Labor Crisis Begets Violence on Colombia’s Pacific Coast

James Bargent

For Colombia's union leaders, the epidemic of violence and poverty in the port of Buenaventura can be traced to the region's labor crises.

The Pacif­ic port city of Bue­naven­tu­ra is the gate­way to the Colom­bian econ­o­my. The city han­dles around two-thirds of the country’s mar­itime for­eign trade and con­nects Colom­bia to 300 ports around the world. But despite its sta­tus as a thriv­ing hub of inter­na­tion­al trade, Bue­naven­tu­ra is bet­ter known as an epi­cen­ter of nar­co-para­mil­i­tary activ­i­ty, mak­ing it one of Colombia’s many sites of ram­pant pover­ty and vio­lence, death and hopelessness.

Bue­naven­tu­ra is cur­rent­ly under­go­ing a mul­ti-lay­ered human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis. Unem­ploy­ment stands at around 64 per­cent, and over 60 per­cent of the city’s pop­u­la­tion lives below the pover­ty line. Many of its res­i­dents lack even the most basic ser­vices, includ­ing potable water, reli­able elec­tric­i­ty and func­tion­ing sewage sys­tems.

The city is sit­u­at­ed on the front­lines of a nar­co-para­mil­i­tary war for Pacif­ic coast drug traf­fick­ing routes, which has earned it a macabre rep­u­ta­tion for tor­ture hous­es, dis­mem­bered bod­ies and mass graves. Both sides in the war feed off the city’s pover­ties, using des­per­ate youths as dis­pos­able soldiers.

Javier Mar­ru­go, the pres­i­dent of Unión Por­tu­ar­ia de Colom­bia, the port work­ers union, believes that while the city’s prob­lems are many and com­plex, they can be traced back to one abu­sive labor prac­tice at the city’s main employ­er: the port.

The ori­gin of Buenaventura’s social cri­sis is labor out­sourc­ing,” Mar­ru­go said. That is the root of the prob­lemthe oth­er prob­lems such as inse­cu­ri­ty, crime and drug traf­fick­ing would not be hit­ting the city as hard as they are at the moment if there were decent, dig­ni­fied work.”

The prac­tice of sub­con­tract­ing port work­ers through third-par­ty labor agen­cies began after the Bue­naven­tu­ra port was sold off to pri­vate inter­ests with­in the coun­try in 1994.

When the port was not pri­vate it wasn’t like this in any way,” said Mar­ru­go. Such crit­i­cal socioe­co­nom­ic con­di­tions did not exist.”

Only a hand­ful of work­ers are now employed direct­ly in the port, while the rest must seek pre­car­i­ous, inse­cure work through indi­vid­ual con­trac­tors, tem­po­rary agen­cies and the noto­ri­ous­ly abu­sive sub­con­tract­ing com­pa­nies known in Colom­bia as Asso­cia­tive Labor Coop­er­a­tives (CTAs). In addi­tion, an esti­mat­ed 1,000 work­ers exist pure­ly on infor­mal labor, accord­ing to Mar­ru­go, reduced to trudg­ing around the port and beyond to the city’s free trade zone, look­ing for work at about $10 a day.

Since the move to sub­con­tract­ing, port work­ers have seen a col­lapse in wages, a dete­ri­o­ra­tion of work­ing con­di­tions and the blunt­ing of the labor movement.

For the major­i­ty of work­ers, pay rarely ris­es above the min­i­mum wage of around $330 dol­lars a month. Col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing has been hob­bled by the sub­con­tract­ing sys­tem, because with no job sta­bil­i­ty, work­ers must choose between accept­ing what­ev­er pay and con­di­tions are on the table or suc­cumb­ing to joblessness.

Those who attempt to orga­nize or union­ize have been threat­ened and fired, while the unions report receiv­ing phoned death threats by men claim­ing to belong to para­mil­i­tary organizations.

The sys­tem has also forced work­ers into silence over long hours and poor — some­times dan­ger­ous — work­ing con­di­tions. Some work­ers report labor­ing on the docks almost non­stop for 24 to 36 hours but receiv­ing the stan­dard eight-hour-day rate.

