(IUF) Thousands of palm oil workers in the Puerto Wilches district of Colombia are now on a general strike to defend collective bargaining and oppose the spread of casualization [hiring of temporary workers] and precarious work on palm oil farms.
Their dispute dates back to early August when a major company, Palmas Oleaginosas Bucarelia, refused to enter into meaningful negotiations with the international union of food, agriculture and hospitality workers, IUF, -affiliated SINTRAINAGRO for the renewal of the collective agreement.
Bucarelia instead proposed to cut benefits, to restrict union activity on the farm and to increase precarious work through more use of Associated Labour Cooperatives (Cooperativas de Trabajo Asociado (CTAs – see below). At the end of August, Bucarelia workers decided to call a strike and set up a protest camp in front of the company.
SINTRAINAGRO asked Colombia’s Ministry of Social Protection to intervene to try to resolve the dispute and on Sept. 6, the ministry called a tripartite meeting to analyze the conflict and to explore possible ways forward. The IUF’s regional office, REL-UITA and the Colombian trade union confederation, CUT were also invited to the meeting.
However the company continued with its intransigent position and insisted on acceptance of its opening proposal i.e. cuts in premiums and benefits and increased use of outsourced. At the end of September workers from the other palm oil farms in the area decide to join the strike.
Tension in the region rocketed on October 12. While workers were attending a meeting at the local office of the Ministry of Labour in Bucaramanga, the employers brought in carloads of people from other municipalities to try to force workers to return to the farms. These “protesters” were accompanied by the police and the mayor of Puerto Wilches. SINTRAINAGRO has complained to national and regional authorities and to the Human Rights Commission about the police increasing tension in the region and their harassment of strikers.