“I can’t be unemployed” said Emilse Bermudez, a laid off cut flower worker. She and her 200 co-workers were victims of a series of dismissals that began June 30th in the Riegel S.A. plantation. On July 7th, on the road that leads to Facatativá, temporary cut flower workers took a stand and blockaded the company gates awaiting a response from company representatives. Untraflores, the cut flower trade union, immediately stepped in to show solidarity with the dismissed workers. Aide Silva, President of Untraflores called this struggle “of extreme importance, as this is the first time temporary workers take a stand against management to fight for their labor rights. They are holding the company responsible and not dubious temporary employment agencies”. The use of temporary workers and Associated Work Cooperatives (Cooperativas de Trabajo Asociado, CTA) is now the rule in cut-flower companies. By using subcontractors, job security is low and labor rights are violated without employer accountability. The 35 workers outside the gates of Riegel plantations represent all levels of organized workers: temporary, formal and informal.
Mario Camacho Navas, José Roberto Camacho Navas and Carlos Eduardo Forero Ramírez senior executives and manager Cristian Caicedo Castillo head the Riegel S.A. distributor and producer of roses and astromelias in the savannah of Bogota. Riegel underwent restructuring in November 2009. Restructuring is common practice among cut flower companies in Colombia. When a company restructures, workers are laid off and a completely new workforce -or sometimes the same workers- are hired under temporary, unstable contracts through CTAs or temporary agencies. Previous contracts and seniority are scrapped when a company restructures, thus endangering workplace security and stripping people of their rights as permanent employees. In this case the head of the CTA, A.S. Servicios Integrales E.U, Alberto Santamaría Roa is also the head of human resources of Reigel. The fact that the head of human resources is the owner of the CTA, demonstrates that CTAs are tools used to further exploit workers by sidestepping company accountability for setting fair wages, creating permanent employment contracts, and respecting the workers’ rights.
As the struggle continues today, Untraflores lodged an official complaint with the Ministry of Labor, which sent an official ministry representative to visit the plantation. A list of violations has been drafted but with little success as the company is yet to show up to negotiate conditions. The Superintendent of Society (Superintendencia de Sociedad) -the governmental body in which a company’s restructuring is negotiated- was unaware of the workers’ conditions and Untraflores has arranged for the “Promoter of Creditors” (The Promotor de Acreedores, assesses how much the company owes in a restructuring process and to whom) to visit the site with the company to evaluate the situation. Should the Promoter of Creditors deem the company does owe salaries, social security, pensions and compensations, the company is forced to pay every creditor, but workers first, by law.
Workers’ are resisting the rainy weather, precarious conditions, threats, the blatant neglect of the company, and the slow bureaucracy of the government. They claim their compensation and social security, that which they have earned in exchange for their labor, is their right. In an economy where workers are said to earn what they work for, it is contradictory and unjust to call this anything but unwaged and uncompensated labor. However, the cut-flower sector in Colombia seems to hold the pretense, through this and many other documented cases of labor rights violations, that unwaged labor is somehow an acceptable practice, or not their problem due to dubious contracting practices. Temporary workers face a difficult challenge in struggling to defend their rights after restructuring or company closures. Temporary employment agencies and CTAs have been known to disappear after a company is liquidated. As a result, the agency or the CTA is not held responsible because technically they are not the employers. Diana Sanchez, one of the workers, said the CTA gave them a non-existent address. When problems arose, workers were unable to contact the CTA until Untraflores was able to track down the headquarters after extensive research.
The support of Untraflores and non profit labor rights organizations is essential in this and every struggle of the Colombian working class. Workers survive under exploitative and irresponsible working conditions that are perceived to be the norm. At times workers are satisfied simply with wages being paid on time, whilst other violations are sidelined for their fear of losing their jobs and their needs to meet their families’ basic needs. Worker organization to protect and promote their rights is a dangerous task in Colombia. As members of the international labor rights community, we must get involved to raise awareness of labor rights violations, to promote consumer responsibility and hold companies accountable for unscrupulous business practices.
For more information about workers’ rights and labor struggles in the flower sector, check out ILRF’s Fairness in Flowers Campaign here.