Colombia Part IV – The Final visits

This is Part IV in a series of blogposts about my recent trip to Colombia. Please scroll back to April and May 2014 to read earlier posts.

The following week I flew back to Bogota and met with the president of the flight attendants union. While this work is comparatively white-collar compared to the manual labor of dockworkers or cane cutters, she described many of the same problems with regard to employment contracts. Avianca is the largest airline in Colombia, and they had a long track record of violating the law through fictional sub-contracting companies. Even the regional domestic airline SATENA, which is a state owned and operated enterprise, was guilty of the same types of violations – employing workers doing core functions on short-term temporary contracts through labor intermediaries.


IMG_20130920_133253Maria Crisitina Cadavid is the president of the flight attendants union. She explained how major airlines like Avianca have used informal work agreements to break the union.


One of the first campaigns I worked on in the United States was to organize what was then America West Airlines (now US Air). The employment structures were more elaborate in Colombia, but many of the basic complaints and conditions were the same as the stories I remember hearing as a young organizer visiting customer service agents in Phoenix, Arizona. Compared to the differences I saw between countries with the dock workers, the similarities here were notable.

The last set of workers I interviewed was out near the Venezuelan border in the northeast of the country. I flew from Bogota to Barrancabermeja, where I traveled by taxi from the airport to the city center. Once there, I met up with other unionists and we paid for seats in a small van to take us out to San Alberto, approximately 3 hours north of there. On the way I thought about the interviews I had done with researchers and investigators at ENS in Medellín. I had spent a few days discussing the palm region with one young researcher in particular who shared with me the complex and violent history of the industry in Colombia.


IMG_20130922_124729Palm workers ‘map’ the employment schemes in their region

The palm industry is wrapped up extensively with national politics in Colombia. For example, President Santos recently appointed a new Minister of Agriculture, Rubén Darío Lizarralde. For the past 19 years, Mr. Lizarralde has run one of the largest and well known palm companies – INDUPALMA. During his tenure running the company, more than 100 union members were murdered, by 2003, 6 union presidents had been assassinated, 10 more trade union leaders were “disappeared”, and more than 400 families were forcibly displaced. On top of all this, Mr. Lizarralde oversaw the systematic informalization of his workforce – exactly the kind of measure the LAP sought to reverse. In 1995, just a year after taking over at INDUPALMA, the first organized push for informal subcontracting began. By the time he left, nearly the entire workforce had been outsourced into fake illegal cooperatives. And despite the signing of LAP, the company has done nothing to formalize their workers.

The following day I attended a huge meeting organized in part by the ILO office in Colombia. More than 200 workers filled a giant hall, which was really just a large structure – a cement slab the size of a two tennis courts, with columns supporting a tin roof. It was deathly hot in that room, even without walls and fans blowing throughout the day.

The goal of the meeting was to create an actual map of employment in the industry.  Workers broke into teams depending on who signed their paycheck and who they ultimately worked for. After ‘mapping’ their employment structure on paper, they would come to the front of the room and post their ‘map’ on the wall in front of them. Then another group of workers would come forward and connect their map to the others. Eventually a picture of the industry emerged showing a small handful of actual Palm companies with a host of different informal subcontractors controlling employment for different producers. The number one demand of all workers was formal employment.


For more on the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, and the Labor Action Plan, see the report published by the AFL-CIO here.


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