Take Action! Striking Sugar Cane Workers in Colombia under Attack!

Thousands of Colombian sugarcane workers in the Valle de Cauca, Risaralda and Cauca provinces - supported by the CUT, Colombia's largest labor federation - have been on strike since Monday, September 15, calling for basic minimum labor standards. Sadly, the sugarcane companies and the Colombian government completely refused to negotiate with the workers and instead sent in state troops to break up the work stoppage. Striking workers were sprayed with tear gas by the riot police, who also shouted at them "this is nothing compared to what you have coming". Other workers have been attacked or detained by the police.  These workers have the right to negotiate their very basic demands related to their work conditions, and instead they have been met with repression by state forces that receive U.S. funding.  This latest repression happens on the heels of the Colombian government's lobbying blitz in Washington, in a last ditch effort for the U.S. Congress to pass the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. 

 

It's time to remind Congress that signing a Free Trade Agreement with Colombia is unacceptable, especially while labor rights continue to be attacked in Colombia.  Contact your Senators and Representatives today or tomorrow and urge them to guarantee the protection of the sugarcane workers!  For more background information on the labor conditions and situation of sugarcane workers in Colombia, read the Background summary below this action alert!

 

Also, see below for a list of Illinois Representatives, Foreign Policy staffers, and their contact information. If you don't know who your Representative is go to http://www.congress.org/ and type in your zip code to find out.   When you call, ask to speak with the foreign policy aide. If he or she is unavailable, please leave the following message on his or her voicemail:

 

"My name is ­­ _______.  I live in ____(name of your neighborhood or town____).  I'm calling regarding the grave situation of 18,000 sugarcane workers in Colombia who have been on strike since September 15 in protest of the poor and dangerous labor conditions they face.  The sugarcane companies and the Colombian government refused to negotiate with the workers and instead sent in state troops to break up the work stoppage. Striking workers were sprayed with tear gas by the riot police and other workers have been attacked or detained by the police.  These workers have the right to negotiate their very basic demands related to their work conditions, and instead they have been met with repression by state forces. This lack of workers rights is yet another reason why the U.S. Congress should reject the U.S.-Colombia FTA.   I ask that Rep/Sen ___________ immediately contact Colombian President Uribe (571) 562-9300 ext. 3550) and urge him to guarantee the protection of the sugarcane workers and to call on the sugarcane industry to promptly negotiate with the workers. I also ask that he/she contact Susan Sanford at the State Department and urge her to get the U.S. Embassy to closely monitor this situation. Can I count on Rep/Sen _________ to take immediate action on this grave situation?  Please let me know. My phone number is ________. Thank you."

 

Your calls could make the difference - please let us know what you hear back! For more information, contact Danielle Wegman at dwegman@crln.org or 773-293-3680. 

 

Illinois Representatives

Bobby Rush (D-1st) -Speak with John Marshall (FP), 202-225-4372

Jesse Jackson (D- 2nd) ­ -Speak with Charles Dujon, 202-225-0773

Dan Lipinski (D- 3rd ) -Speak with Brian Oszakiewski, 202-225-5701

Luis Gutierrez (D-4th) -Speak with Greg Staff (FP), 202-225-8203

Rahm Emanuel (D -5th) -Speak with Luis Jimenez, 202-225-4061

Peter Roskam (R-6th) -Speak with Vicky Sanville, 202-225-4561

Danny Davis (D-7th) -Speak with Charles Brown, 202-225-5006

Melissa Bean (D-8th) -Speak with J.D. Grom, 202-225-3711

Jan Schakowsky (D-9th) -Speak with Nina Besser, 202-225-2111

Mark Kirk (R-10th) -Speak with Jeff Phillips, 202-225-4835

Jerry Weller (R-11th) -Speak with Alan Tennille, 202-225-3635

Jerry Costello (D-12th) -Speak with Dan McCarthy, 202-225-5661

Judy Biggert (R-13th) -Speak with Griffin Foster, 202-225-3515

Bill Foster (D-14th) -Speak with Jim Callaghan, 202-225-2976

Timothy Johnson (R-15th) -Speak with Stephen Borg, 202-225-2371

Donald Manzullo (R-16th) -Speak with Nien Su, 202-225-5676

Phil Hare (D-17th)-Speak with Kemi Jemilohun, 202-225-5905

Ray LaHood (R-18th) -Speak with Diane Liesman, 202-225-6201

John Shimkus (R-19th) -Speak with Greta Hanson, 202-225-5271

 

