culminated with the May Day March for International Workers in Bogotá and a final meeting with the Ombudsman´s Office on May 2nd, during which Sintaltrainal representatives and the international participants presented their findings and concerns.
Back in their home countries, the international guests of the Caravan are sharing information and photos from their trip with the hope that by spreading awareness of the crimes and corruption occurring in Colombia, people across the globe will pressure their elected officials and governments to change international policies, monetary aid, and trade agreements that continue to have such damaging effects and ignore the unspeakable violations by the Colombian government. In addition, one week after the Caravan, Sinaltrainal presented their official findings to Vice President Angelino Garzón and his four legal advisors, accompanied by members of the Witness for Peace team. He committed to sending the union’s official report to President Santos and various government agencies, and recommended that follow-up and demands for responses be made to those agencies and to the multinational corporations.
Colombia IT Natalie Southwick and Julia Duranti accompanied the Caravan across Valle de Cauca, hearing testimony from workers at well-known multinationals like Coca-Cola, Nestle and Sodexo, as well community organizers working with displaced families and human rights defenders standing up to paramilitary violence in Cali and Buenaventura. Margaret Boehme and Nikki Drake traveled to the North Coast, visiting workers and fishing, indigenous, and displaced communities in the provinces of La Guajira, Magdalena, and Atlántico, all of whom have been greatly affected by the coal-mining industry. In meeting after meeting, we heard similar stories from each group; poor work conditions and lack of worker rights, extreme poverty, lack of potable water, violence and forced displacements of communities, environmental contamination and devastation, and the link between multinational corporations and paramilitaries. They very clearly conveyed their frustration, anger, and desperation after being repeatedly mistreated and abandoned by their own government, which, they report, makes foreign corporations and investors rich while its own people suffer. But despite year after year without seeing changes, these same Colombians continue sharing their stories, organizing, and fighting for better living and working conditions.
Continue reading below for descriptions and photos of some of the unions and community groups we met with throughout the week.
Affiliates of Sinaltrainal, including workers from coal mines such as Cerrejón and Glencore, and other multinational corporations such as Coca Cola and Nestle
Workers and union affiliates shared about poor work conditions and the systematic violation of worker rights in Colombia. Companies commonly fail to provide obligatory overtime or vacation pay, and workers often go for weeks without days off. Reports were even made of working several years without a vacation for fear of being fired. Injury and illness on the job are extremely common, and workers are sent to company physicians who consistently rule that the injuries were sustained at home or out in the street. The affected worker is usually then fired, receiving no health services or benefits. Threats toward union members and leaders by paramilitaries are common, and some have even been displaced from their cities due to severe, repeated threats.
One way in which multinational corporations limit worker rights is through a system of subcontracting and third-party employment, in which a large company creates several smaller companies within (all owned and controlled by the main company) as a way to keep employees fractured into small groups, making it more difficult to organize and unionize. Of Coca Cola’s 10,000 workers, only 10% have direct contracts, and only 400 are union members.
The global giant also uses a Contract of Availability as another method to control its workforce and limit organizing, under which workers are sent home and told to wait for a phone call to come in to work. Because employees only get paid for days worked, after several days with no call, they must often seek out temporary day jobs. However, if they are not home when the call does finally come, they are terminated immediately.
Another tactic of subcontracting is that the smaller companies often close suddenly, laying off all employees, and then re-open under different names, hiring new, non-union workers at lower pay. According to workers, Cerrejón often hires new workers at lower pay than prior years, consistently reducing costs while extraction and production increase unregulated by the Colombian government. Colombia receives $8 per ton extracted, the samerate it has received during the company’s 30 years in operation, even though the selling price abroad has increased exponentially over the years.
Representatives from Wayuu indigenous communities, department of La Guajira
Wayuu indigenous communities throughout La Guajira are greatly affected by mining. Rivers and ground water are being depleted by the extraction process, leaving communities with little to no water. According to community members, contamination caused by coal-mining, as well as the lack of water, are greatly diminishing crop production. There has been little government presence to provide assistance, and most areas have very limited access to health centers or schools. Organizing of the various communities has been slow and difficult, as people live in small independent clans and have very limited contact.
Don Jaca, Urban Neighborhood of Santa Marta, department of Magdalena
This fishing village lies on the coast, surrounded by three large coal ports. According to local fishermen, the ocean´s fish stocks have been greatly reduced by contamination, making it difficult for them to earn a livelihood. Train tracks run directly through the small town, and up until six months ago open-air trains transporting coal from the mines to the ports passed through daily every five minutes between 4:45am and 10:45pm. Structures were repeatedly damaged or completely collapsed due to the vibrations caused by the trains. According to community leaders, contamination by coal dust has killed food crops and dried up trees,and respiratory and skin problems are common throughout the community.
There is no health post, and the school only provides classes through the 4thgrade. Most families cannot afford the round-trip bus fare for their children to continue at other distant schools. According to Dan Jaca residents, the mines do not employ members of their community, who cannot afford the necessary schooling and certifications, and instead bring in qualified workers from bigger cities.
Palmira, Municipality of Old Town, Ciénaga, department of Magdalena
Built on top of a coastal dump along a highway outside of Ciénaga, this is a community made up of several displaced people and families. Its inhabitants fill the inland waters with garbage and then cover it with sand, dirt, and rocks to make foundations for their houses. There is no running water of any kind, so the community must purchase water sold out of a a truck tank that a local man fills from a river, which they then store in plastic barrels to use for everything from washing to drinking. There are no public services, no garbage pick-up, and the health clinic that was built over 10 years ago was never staffed and is now used as just another house.
The ocean waters have been contaminated by mining and palm oil and banana plantations, greatly decreasing fish populations. The water along the coastline has also been privatized, with systems of nets spread along the immediate coastline so that community members must go out in boats to try and catch fish and seafood. The area often floods, with water reaching as high as the chest and carrying garbage inside the houses.
ASOTRACAMPO – Association of the Displaced and Farmers of Tamarindo, outskirts of Barranquilla, department of Atlántico
Many who live in this community have been displaced by violence multiple times. Some come from other areas along the coast, while others are from the interior of the country. The community lies along the edges of one of Colombia’s many duty-free zones, and its members are consistently being threatened and kicked off these very lands by national police, military,and paramilitaries for expansion of the nearby zone. Their houses, crops, and animals are being knocked down and killed, with paramilitaries monitoring the area to prevent anyone from returning to their land or rebuilding. The association has sent a formal request to the Colombian government for protection and for a relocation of the entire community, but as of yet has not received any response.