Colombia: where dockers sell their paycheques for loans

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Labour contractors on the docks in Buenaventura, the largest port in Colombia, pay US$200 for two weeks work loading and unloading ships. But they don’t pay cash.

On payday, dockers, or longshoremen, have to go to a loanshark, and borrow against the promise of a pay cheque, but for considerably less – US$170 or US$180.

“They have to sell the pay from the contractor,” charges Jhon Jairo Castro, president of the Unión Portuaria, or Dockworkers’ Union, in Buenaventura.

Castro was interviewed in San Francisco, where he asked for support from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

To get that pay they have to work far longer than the government-mandated maximum work week of 48 hours. Some labour eight hours on, then get eight hours off, and then return for another eight hours. Others work “the devil’s shift” – kept on the docks for 24 or even 36 hours, but only paid for eight.

“Everyone is hired on a daily basis, and gets paid by the hour, with no daily guarantee,” Castro says.

In 1994 the Colombian Port Authority was privatised and replaced by the privately-run Regional Port Society of Buenaventura.

A second private company, TECSA S.A., runs port operations under contract. TECSA then brings in an ‘intermediary’ which hires a temporary employment agency.

The agency uses a labour contractor, who has no office and simply stands on the street, hiring longshoremen.

The contractor has no financial resources for meeting a payroll, thus forcing workers to wait weeks to get paid, or to sell the promise of a paycheck.

“People cannot earn enough to support themselves,” Castro says. “We have workers who have to beg in the streets, who sleep on the sidewalks. Even after working 20 years they have no social security and no pensions."

Buenaventura’s 370,000 inhabitants are mostly Afro-Colombian – African descendants of slaves brought to Latin America over centuries by the Spanish.

Over 80 per cent of its people live in poverty, and a third are unemployed – four times the national average.

Two-thirds of Buenaventura homes have no sewage connection, and almost half have no drinking water. Life expectancy here is 51, while nationally it is 62.

“Poverty causes the disintegration of families," Castro says. “Our children are recruited as prostitutes, or into criminal gangs and illegal armed groups.”

 

Colombia’s failure

The conditions of Buenaventura’s longshore workers, and the harsh reprisals against them for trying to form unions, dramatically illustrate the failure of Colombia’s Labor Action Plan.

Negotiated three years ago as part of its free trade agreement with the United States, it’s condemned as totally ineffective in a recent report by the country’s labour federations, backed by the AFL-CIO, the US national trade union centre.

Tarcisio Rivera, president of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Colombia, calls the trade agreement and labor action plan “useless and detrimental for both the Colombian economy and the rights of workers.”

The report, supported by a number of international labor organisations including IndustriALL Global Union–Américas, cited extensive illegal sub-contracting and illegal hiring.

“The national government is responsible for this system,” says Castro, “because it privatised the ports and didn’t implement any regulations or labour standards covering employment."

In the trade agreement’s first year Colombian exports to the US fell by 15 per cent while imports from the United States grew by nearly the same amount.

“The government promised that the free trade agreement would increase our income,” Castro adds, “but our misery increased instead. Businesses have gone into debt with the banks and then been forced into bankruptcy. Wages have gone down. It’s caused a tremendous social breakdown.”

Treaty supporters promised the Labor Action Plan would curb attacks on unions trying to resist the impact. The result has been the opposite. “In 2013, 26 trade unionists were murdered, four more than in 2012,” according to the research conducted by the Colombian think-tank Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS), cited by the AFL-CIO.

“Attempted murders also increased, from seven to 13. Since the LAP was signed, there have been 31 attempted murders, six forced disappearances and nearly 1,000 death threats.”

Some 86.8 per cent of murders went unpunished, and 99.9 per cent of threats against unionists, giving an overall impunity rate for human rights violations against trade unionists of 96.7 per cent.

For Buenaventura longshoremen, those numbers are more than statistics.

