|Colombian Cane Cutters Score Victory, But Struggle of Afro-Colombians Continues|
|Written by Kari Lydersen|
|Thursday, 11 December 2008 05:10|
Sugar cane cutters in Colombia, most of them Afro-Colombian and indigenous, won a major victory with the end of a strike on December 4 which awarded them concessions including pay increases, 15 days of paid vacation per year, some job stability in the face of a mechanizing industry and Sundays off.
Since September 15, more than 18,000 sugar cane workers in the Valle de Cauca, Risaralda and
"This was a major victory for sugar cane cutters," said Adriana Ferrer, with the human rights group Corporación Humanidad Maestra Vida.
But the struggle will continue for cane cutters, who work in conditions often described as virtual slavery, laboring 16 hours a day at grueling jobs that often cause serious health problems.
"Not one cane cutter likes the work," said Ferrer. "They only do it because it's the only choice they have to survive."
Ernesto Cuaspuv, who has been a cane cutter in Valle de Cauca for 15 years, gets up at 3 a.m. to make food for the work day, then leaves at 5 a.m. on a bus for the fields and doesn't return until dark.
"We work Monday through Sunday, Monday through Sunday, we never have a day off to be with our families or go to the pool or relax," he said. He explained how the so-called "cooperative" system includes so many monetary deductions that he is left with wages barely enough to pay rent and buy food for his family.
"We can't save any money, nine in ten companeros don't own a home, there are companeros with three or four kids and they can only afford to educate one," he said. "There are many accidents; workers suffer many injuries to their spines, knees and shoulders."
Nonetheless, they depend on these meager wages for their survival, so workers are fighting to keep jobs which could be decimated due to mechanization of the industry.
"A cane-cutting machine can replace 180 workers, and it can work at night," said Cuaspuv. "We're afraid in two years cane cutters will disappear."
He thinks the success of the strike - which also included a promise to pay weekly instead of monthly - was due largely to international pressure and attention. But he is still afraid their employers will renege on the promised reforms, slated to take effect at the start of 2009. He said employers never complied with promises mandated by the government after a 2005 strike.
Meanwhile there are still six people - four workers and two human rights campaigners -- facing serious criminal charges related to the strike. Human rights worker Juan Pablo Ochoa is facing three charges including "sabotage" and being an intellectual author of crimes against the state. A judge began hearing the case December 6. On December 16, workers will hold a walk-out demanding the charges against the six be dropped.
"What they did wasn't a crime, it was part of a movement," said Ferrer. "There is much indignation, because this is aggression against the movement and mobilization of workers."
The cane cutters strike is part of a larger movement for the rights of indigenous and Afro-Colombian people. "They call us Indios and
Indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups think the proposed free trade agreement between the
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Afro-Colombian leaders and human rights groups have predicted a massacre by the military or paramilitaries in the
The threat of violence against sugar cane workers and the surrounding communities persists despite the end of the strike, human rights groups say. Paramilitaries including the Bloque Calima led by "Comandante HH" are known to be active in the area.
"My experience is that in
Eunice Escobar, an Afro-Colombian activist based in
"We're trying to do something for the environment, but at the same time it's causing the repression of Afro-Colombian and indigenous people," said Escobar.