More than 18,000 sugarcane cutters in the Department of Valle del Cauca, Colombia, walked off their jobs on the morning of September 15, 2008, demanding wage improvements, a healthier work environment, better housing and educational facilities for themselves and their families, and a formal work contract with worker and union rights. In response, the government ordered military troops to break up the strike, and more than 100 workers were reportedly injured. Some workers have received death threats. Others have been fired for attempting to hold meetings. Government officials not only have denounced the strike, but also have accused the strikers of being manipulated by forces "outside the labor movement" – a thinly veiled reference to guerrillas. CUT Colombia, the national labor federation, is supporting the strikers cause, along with the global labor movement.
Sugarcane development is a thriving business in Valle del Cauca. Nearly half its cultivated area is devoted to sugarcane production as either raw sugar or ethanol, about one-third of it for export. Ninety percent of the Valle del Cauca workers are employed through cooperatives. By law, every Colombian worker is entitled to a direct contract, a stable job, recognition and pay for sick days, education and housing benefits, holidays, and clear and fair methods of compensation. But the cooperative system, which classifies workers as "members," enables companies to skirt labor laws. The sugarcane cutters work as long as 14 hours per day and make as little as $200 a month. They must provide their own social security and safety equipment, and they have no recourse if they are injured on the job. They are not allowed to form or join unions.
"The AFL-CIO stands firmly in solidarity with the sugarcane workers in their strike for respect and a fair wage," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney in a letter to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. "I call upon you to . . . strongly urge the employers to hire the sugarcane workers as direct employees and to immediately begin to negotiate in good faith with their elected representatives."
Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world for union leaders. So far this year, 41 Colombian union leaders have been murdered for their union activity – a number that equals the total for all of 2007. An additional 125 have received death threats.
"The cane cutters strike is another example of how bad things are in Colombia for trade unionists," Sweeney said in an October 21 press statement. "Workers in the United States strongly reject this brutal reaction from the Colombian government."
In July 2008, as part of a six-member Solidarity Center delegation, Florida State AFL-CIO Vice President Mike Williams learned about Colombian workers constant struggle for social and economic justice – and why U.S workers need to hear their story. Act Now to support Colombian sugarcane workers.