 

Background

 

Labor conditions in the sugarcane industry have been often referred to as modern day slavery.  Sugarcane workers, which are predominately Afro-Colombian, receive salaries often below the already low minimum wage, have no labor stability, and work under conditions of extreme hazard to personal health in which many are left disabled, while being responsible for their own healthcare. Sugarcane workers in the Rio Cauca river basin are currently hired through so-called cooperatives, which prevent the workers' ability to negotiate directly with the sugarcane companies.



In response to the inhumane conditions, the region's 18,000 workers began organizing to collectively create changes in the sugarcane companies. On June 14, the organization of sugarcane workers presented a list of basic demands to the sugarcane companies. Failing to hear a response, the sugarcane workers went on a work strike last Monday, demanding direct employment contracts with the companies, just salaries, basic work supplies, payment in to the social security system, social investment in the region, and assurance that the workers not be violently repressed.  Unfortunately, the stoppage has been met with repression as the sugarcane companies have militarized their lands and police brutality has resulted in at least 33 injuries.



On September 23, the Minister of Social Protection Diego Palacio Betancourt spoke out against the organized workers, in a manner that has made many social organizations recognize that a police and military repression of the striking workers is imminent. As the CUT explained the Minister's statements: "In yesterday's  Senate Plenary Session, [the Minister Palacio] recklessly accused the sugarcane workers of impeding the transit of citizens, vehicles and machinery on sugar company lands; of intimidating or coercing the Strike participants, and of being manipulated by menacing people or groups [implying armed insurgents] that are not part of the labor movement."



The Ministry of Social Protection is the government entity that has the power to recognize the striking workers and their union. The Ministry should be working to protect the workers and seeking to provide them recognition, but instead the Minister Palacio is quoted as saying, "This is no longer a labor conflict, rather it is a problem of intimidation that a small group is exercising over some workers of the sugarcane sector that want to work."  By terming the work stoppage not as a labor problem but rather a problem of 'public order', Minister Palacio implies that the workers do not have the right to organize or to strike. He further implies that the workers are taking action on behalf of illegal armed groups, which in Colombia are code words that lead to repression and often even death sentences.



The sugarcane strike illustrates the sad reality of inhumane working conditions in Colombia, and the Minister's statements highlight the fact that there is no guaranteed right to unionize in Colombia. These realities present just one more reason why the U.S. Congress should reject the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Pro-FTA forces continue to push for its passage despite clear evidence that any U.S. benefit in cheaper tropical products would come at the expense of workers who are not allowed to organize and Colombian communities who lack protections for their lands and rights, due to an ongoing history of repression from the Colombian government and its illegal armed allies.



The U.S. Congress should also recognize its role in the past repression and any upcoming repression of striking workers. The U.S. has invested over $5 billion in the Colombian police and military that represses peaceful civilian and worker actions.  The Third Brigade and the Valle del Cauca and South West Police have received large investments from the U.S.'s Plan Colombia - resources that have served to strengthen these units militarily. Today we see these military and police forces used against the sugarcane workers, against indigenous communities, against Afro-Colombians, small-scale farmers, and university students.



The U.S. Congress is with one hand weakly demanding that Colombia respect labor rights so that it can pass the U.S.-Colombia FTA, while with the other hand giving millions to those armed forces who have for years repressed Colombia's social movements and unions with impunity.  The U.S. Congress must demilitarize Plan Colombia and reinvest the funds into economic aid. They must also oppose the U.S.-Colombia FTA, keeping in mind that the FTA will make permanent the Colombian laws that have stripped workers protections, pushed workers into "cooperatives", and allow for U.S. exploitation of natural resources without fair protections for those affected by such explorations.