By Vanessa León, Intern, International Labor Rights Forum
Although it’s not too far fetched to imagine in this tough economy, picture yourself desperately in need of a job. You search and search, despite the fact that there aren’t many jobs to pick from in the first place, and then out of nowhere- a job comes to you! What are the chances?! So two or three months of hard work on your part go by and then your boss tells you that your services are no longer needed. Not only that, you are told that you won’t be able to find work elsewhere in the company should you choose not to sign a contract stating that such a decision was reached mutually by your employer and yourself. What do you do? Do you sign?
Hopefully you answered no; however, for many workers in the Colombian flower industry, the answer is not as clear. Situations like the one mentioned above were just one of the many unfair employment practice trends that were emphasized by Corporación Cactus in their 2010 Report on the Colombian Floriculture Industry.
Corporación Cactus was established in 1995 by a group of professionals concerned with the social impacts of the industrial activity in the flower industry surrounding Bogotá. From March to November of 2009, the organization hosted a number of legal advisory consultations for flower workers in the municipals of Madrid, Sopó and Tocancipá. Their goal: to highlight the major labor rights violations occurring in the flower industry.
Although the information collected was not of a quantitative nature, the consultations did provide evidence of trends in business practice that violate the rights of flower workers. Workers gave insight into their lack of knowledge about the rights they have in the workplace. Employers put little to no effort in briefing their employees about their rights despite the fact that they are instructed to do so by labor inspections brought forth by the Ministry of Social Protection. Such lack of education is only fueled by the low level of worker organization due to strong anti-union policies in the flower industry. Employers take advantage of their employees’ unawareness, violating their rights for the sake of saving money and strengthening the company’s competition.
Another topic that was popular in the consultations was that of an employer’s breach of obligation of the social security system. Workers’ weekly contributions to their employers were being reported as not paid even though they had contracts in place with the company. This failure on behalf of the employer would go unnoticed up until a worker tried to reclaim their pensions, often times long after they’d left the company. In almost all cases, the companies had either changed their social security policy or closed down altogether, making it impossible for a former employee to claim their due pension.
This was the case for 11 of the women who took part in the consultations, all of whom were over 50 years of age and had worked since childhood; some having served 20-25 years of uninterrupted work in the flower industry. Due to flaws in reporting, only 300-500 weekly contributions had been reported by their employer as having been paid to the company- that amounts to only 6-10 years of work! This omission by the employer did not allow these women to receive their due recognition and payment of pensions because of their [inaccurate] history of not having paid their dues to the company. What’s worse is had the employers not broken their obligation to the womens’ social security, many would have met the mandatory 1,175 weekly contributions to the company, or 23 ½ years, needed to receive pension in 2009.
Furthermore, new forms of business organization in the recent years have opened the gateway to a flood of violations towards workers in the flower industry. The concentration of production and marketing from major corporate mergers creates a huge advantage that gives companies the upper hand in bargaining power and enables them to produce lower costs while increasing production levels. Economists see these new forms of organizations as positive signs in the entrepreneurial market in which employers show their ability to grow. However, Cactus does not fail to point out that very little attention and analysis has been geared towards whether such processes have respected labor laws.
Fusions in the Colombian flower industry essentially avoid changes in labor contracts or the rotation of business or its activities. Contracts aren’t revised from one employer to another based on the logic that a worker is continuing to work throughout the entire time. Often times, a new employer takes position and knowing full and well of their employees’ incomprehension of their rights, pressures them into signing termination of employment contracts that cite that a “mutual agreement” was arrived to by both the employee and their employer. As criticized by Cactus, a “mutual agreement” is virtually unfeasible due to the lack of knowledge that the workers have of their rights and the near impossibility of having the means to afford a lawyer who could correctly advise them in reaching such a decision.
Lastly, Cactus’s consultations touched on the illegality of the use of temporary work. Companies hire through subcontractors to avoid the demands of labor contracts, allowing easy dismissal on the employer’s behalf. Often times these workers are dealt double the work allotted for one worker since the majority of the hiring is taking place during peak seasons in the flower industry, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. If the matter of the work and its origin is ongoing, as it is in the flower industry, then simply put- workers’ contracts cannot be fixed term. Work in the flower industry, with the exception of projects in construction and greenhouse maintenance, cannot be defined as far as duration, therefore eliminating the need for hired, or temporary work. Some of the workers that attended Cactus’s consultations mentioned that their contracts had been terminated not because the company had closed down, but because their employers allegedly “ran out of work”. How can that be when it is almost impossible for flower work to ever run out?
La Casa de las y los Trabajadores de las Flores recently began publishing La Espinita, a newsletter updating readers on current events in Colombia’s floriculture industry. Contributing writer, Senda Brava, reports of the situations of several temporary workers in the neighboring municipal of Facatativá. From forcing pregnant women to work extra hours to denying drinking water to fumigators so as to avoid bathroom breaks, workers are toiling under egregious working conditions only to later be dismissed from the company without a justifiable cause. You can contact La Casa de las y los Trabajadores de las Flores by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.