Flower growing: the two sides of the crisis.
(Translated by Steve Cagan, a CSN Volunteer Translator. Edited by Teresa Welsh, CSN's Volunteer Editor)
Thursday, October 21, 2010
The Colombian news monopolies constantly publish the voices of the exporters, worried about the impacts of the reevaluation of the peso against the dollar. Space is frequently given to the spokespeople of the central bank to explain the many measures they are taking to overcome the crisis.
The October 9th, the newspaper El Espectador reported that the Banco Agrario [Agrarian Bank—SC] granted credits to more than 100 flower-growing companies—equivalent to 224 billion pesos [more than $123 million—SC]—as part of the Salvation Plan to confront the oscillations in the exchange rate. The story makes reference to current agitation in the Bank and in supervisory agencies because there are indications that some of the flower growers consigned their money, including public funds, to foreign accounts before contacting the Banco Agrario about renegotiating their loans.
While the government and the business people discuss the proposals and take measures to prevent continuing losses by the flower growers, the people who have supported the growth of the exports and the success of these sectors and who suffer the true damage are the men and women flower workers, without any government body doing the smallest thing to protect their rights.
In the context of impunity for violations of labor rights and where there is more concern about decreases in the profits of large investors than in protecting the minimal fundamental rights of thousands and thousands of persons, the lack of government protection makes it easier to abuse the workers. And even more in the moment in which, while there might be problems for the producers because of overvaluation, this has been given exaggerated dimensions and has served as an excuse to eliminate the fundamental minimums, sharpen super-exploitation, and continue asking the Colombian government for subsidies and loans that many times they end up not paying back.
The Nanneti or Sunburst Floramérica Group has more than 18 plantations in the Bogotá Savannah, which were acquired in 2008 after a transaction with Dole Fresh Flowers, the former owners, who in 2006 fired all the workers of Splendor Flowers in order to eliminate the independent union that had been formed in that firm a few months before a supposed end of operations which in the end did not happen.
In a document called "Desempeño del sector floricultur años 2006 a 2009" ["Performance of the flower-growing sector from 2006-2009"—SC], a report carried out by the Superintendencia de Sociedades [the government structure that supervises commercial firms—SC], four companies of the Sunburst group figure among the ten most profitable productive units in the period under analysis, with a total of over 136 billion pesos [about $74.77 million—SC] in 2009 in only four of their productive units. It is worth noting that in talking about profits, the Superintendencia is referring to net profits, after having covered the costs of production, including labor costs.
In contrast to these not at all insignificant sums, and to having been a beneficiary of Banco Agro loans, the violation of the human rights of the workers of this consortium is evident. One of their companies, C.I Guacarí, reported how in 2009 they made more than two and a half billion pesos [nearly $1.375—SC], and that their more than two hundred fifty workers are without social security, even though they are deducting an amount that corresponds to the premiums from their wages.
In addition to the blockade of the social security payment, can be added the delay in paying the semi-annual bonus that should have been paid in July, the non-payment of the family subsidy, and the systematic firing of workers with health problems. This situation, which is repeated in Floramérica, Splendor Flowers, Jardines de Colombia and Flores de la Vega, among others, spurred the creation of the union called SINTAGUACARÍ, affiliated with the union called ULTRAFLORES on September 4, 2010.
Upon receiving the notification of the founding of the union, the owners took a series of measures that violated the right of association. In the first place, they fired four workers of the Executive Board of the union and made serious threats against those who had decided to join. They claimed that the organization was illegal and they warned that they were not going to permit it to exist.
One woman worker with more than twelve years of seniority in the firm, who in the beginning of September had not joined the union, was fired together with the group of workers from the Executive Board of the union. It is clear that this firing was a result of their opposition that she expressed to the measures that the company was taking.
Even when the sales goals that the administration had imposed for Mother's Day sales were tripled, they decided that the contracts for the workers would be changed. This measure would end labor contracts and create verbal contracts for piecework, in which goals would be imposed that were practically impossible to meet in order to earn a minimum wage, without the time the worker invested in their labor being taken into account. With the excuse that they had had many losses, they warned that whoever did not accept the conditions could leave the firm.
In the face of the firings and the refusal of the bosses to get caught up with labor credits, SINTRAGUACARÍ declared a strike beginning September 9. Day after day, the workers of Guacarí gathered in a peaceful manner in the company plants to demand their rights. While they were meeting on the 18th of that month they were surprised by more than thirty police officers under the orders of the Police Commandant of Zipaquirá, Mauricio Galán, who attacked them brutally.
Several women were beaten, and some pregnant women inhaled the strong teargas that was launched against them. The bruises caused by the anti-riot rubber bullets can still be seen on some of the workers who participated in the meeting.
After ending the strike and winning the rehiring of the workers of the Executive Board, thanks precisely to this pressure tactic, the union continues to be called illegal by the bosses, who have spread the rumor that the elimination of the casino in which the Sodexo company provided meals was the fault of the union, an organization which according to the owners in a short time would also close down the company. The bosses reached the point of asserting that they might commit terrorist actions against the union.
So the people who are members of Sintraguacarí, in addition to feeling the pressure of the bosses, have to confront that of their fellow workers and some people in the town who have been influenced by the campaign of lies by the employers.
The more than 100 members of Sintraguacarí and the rest of the workers are hopeful that this coming October 30 the company will catch up on all the labor credits. At the same time they are moving ahead with consciousness-raising campaigns among their co-workers and persons who work in other companies of the Nenneti Group who are going through the same situation.
While the government commiserates with the owners for the lowering of their profits, it seems that the latter are taking advantage of the situation—already favorable—to eliminate all of the workers' rights and to continue obtaining favors from the government as if, in the words of the flower industry organization UNTRAFLORES, "you would need money to treat another human being without despotism."
Based on what we have said, we invite social organizations and persons interested in the defense of human rights to exhort the Colombian government to carry out its duty of protecting workers' rights and to take actions directed at stopping the super-exploitative conditions in flower growing, which keep hundreds of inhabitants of the savannah of Bogotá sick and in poverty.
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