Police Brutality Meets Portworkers’ Demands for Fair Working Conditions in Buenaventura
by Carlos A. Cruz Colombia Team
At 2AM on the 29th of August, five hundred striking Afro-Colombian port workers were met with riot police brutality. Instead of protecting the legitimate voices of these workers in their demands for national and international labor laws and regulations to be upheld, the riot police chose to unleash violence, resulting in the serious injury of four workers, including a pregnant woman.
After twenty days of negotiations with TECSA (Terminal Especializado de Contenedores de Buenaventura S.A.), the company refused all points that comprised the workers’ list of demands, even those internationally recognized as workers´ rights: the right of freedom of association and the right to organize, which are protected both under Colombian Constitutional Law as well as under ILO Convention 87 from 1948; and the right to direct forms of contracting with open-ended contracts, which should have been applied under Decree 2025 of 2011 as part of the Obama-Santos Labor Action Plan. Given these failed negotiations, the workers decided to strike.
The Port Workers’ Union of Buenaventura (Union Portuaria) and its president John Jairo Castro have been spearheading organizing efforts to get workers directly contracted so they can have a fair working wage (it has been shown that indirect forms of contracting result in a 50% decrease in salary). However, these efforts continue to be met with death threats and repression, despite the fact that working conditions in the port sector was a priority issue in the Labor Action Plan to be addressed before the passing of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Because of the commitment in this Plan to address the violence faced by workers, it is crucial that the violent actions perpetrated by the riot police against striking workers is immediately investigated. Otherwise, it will be apparent that our governments’ concern was only superficial and was just meant to pave the way for the ratification of the FTA instead of making substantial changes in labor conditions in Colombia.
Under the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement commerce between the two countries is supposed to increase, making maritime shipping ports a very important and strategic part of the Colombian national economy. The pacific port city of Buenaventura sees 60% of the millions and millions of dollars’ worth of goods from the U.S. coming in and out of the country day after day. The workers of the port, however, cannot even afford a decent living for themselves or for their families, let alone the bright shiny goods coming in from the shipping containers they unload every day.
The workers of the port are mostly Afro-Colombian, and they work under very precarious labor conditions. There have been a number of deaths in the port due to the lack of enforced safety standards, and most of the contracting agencies that provide employment in the ports don’t provide any safety protection, instead burdening the workers with these costs.
The majority of the port workers can’t even address their unfair working conditions as they are legally barred from joining a labor union. If they do try and join a labor union they are fired and often blacklisted from getting a job. Workers report management giving them the job on the condition that they don’t join a labor union, and how can they say no when there is a sixty-percent unemployment rate and Afro-Colombians are severely discriminated against in the job market?
Sociedad Portuaria bought the port when it was privatized back in the 90’s, and now leases out all the functions of the port to TECSA who then subcontracts other intermediary companies to run the operations in the port, circumventing labor rights as these companies don’t provide a framework for trade union membership. In the meantime, length of shifts surpasses what is permitted under labor law, and health deductions get taken from paychecks even though workers receive no access to health care. All these abuses and exploitations have been well-documented and even acknowledged by the Colombian and U.S. governments.
On Saturday, negotiations are set to begin again between TECSA and the Port Workers Union. Given the failures to comply with stipulations in the Obama-Santos Labor Action Plan, U.S. Embassy representatives should attend these negotiations to ensure that a peaceful and just resolution is obtained.