Castro accuses companies in the port of mass firings when workers organise. “They demand that workers sign letters resigning from the union to get hired,” he charges. “A number of our members have been murdered, but the authorities ‘investigate’ and then say it has nothing to do with their union activity.”

The result is a climate of fear. “Talking about the union invites being fired. We call it labor terrorism. There is absolutely no guarantee of your right to union activity.”

Only a minority of the port’s 6000 workers, therefore, belong to the union.

“We survive because of solidarity, from our own members and from other organisations,” Castro tells Equal Times.

“We have the right on paper to negotiate with the employers, but it’s another thing to be able to exercise it. In 2012 we had a strike at TECSA and started negotiations. The company filed a suit against our union, demanding that all our members be fired and our union dissolved.

“The government backs them with the police and laws that violate our rights, like the decree that anyone blocking the street during demonstrations would be imprisoned."

 

Racism

Other workers and unions in Colombia share these problems. But in Buenaventura the union says it is also targeted because of discrimination against Afro-Colombians.

Employers, it says, bring people from the interior and give them better jobs than the ones available to Buenaventura residents. “In the Afro-Colombian community work and pay is lowest and most unequal,” Castro says. “The cane cutters. The longshoremen. Those who work [harvesting palm oil].”
Of Colombia’s 44 million people, 49.2 per cent live below the poverty line. But poverty is not evenly distributed.

The country’s healthcare system, damaged by budget cuts to fund the government’s counterinsurgency war, covers 40 per cent of white Colombians. Only 10 per cent of black Colombians get health services. A mere 3 per cent of Afro Colombian workers receive social security benefits.

Institutionalised inequality is reinforced by internal displacement. From 1940 to 1990, Colombia’s urban population grew from 31 per cent to 77 per cent, as people fled rural poverty and decades of civil war.

But by 2009 Colombia’s Constitutional Court found the fundamental rights of displaced Afro Colombians were “massively and continuously ignored,” citing Buenaventura as a symbol of inequality.

Human Rights Watch’s 2014 report The Crisis in Buenaventura says “for the past three years, Buenaventura has led all Colombian municipalities in the numbers of newly displaced persons.”

It counted 22,028 residents who fled in 2011, 15,191 in 2012, and 13,468 between January and October 2013.

According to Castro, in the last decade 60,000 people have been forced out. “Now the latest plans for expanding the port will affect another five to ten thousand. Since almost 99 per cent of displaced people are Afro-Colombians, privatisation and displacement have a racist component.”

Human Rights Watch charges that violence drives displacement. At its height the right-wing paramilitary organisation, the United Self Defense Forces (AUC), killed more than 1000 Buenaventurans in 2000 and 2001 alone, according to prosecutors.

After the AUC was ‘demobilised’ in December 2004, other right-wing paramilitary groups emerged incorporating former AUC members.

People are “disappeared” every year – 24 in 2006, 63 in 2008, 43 in 2010 and 38 in 2013, the report states. Many corpses are dismembered, washed up on the beaches after being cut apart in “chop up houses.”

Paramilitaries require permits to hold gatherings, enforce curfews and prohibit visitors in the areas they control. They cooperate with local businessmen.

After water was privatised several years ago, service was cut to 2-3 hours a day, while rates went up. When protesting residents refused to pay, company representatives showed up at their homes with men carrying machine guns.
“In Bajamar,” HRW says “for the first three days of November, there were shootouts three or four times a day, lasting up to two hours. On the third day, the Urabeños removed a man from a house and executed him in front of community members.”

Despite repression and extreme violence, however, the longshore union in Buenaventura continues to exist. It participates actively in labour resistance to Colombia’s free trade policies.

“We admire the people who can stand up to pressure from the companies and the port association,” Castro says. The union organized two strikes last year and won contracts, although several workers were beaten and 30 were fired.

“Today we see more unity in our community, like the recent strike in the countryside which led to a strike among longshore workers and students. With this kind of mobilisation we will be able to stop the policies that are hurting us, and change Colombian society.”