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ON May 1, hundreds of banana workers from north-west Colombia gathered in the municipal stadium of Apartado to celebrate international workers day and hear Guillermo Rivera, president of agro-industrial workers union SINTRAINAGRO tell them that unity was essential to overcome the problems facing an industry upon which so many depended in the regions of Uraba and Magdalena.
Twenty or 30 years ago, to even contemplate such a meeting would have been virtually unthinkable in an era when violence perpetrated by guerillas, paramilitaries and state actors had reached unprecedented levels.
In 1987, 40 plantation workers had been killed by September and in 1995 alone, 300 more were slain by competing factions.
It is then little short of remarkable that out of this mayhem SINTRAINAGRO would emerge to be the force it is today, with 22,000 members covered by a single collective bargaining agreement with Augura, the Association of Colombian Banana Producers, as well as 13,000 others in sugar, flowers and palm oil.
In an industry characterised by exploitation SINTRAINAGRO has become the most powerful union representing banana workers in Latin America, its members’ terms and conditions contrasting favourably with those endured by their counterparts elsewhere.
SINTRAINAGRO was created from a fusion of three trade unions in 1989 and took its name from the only one of them that was legally registered and recognised by the state.
The other two, SINTAGRO and SINTGRABANANO, had their legal status removed after long strikes involving thousands of workers, culminating in 127 separate agreements with employers in 1985.
During the violence that followed in the ensuing years, there was a growing realisation on the part of the employers that industrial peace could not be brought about at the barrel of a paramilitary gun if the business were to survive.
While much of Colombia’s agricultural heritage has been sacrificed on the altar of a free trade agreement with the United States that has seen domestic producers of staple crops wiped out by subsidised imports, the banana industry has grown apace.
Some 34,000 of the 50,000 hectares under cultivation are in Uraba and Colombia is the world’s fourth-largest exporter, sending 90 per cent of the crop to the markets of the EU and the US.
Key to SINTRAINAGRO’s success has been the removal of workers from squalid camps within the plantations to urban areas where, initially, land was squatted before the inhabitants were given legal title.
An integral part of the union’s negotiating structure incorporates the establishment of joint funds for the provision of housing, education and health.
In Apartado, its members have access to state-of-the-art medical attention in facilities 50 per cent owned by their union, their children can go to a school that has also been part-funded by SINTRAINAGRO money and many live in new blocks of flats.
What has become to be known as “social unionism” goes beyond wage bargaining and confronts the wider necessities of the workers’ communities by co-operating with employers and municipal authorities in what is one of Latin America’s most unequal societies.
Critics of SINTRAINAGRO achievements accuse it of being a “yellow” union, an organisation controlled by the banana producers and their management, an allegation that is difficult to substantiate when the union is still prepared to take prolonged strike action in support of its claims.
In fact, its negotiating strategy is one of co-operation with management within the parameters of a contract or agreement that is hammered out every two years in the best traditions of free collective bargaining.
The CUT (roughly the equivalent of the TUC) recognises SINTRAINAGRO as being the appropriate union for all agro-industrial workers, yet that has not prevented one of its affiliates from attempting to undermine their agreement by poaching their members and making unrealistic demands upon the employers, sometimes supported by well-meaning European NGOs who appear misinformed about the industrial relations climate.
With the second round of presidential elections scheduled for June 17 against the backdrop of a fragile peace accord that threatens to unravel because of government’s inability or unwillingness to fulfil its obligations towards demobilised fighters, it is no time to sow discord among organised workers representing a ray of hope in an otherwise gloomy picture.
Mono-crop banana production is far from ideal, but it is at least providing relatively well-remunerated employment for tens of thousands of people in one of Colombia’s most troubled areas.
The recent discovery of drugs in cases of fruit being shipped to Spain has complicated matters for the industry and only serves to underline Interior Minister Guillermo Rivera’s plea for unity in order to overcome such difficulties and move ahead.
Only four members of the original SINTRAINAGRO executive committee have avoided the fate of 1,300 others who have been murdered since the union’s inception.
And this December will mark the 90th anniversary of the worst massacre in the Colombian banana industry’s troubled history when over 1,000 United Fruit workers and their families were slaughtered in Cienaga, near Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast.
If we do not want a return to those dreadful times, then SINTRAINAGRO initiatives deserve to be recognised and supported by the British labour movement.
Bert Schouwenberg is GMB international officer.
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