Cutting cane in Colombia, workers win sweet victory

Colombian sugar cane production is confined to 500,000 acres in Valle de Cauca and Cauca, departments situated in the country’s southwest. From legalized slavery on, Afro-Colombians have done most of the cutting. Recently they’ve worked 12-14 hour days, every day, under contract with facade cooperatives, an arrangement allowing landowners and refinery operators to avoid paying for tools, transportation and workers’ retirement costs. After deductions, cutters earn less than Colombia’s minimum wage of $222 per month.

According to the Assoc. of Indigenous Councils web site, the sale of four 50 kg. bags of refined sugar yields pesos equivalent to $104. Blacks and Indians, sweating and hungry, receive $2.47 for every four bags sold — before multiple deductions. “We are the black part,” said one worker,” buried to produce the white powder that sweetens and enriches.”

Some 18,000 sugar cane workers stopped work Sept. 12. By Nov. 12 most owners of 13 big refineries had agreed to worker demands. Leaders of the Sinalcorteros union declared victory. Reflecting on the strikers’ unprecedented unity, endurance and solidarity, union spokesperson Adolfo Tigreros lauded the strike as “historical for Colombia’s working class,” having “revived our unions, encouraging us to reorganize and mobilize.” He anticipated the recovery of rights taken away by “this neoliberal government, which set out to destroy the labor movement.”

Until now, the Asocaña group of owners had relied upon blackmail, repression and deals with individual labor leaders to wear down divided sugar workers, according to TeleSur. This time, owners up against a “united assembly” faced only one set of demands. Catholic Church officials mediated an eventual settlement.

Pay is to be upped 15 percent, and the workday was cut to eight hours after which two hours of work would be allowed at overtime rates. The companies promised to pay for tools, transportation and some housing and health care, and to contribute to retirement and education funds. The system of outsourced contract labor remained intact, however, as did pay based on piecework, although cutters will supervise the weighing of cane.

Citing international conventions under the UN International Labor Organization, Jorge Gamboa, an advisor to the strikers, identified the use of contract labor by companies to confound labor organizing as a violation of human rights. Gamboa suggested that a unified nationwide campaign would be required to undo this element of President Alvaro Uribe’s reactionary politics, one sanctioned by his Ministry of Social Protection.

Weighing in on behalf of the sugar industry, Uribe proclaimed that because leftist guerrillas allegedly had organized the strike, national security was at risk. For a while police repression was the rule. The government then found reasons to back off.

Falling sugar production threatened an annual income of $250 million from sugar exports. And Colombian law requires that gasoline sold in cities contain 10 percent sugar-based ethanol. To that end, the government subsidizes sugar producers to the tune of $100-120 million annually. That the system had gone awry was evident during the first two weeks of the strike when processors had to import 42,000 tons of sugar.

The violence-prone Colombian government was also restrained by “the solidarity of international organizations,” according to Adolfo Tigreros, who noted that U.S. labor supporters were ready to use reports of violence in their ongoing campaign against the proposed U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement. The International Union of Foodworkers (IUF) came in for praise for its “huge role in this struggle” that included financial support and dissemination of strike news reported by regional representatives.

Sinalcorteros membership jumped threefold during the strike, and the union joined the IUF. A contingent of striking workers maintained a street presence in downtown Bogota.

Sugar cane workers and indigenous activists joined in mutual solidarity. Cane cutters marched with the “Minga” (“collective encounter”) of Indigenous and Popular Resistance as it progressed from Cali to Bogota. Indigenous spokespersons, Luis Evelis Andrade in particular, testified to indigenous backing for the strikers. In Bogota’s Simon Bolivar Plaza Nov. 21, thousands of activists of all stripes heard indigenous leader Aída Quilcué announce that the Minga would “persist on all roads of struggle in Colombia,” one of them presumably that of sugar cane workers.

atwhit@roadrunner.com