CBTU reports on conditions of Afro-Colombians

A delegation from the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) recently returned from a fact finding mission to Colombia.

They found that the Labor Action Plan signed in 2011 by Colombia and the US is not being enforced and that Afro-Colombian workers “are particularly affected by labor violence and other abuses.”

The CBTU delegation was led by US Rep. Hank Johnson, a long-time advocate for Afro-Colombian labor and human rights.

The visit was made at the request of the Afro-Colombian Peace Council (CONPA).

CONPA is a coalition of Afro-Colombian groups seeking an end to Colombia’s civil war and economic and social justice for the 6 million people of African decent living in Colombia and for the country’s indigenous people.

Among other things, CONPA has become alarmed by the recent surge in racially motivated violence committed against Afro-Colombians.

Al Jazeera reports that there has been an increase in racially motivated attacks against Afro-Colombians. In Bogata, the nation’s capital, 14 Afro-Colombian youths died in the first six months of 2015 in drive by shootings with racial overtones.

Afro-Colombian workers have also been the target of violence. In many cases, the violence committed against them takes place on the job.

The CBTU toured regions of the country where sugar is grown and processed. About 90 percent of the workers in Colombia’s sugar industry are Afro-Colombian.

One worker on a sugar cane plantation told the CBTU that he and his fellow workers work in slave like conditions.

Their work is arduous and dangerous but there are few health and safety protections in place.

They are forced to work in recently burned cane fields where they breathe noxious smoke that damages their lungs.

For those who get sick or injured and are unable to work there is no disability insurance or workers compensation.

It is not uncommon for sugar cane workers to work 13-hour days seven days a week, but they receive no overtime pay, which is contrary to Colombia’s labor laws.

Their pay is also irregular. They don’t receive a base wage; instead, they are paid on a piece rate that workers complain is too low to support a decent standard of living.

When these workers have tried to organize to improve their working conditions and their lives, they have been met with violence.

One of the most publicized acts of violence took place in 2012 when a young sugar cane worker name Daniel Aguirre, the father of three, was gunned down as he walked home from work.

Aguirre was a leader of the sugar cane workers union SINPROSEC.

Aguirre is hardly the only union activist to be murdered in Colombia. The Escuela Nacional Sindical, a research center concerned with labor issues in Colombia, reports that since 2011, 105 union activists have been assassinated.

In 2011, the US and Colombia signed a Labor Action Plan (LAP) that was designed to end these kinds of labor abuses, which are not confined just to the sugar growing and processing industries.

By all accounts, the LAP is well designed and could go a long way toward ending labor abuses in Colombia. The problem is that it is not being enforced.

One example of the lax enforcement can be found on the sugar plantations.

At one time, plantation owners used labor co-operatives to work in the field. These co-operatives were supposedly made up of individual contractors who as such were not protected by the country’s labor laws.

The LAP was supposed to have ended this practice, but it continues under a different guise. Now, instead of working as part of a labor co-operative, the workers work for companies that contract with the plantation owners. In some cases, the plantation owners own these companies and don’t even try to hide their ownership.

Nevertheless, the workers in the field are still treated as temporary workers who don’t have any legal protections that permanent workers have.

Even though this practice is common knowledge, nothing has been done to end it.

And of course nothing has been done to stop the murders of union leaders and activists.

In addition to abuses in the sugar cane fields, the CBTU delegation found other problems:

  • Afro-Colombian women and youth told the delegation about the gender discrimination and sexual violence that they face;
  • The struggle of indigenous people for autonomy has faced serious setbacks in recent years; and
  • Afro-Colombians have not been given a voice in the peace negotiations between the government and leftist guerillas even though many of them live in highly contested areas and have been the victims of violence committed by both sides.

Finally the report issued by CBTU found that, “Racism against Afrodescendants remains a major obstacle towards their exerting full rights as citizens of Colombia.”


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