Cane Cutters Win Strike Victory in Colombia


18,000 Colombian sugar cane workers have ended a 56-day strike after sugar mills employing 75% of the workers agreed to some major demands of their new union SINALCORTEROS. The remaining employers are expected to sign on to the pattern agreement that includes a 15% wage increase, a limitation on excessive hours of work, paid sick leave and employer contributions to housing, education, and social security.

The striking workers were unable to win the demand that would compel the employers to provide direct employment contracts. Therefore the system of phony workers’ “cooperatives” that under Colombia law permit employers to evade legal responsibility for collective bargaining and providing health and pension benefits continues. However the strike did compel sugar mill operators into de facto collective bargaining with SINALCORTEROS. By agreeing to pay into the national employee health and retirement system, the owners in effect are recognizing the employee status of the cane cutters. During the strike the union increased its voluntary membership from 900 to more than 3000 members, making it one of the largest private sector unions in Colombia.

International solidarity played a major role by forcing the Uribé government to back down from its initial stance of labeling the strike “guerrilla inspired.” It is also likely that the Uribé government restrained paramilitary attacks on the strikers because of its ongoing campaign to win U.S. Congressional ratification of the Free Trade Agreement. Sugar production in Colombia is increasingly dedicated to producing ethanol for the U.S. market.

Support Striking Sugar Workers in Colombia

Eighteen thousand sugar cane workers in the Colombian Departments of Cauca and Valle del Cauca have been on strike since September 15 against working conditions that amount to semi-slavery. The sugar workers, the majority of whom are Afro-Colombians, are rejecting the so-called “worker cooperatives” under which they are defined as individually self-employed workers. As “cooperativists” the workers enjoy the privilege of working 14 or more hours a day, seven days a week, while paying for their own health insurance and other benefits. They suffer from pesticide contamination and repetitive strain injuries, and must work until they drop without drawing a pension. The mills and plantations are controlled by the Sugar Cane Growers Association (ASOCAÑA).The sugar mills increasingly produce ethanol for bio-fuels, which if the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement would be ratified, would be destined for the USA.
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