The port of Buenaventura is a world class facility that processes two thirds of Colombia’s international seagoing commerce and generates 2 billion dollars a year in taxes. However, its workers are employed in abysmal conditions and live in poverty less than a kilometer away, often without sewage facilities, running water, or electricity. An investigative series carried out by a mainstream newspaper last month called attention to the social crisis in Buenaventura describing how paramilitary groups murder, extort, displace, disappear, rape, and dismember people on a regular basis. According to the Colombian Labor Ministry unemployment in Buenaventura is at 63%. In this context, port workers are engaged in a labor struggle which has drawn international attention.
PASO spent several days with unions and grassroots organizations, visiting the port and communities in which the longshoremen live. The workers we spoke to describe an incomprehensible network of subcontracting through what the AFL-CIO has referred to as “unwanted intermediary” hiring halls. We held interviews with union leadership and members, non-union workers, fired workers, and members of the community. Across the board, workers complained of lacking healthcare and pensions, late pay, extended hours without pay, hazardous working conditions, health problems, and union busting.
One worker described to us what is referred to as the “devil’s shift” in which line handlers are kept on the docks for 24 to 36 hours and paid for eight. He has been hired for 10 years through temporary contracts. Others described a common practice during peak activity in which stevedores are given eight hour shifts, eight hours rest, then called back for another eight hour shift. Still another common story involved workers being told they have healthcare coverage only to be turned away at their health clinic. One worker in his 50’s showed us the papers he had received when he went to claim his pension; all but 62 weeks of 20 years’ worth of social security had been denied. Employers often simply fire workers as they grow old to make room for younger, fitter replacements.
Jhon Jairo Castro is the president of Union Portuaria’s Buenaventura local union. He lives with his two sons in a house he built himself out of wooden planks where there is running water only for a few hours every morning. A new and committed organizer, Castro jokes about hardship despite the poverty he lives in and threats against his life that have become commonplace. As we weave through his neighborhood, home to longshoremen, woodcutters and fishermen, he introduces us to coworkers and shows us where community activists have been killed in recent years.
He describes how the port’s private owners operate subsidiaries such as Tecsa and Celsa that create subcontracting entities to hire workers in small groups of 20 to 40 via temp agencies and other illegal intermediaries. Those hired by means of these intermediaries have no legal right to join unions or collective bargaining. Despite these barriers, Union Portuaria organized two strikes last year and won direct contracts for a number of workers. During the strike several workers (including a pregnant woman) were beaten, 30 were fired in an attempt to break the union, and fear has taken hold of the workforce. To make matters worse, a history of union corruption and smear campaigns have swayed the public opinion against organized labor. Unión Portuaria hopes to build partnerships within the community and run a media campaign to counteract this negative perception of union activity, but lacks resources.
Local problems are representative of nation-wide attacks on port workers. In Turbo, on the Caribbean coast, over 100 of its members were fired in retaliation for union activity, many of whom had worked in the local port for more than 30 years. This exposes the shortcomings of the US/Colombia “Labor Action Plan” with sobering clarity; the agreement was to specifically monitor labor relations inside Colombian ports. Despite several high-profile appearances in Buenaventura, the Colombian Labor Minister has done nothing to move this plan forward and even seems to have taken the side of the Port Society, in which a number of national politicians own stock.
Meanwhile the wider social justice movement in Buenaventura has been all eradicated by business interests and violent repression. Paramilitary groups displace communities and murder community leaders to make way for port expansion projects. Neighborhood schools run with public funding through nepotistic relationships between politicians and private investors often pay teachers less than half the minimum wage. Extortion at the hands of paramilitary groups has gone so far as to enforce daily payments from individual homeowners in some neighborhoods. Water was privatized several years ago followed by a drastic decline in quality including services being cut to two or three hours a day and rising prices. When protesting residents refused to pay, company representatives showed up at their homes accompanied by plain clothed men carrying machine guns.
Castro and community leaders believe there is an opportunity to rebuild a social movement in Buenaventura between workers, students, displaced communities, and grassroots activists around issues such workers’ rights, water and displacement. PASO hopes to foster international support for this urgent campaign, provide collective protection for those involved, and facilitate educational exchanges between workers and organizers within Colombian and internationally.
 Interview with AFRODES, 2013