19 July, 2016

Banana workers helping to rebuild a peaceful, just society in Colombia

Banana Workers in Colombia
by Harold Suarez, Employee at Montesol, Colombia

As Colombia rebuilds its society after years of civil war, banana plantations in Urabá, one of the worst affected regions, are empowering workers to have a say in their futures

Last month a historic deal was struck to end decades of conflict in Colombia, a civil war which saw farmers lose their land; over 220,000 lives were lost in the crossfire, and around 6.7 million people displaced.

The banana lands of Urabá became a battlefield between warring guerrillas and paramilitaries, with 8,000 people murdered, including trade union leaders, members and managers, distrust between employers and workers was rife.

For a nation of people who have long called for peace, efforts by Fairtrade certified plantations in the region to improve relations, give workers a greater voice, and promote human rights are helping build the inclusive, just society the country now needs.

Building a Better Life

Harold Suarez, a 32-year-old employee of Montesol, a Fairtrade certified plantation, has worked hard to build a better life for himself, his community and fellow workers.

Here he explains how:

“I have worked in the banana industry for about 10 years. I live in Urabá, a region which has 20,000 hectares of banana plantations and employs approximately 38,000 workers. This is banana land. People come from all over Colombia to work here. We have all suffered greatly because of the historic violence in our country, and because of economic problems but, day by day, we are building a better region.

My current employer Montesol has been Fairtrade certified for five years. I am proud to represent the other workers and to negotiate with the plantation owner on their behalf. We have a collective agreement which covers salaries, issues facing workers and employee benefits.

As part of this agreement we also receive free legal training on all aspects of workers’ rights including non-discrimination, gender inclusion and prohibition of child labor. Colombia is incredibly diverse and in my region there are more than 30 different ethnic groups. It is therefore important to make sure that people of different ethnicities, cultures and gender are not treated differently, which was an issue when I started working in the industry. This training has improved the democratic structure of the plantation and has helped us to negotiate extra maternity leave and pay, and while we always had a good relationship with the boss, we now have better understanding between management and workers.

I’m proud to have made significant improvements toward better labor conditions for workers. In the past, we were often made to do unpaid overtime, but this no longer happens. We are now very strict about overtime because the work we do is so physically demanding. Simple changes such as this and being given proper clothing and equipment, which are conditions of the Fairtrade Standards, make a huge difference. Many plantations don’t enjoy those benefits. For example, at my previous job, workers had to bring in their own drinking water even though the physical labor required on a hot banana plantation is thirsty work. When I started working at Montesol, drinking water was not provided either, but when the farm became Fairtrade-certified, it was a requirement under the standards. So even though this was an extra cost to the business, it became a benefit for the workers.

In Colombia we have good legal requirements on workers’ rights and unionization, however, having previously worked on non-certified plantations, I believe that I have an even better quality of life now. Before I had limited income and fewer opportunities to grow personally. As banana workers we weren’t able to send our children to school or college before, we didn’t have enough income or access, with most public universities in the city, 500km away. We’ve dedicated a pot of money from the Premium to invest in higher education, providing opportunities for the future generation. So far we’ve invested 30,000 dollars in this.

Thanks to Fairtrade I have also personally benefitted as I recently completed a professional course in finance. Fifteen other people have graduated with degrees. At Montesol, the staff were also asked what specific training we would find most useful, and we have chosen to take courses on conflict resolution, family planning and household budgeting, all of which has been facilitated by Fairtrade.

The Fairtrade Premium has also been invested in new homes for workers in need. The housing plan has been match-funded by the government to help displaced workers. Without this program, the workers would have had to rent houses that are really uninhabitable, without any proper floors or walls and with families of six people or more are crammed into one room. It has been a great blessing to become Fairtrade certified and to have received this economic and social support. It has changed the lives of many people.

I feel that we have escaped the poverty cycle. I now have an education, the tools to negotiate and I am proud to speak up for my fellow workers. Now, as we Colombians fight for lasting peace, I am beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

This article first appeared on the Guardian Sustainable Business on July 19, 2016.

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