The most basic safe­ty equip­ment is not com­mon­ly pro­vid­ed. Between 1994 and 2008, 31 dock work­ers died because of inad­e­quate safe­ty stan­dards. Not a sin­gle per­son has been charged as a result.

Many more have been injured on the job, but due to the sub-con­tract­ing sys­tem, they often find they have no health­care cov­er­age. In some cas­es, work­ers report hav­ing been assured they had cov­er­age after years — even decades — of con­tract­ing , only dis­cov­er they had been lied to by the sub-con­trac­tors who had hired them after they arrive at a med­ical clinic.

Old­er sub­con­tract­ed work­ers — often dis­card­ed for younger, stronger replace­ments — reach the end of their work­ing lives to find they have vir­tu­al­ly no safe­ty net. Even after 15 years on the docks, work­ers only receive the equiv­a­lent of 50 weeks of pen­sion ben­e­fits. As a result, an esti­mat­ed 1,500 retired work­ers have reached retire­ment to find they have no means to sup­port them­selves, and some have been reduced to beg­ging on the streets.

The third-par­ty labor con­tract­ing in Colom­bia is not a prob­lem lim­it­ed to Bue­naven­tu­ra, nor even to the country’s port sec­tor. In fact, it was one of the prin­ci­pal tar­gets of the U.S. Labor Action Plan (LAP).

The LAP is a labor rights agree­ment that was devised to ease the pas­sage of the Free Trade Agree­ment (FTA) between the coun­tries, which had stalled as a result of con­cerns over labor abus­es in Colom­bia. It has now been in place for three years, while the FTA itself was passed in Octo­ber 2011 and imple­ment­ed in May 2012. Unions, human rights groups and U.S. con­gres­sion­al mon­i­tors of the LAP’s imple­men­ta­tion have con­sis­tent­ly crit­i­cized the process for hand­ing over the U.S.’s lever­age to improve labor rights in favor of mov­ing for­ward with the FTA before Colom­bian author­i­ties took con­crete actions to improve the labor situation. 

The prac­tices employed by the port com­pa­nies are ille­gal under Colom­bian law. And the LAP, which sin­gled out the port sec­tor as one of the worst vio­la­tors, com­mits the Colom­bian gov­ern­ment to ensur­ing it enforces those laws. The gov­ern­ment has now opened up hun­dreds of inves­ti­ga­tions into labor abus­es in the Bue­naven­tu­ra ports and as a result of some of the inves­ti­ga­tions — the major­i­ty have yet to yield results — has sanc­tioned the pri­vate Port Author­i­ty for violations.

Still, lit­tle has changed on the ground as a result of these actions.

I believe the [LAP] has laid out very good para­me­ters and the gov­ern­ment has been very seri­ous about set­ting out rules for com­ply­ing with the plan,” said Mar­ru­go. What it has not done is made com­pa­nies com­ply with these rules.”

With the port com­pa­nies owned by wealthy Colom­bians inter­ests out­side of the Bue­naven­tu­ra region, and the goods that pass through the port trad­ed by out­siders, tax rev­enues and employ­ment are all Colombia’s busiest port has to offer the city that hous­es it.

Yet because of the sub­con­tract­ing sys­tem, the port does not offer work­ers a dig­ni­fied liv­ing — only exploita­tion. Many of the city’s thou­sands of poor, large­ly une­d­u­cat­ed and dis­en­fran­chised youths sub­scribe to the belief that just one oth­er employ­ment option remains. It’s a job that pays twice as much and offers a warped sense of self-worth and respect: join­ing up with the nar­co-para­mil­i­taries to kill, maim, and sew ter­ror and vio­lence in Buenaventura. 

James Bar­gent is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based in Medellin. He has report­ed on Colom­bia and Latin Amer­i­ca for the Mia­mi Her­ald, the Toron­to Star, Sky News, InSight Crime, the Times Edu­ca­tion Sup­ple­ment, Colom­bia Reports, Alter­Net, Toward Free­dom, Upside Down World and Green Left Week­ly.
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