Eva Seidelman, ILRF Program AssistantColombia have been on strike for nearly 20 days. They've faced substandard working conditions for years and are finally demanding that as the company fires hundreds of workers, it at least pay them what they are owed in back compensation! Over 60% of cut-flowers sold in the U.S. are from Colombia, with women occupying the majority of the poorly paid, hazardous positions. See ILRF's Fairness in Flowers campaign page for more on the general working conditions for cut-flower workers and visit this website (in spanish) especially created to support the Benilda workers. The mobilization efforts against the Benilda company have been organized by Colombia' independent flower workers' union, Untraflores, and supported by other agricultural unions such as Sintrainagro (in Colombia) in the international union of food workers, IUF. The local Diocese and other community groups are also supporting groups.
Benilda has failed to pay for workers' health coverage and pension (as mandated by Colombian law) even after the company made deductions from their wages. This has resulted in workers falling ill from cancer, thrombosis, carpal tunnel syndrome and other life long illnesses caused by the hazardous work of cut-flower cultivation and production, as they satisfy U.S. consumers' demand for cheap, perfect flowers. Flower workers across the world have seen their production quotas get higher, increasing risks of injury and pesticide exposure, as companies squeeze workers in search of profits.
On Monday September 7, the owners of Benilda defiantly refused to set a date for a settlement on the dispute regarding back compensation. Workers were fed up and finally went on strike on the 10th, taking control of the company's facilities. Since then, workers have been taking turns monitoring over 40 hectares of farms. For more than 15 days, groups of workers have spent cold nights in the open savanna, while also going to neighboring municipalities to receive support. They have dealt with aggressive attitudes from various police commanders.
The owners of Benilda, the Mejia brothers have taken up the common strategy of dispersing the company and reorganizing by financing satellite companies that only use workers from labor cooperatives to avoid paying social security. Cooperative "associates," who are really just subcontracted workers, are denied most of the regular rights entitled to regular workers (including pay, benefits, right to unionize, etc.) and though a law was passed recently to regulate these cooperatives, there is little hope that it will be adequately enforced.The Colombian Government, through the Ministry of Social Protection, continually fails to enforce and implement labor laws to meet workers' demands as it favors employers in most labor disputes. Read ILRF's recent comments just submitted to the USTR regarding Colombian labor rights violations and the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.This article used substantial information from an article in Spanish from Notas Obreras, by Alfonso Hernandez.