Health workers, coffee farmers, truckers, university teachers, rice growers, sugar cane cutters, peasants in Putumayo and miners are currently involved in the largest public demonstration since 2008, and the largest anti-government demonstration in recent history.
The first two weeks of strikes saw roadblocks, violence and arrests in numerous departments across the country, but why are these sectors striking? What do they hope to gain?
Health workers are striking against recent health sector reforms passed by Congress.
“We have exhausted the tracks of dialogue and therefore define the realization of a strike from August 19 to press the government to try and hear both our demands and aspirations,” Hector Gaviria Alviz, President of the national trade union of workers and public health (ANTHOC) told Colombia Reports.
According to the unionist, the health workers “wish to remove the economic concept of health and ensure that the service be provided directly by public hospitals and municipal authorities” instead of corruption-ridden health care providers that fail to pay hospitals on time.
Alviz additionally claimed that current health workers at present have no economic stability “as they are hired to work for two, three or maybe four months only.”
According to the unionist, recent legislation passed by congress only “increases instability among health workers,” added Alviz.
Coffee farmers are striking because the sector claim that subsidies promised by the government to compensate for falling international coffee prices has never reached farmers.
In march the government agreed to pay coffee farmers a subsidy known as the Grower Ingress Protection, which guarantees that they will not lose money with the fluctuation in grain prices.
The production costs of coffee are between $335 and $365, while its market price is approximately $245. The subsidy of $85 promised by the government barely compensates for the loss.
Vicor Correa, one of the coffee strikes organizers, told Colombia Reports however that such subsidies have “not made it to the farmers yet.”
Truckers are striking against high gasoline prices.
In February the government raised the price of fuel by 6%, resulting in a strike by the truckers. After no reduction in fuel costs, the truckers have decided to continue demonstrations.
The president of Colfecar (Colombia’s road freighters union) Jaime Sorzano said that constant increases in fuel prices have “become intolerable and unsustainable.”
The price per gallon of gasoline is now $4.82 in Bogota. The share of an average wage to the price of gas puts Colombia in the top 10 of Bloomberg’s “pain at the pump” rankings.
“This hike has no purpose and is not in [step] with the quality of infrastructure…[the] quality of roads, the expensive tolls and the price of diesel and biodiesel,” said Sorzano.
The union leader said that approximately 34 percent of truckers’ costs is fuel, so with each increase the business becomes less profitable.
University teachers are striking over the government’s alleged failure to honor agreements made after earlier strikes this year.
In an interview with Colombia Reports, FECODE Secretary General Rafael Cuello Ramirez detailed the issues at stake.
“Last May 21, we signed an act of agreement with the Education Ministry; those terms, however, have been delayed by the national government, specifically the Minister of Education. We agreed on a text, and it was written, but the spirit of what was agreed to hasn’t come to fruition,” said Ramirez.
The most blaring inconsistency has to do with the state’s allegedly continued delinquency on the sizable debts it owes its education employees.
“Today, the [Education] Ministry’s debt to retired pension and benefits funds exceeds $49 million…we’re asking the government to open up just $1.7 million in the budget it is supposed to pass October 31 to go toward the amortization of its debt,” added Ramirez.
One of the more pressing concerns for FECODE regarding the government’s faulty debt payments is the financial welfare of education employees whose contracts have been terminated, in many cases because of cost-cutting measures.
“Right now we have been notified of 15,000 severances but do not have the money to pay any of the teachers [their severance packages].”
Miners have been striking since July 17 demanding the repeal of a decree that orders for the destruction of machinery used in the informal, and according to the law illegal mining industry.
Stella Luz Ramirez, executive director of the Confederation of Colombian miners justified the strike, stating “the national government has failed us twice. On July 25 last year we agreed not to strike because the government pledged to improve conditions in the sector, but they once again broke their word. This time, we will not yield.”
Miners are seeking the repeal of decree 2235 of 2012, which authorizes the destruction of machinery used in exploration of minerals without legal authorization.
Ramirez argues however, that the decree “violates due process and the right to self defense” as it has led to the destruction of materials used in the informal mining industry.
Miners have called for the government to create a law, clearly differentiating between informal, and illegal mining.
Rice growers are striking as the government has failed to respond to their letters, in which they have put forward a four point plan that they feel could bring the sector out of its current state of crisis.
The rice farmers’ four main propositions are as follows:
- Prices: The first point that the farmers are claiming is related to establishing new base prices per field, per year, which, according to producers, would allow them to judge how much each harvest would make and how much to sow.
- Control of imports: Another demand is that the government shut off the importation of rice from the United States and Andean Community Nations (CAN) such as Peru and Ecuador due to the increase that they say internal demand has on prices.
- Contraband: In addition to these imports, rice farmers point to contraband as a factor in the sector’s troubles. More stringent border control from the government is called for to stem the entry of contraband rice into Colombia.
- Modernization: Finally the farmers are asking for resources in order to modernize, in particular, machinery for the post-harvesting process.
Sugar cane cutters
Sugar cane cutters want to be directly hired for the companies that they work for.
Prior to the reform of Colombian labor law in 1990, this was the case. The legislation however, allowed for the sub-contracting of work through labor intermediaries which severed the relationship between employee and employer.
Jhonsson Torres, Vice President of Sinalcorteros (sugar cane union) explained the impact of the legislation.
“The law ended labor stability for workers. This was when the plantations took advantage and removed the cane cutters from collective bargaining agreements. We became contractors,” said Torres. “My father made good money. We lost all that.”
Putumayo peasants are striking because they disapprove of the governments manual eradication of coca in the region.
Many of Putumayo’s peasants grow coca as they say it is their only means of economic income.
Without adequate alternative development plans in place, the destruction of coca crops in the region leaves the peasants with no viable source of income, they say.