On Sept. 15, at least 12,000 Colombian sugar cane cutters went on strike to protest the systematic violation of their labor rights and human rights. The workers cut sugar cane for 16 sugar mills in the Cauca river valley, primarily in the department of Valle del Cauca but also in the neighboring departments of Cauca, to the south, and Risaralda, to the northeast. The same day the strike began, hundreds of agents from the Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (ESMAD) of the Colombian National Police, together with army soldiers and private sugar company guards, attacked a group of striking cane cutters from the Incauca and Providencia sugar mills, injuring more than 100 workers, at least five of them seriously.
Gildardo Nieves, from the Incauca mill, was badly wounded in the abdomen with a tear gas bomb which affected his vital organs. Four workers from the Providencia mill required medical treatment for open wounds and contusions to the eyes, face and torso.
The sugar workers called the strike to pressure the Association of Sugar Cane Growers, ASOCANA, to negotiate a list of demands presented to them by the cane cutters union on July 14. ASOCANA has refused to negotiate and instead took out paid ads on local radio and television stations, threatening layoffs in case of a strike and telling the community not to support or participate in the strike.
The sugar workers’ union and human rights organizations grouped in the Campaña Prohibido Olvidar (Forgetting Is Prohibited Campaign) are demanding a full investigation into the Sept. 15 violence and an end to such attacks, respect for the labor and human rights of the sugar workers, and elimination of the current contracting system that forces sugar workers to endure 14-hour days and substandard wages. About 90% of the cane cutters in Valle del Cauca department are members of cooperatives which contract with the sugar companies; the government’s Ministry of Social Protection claims that because the workers own the cooperatives, they don’t have the right to bargain collectively or to strike. The workers want to end the contracting system and return to being hired directly by the sugar companies, as was the situation before 2000. Other demands include paid sick days and no reprisals against the strikers. (Communique from Movimiento de Trabajadores de la Industria de la Cana de Azucar, Secretaria de Derechos Humanos de la Central Unitaria de Trabajadores-CUT; Asociación Nomadesc; Corporación Juridica Utopia; Corporación Sembrar and other organizations belonging to the Campaña Prohibido Olvidar, Sept. 15; El Diario del Otun, Pereira, Sept. 20; El Universal, Cartagena, Sept. 20 from Colprensa; El Pais, Cali, Sept. 20)
“We demand job stability; since the government of Cesar Gaviria (1990-1994) we have been losing a percentage of our income because they kicked us out of the sugar companies, and now we have to pay social security and payroll taxes ourselves,” said Azael Castro, a cane cutter for the Manuelita company. (El Pais, Cali, Sept. 20)
As of Sept. 20, the sugar strike was continuing; strikers were maintaining blockades at the entrances of the sugar mills, and production was halted. The news agency Colprensa reported that the strike had shut down four of Colombia’s largest ethanol distilleries, causing ethanol shortages in the central area of the country. This in turn has led to a price increase for gasoline, which is sold mixed with ethanol.
Hundreds of family members of striking cane workers and other community supporters marched in the municipalities of El Cerrito and Pradera in Valle del Cauca on Sept. 19 to show their support for the workers’ demands. The two municipalities are located between the Manuelita and Providencia sugar mills. (El Universal, Cartagena, Sept. 20 from Colprensa)
According to a report in the newspaper El Diario del Otun, published in Pereira, capital of Risaralda department, the strike so far involves more than 12,000 sugar workers and is affecting the Manuelita, Providencia, Pichichi, Cauca, Mayaguez, Maria Luisa and Central Tumaco plantations. The National Cane Cutters Union, which organized the strike, predicts that as of Sept. 23 more cane cutters will join in from the Risaralda, Riopaila, Cabana and La Carmelita plantations. (El Diario del Otun, Sept. 20)
The workers and human rights groups are asking that messages be sent to Colombian officials supporting their demands; for details see the communique posted in English and Spanish at:
Send copies of all messages to Campaña Prohibido Olvidar at firstname.lastname@example.org and Asociación Nomadesc at email@example.com. (Communique from Movimiento de
Trabajadores de la Industria de la Cana de Azucar, Secretaria de Derechos Humanos de la Central Unitaria de Trabajadores-CUT, Valle del Cauca; Asociación Nomadesc, Corporación Juridica Utopia, Corporación Sembrar and other organizations belonging to the Campaña Prohibido Olvidar, Sept. 15)
From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Sept. 21