By Jeff Ordower
After 20 years of labor and community organizing I came to Bogota for a brief sabbatical, to do, well, more organizing. I came to volunteer for PASO because I have known about the organization since it was just starting out and have been very impressed with both the concept and the work.
PASO has been able to do two things extremely well. First, it has taken the notion of protection-oriented international accompaniment to the labor world. Second, it has been able to raise funds for Colombian unions that can be used for organizing.
The new project, in which I am spending most of my time working, is with the union that represents home child care providers, the ‘community mothers’, SINTRACIHOBI. Funded by government agency ICBF, these mothers work in the barrios populares (the country’s poorest neighborhoods). Approximately 70,000 women perform three different kinds of activities. First, the traditional mothers take care of three to five year olds in their homes, eight hours a day 200 days a year. Each mother, by herself, takes care of around a dozen kids. Second, there are ‘FAMI’ mothers, who care for younger kids (infants to two-tear-olds), have smaller cohorts and work about half time. Finally, substitute mothers essentially act as interim parents for kids with serious disabilities. Colombia has one of world’s highest rates of internal displacement, rivaling Syria and Libya, and these substitutes fill the role of parents, caring for kids with emotional issues or physical challenges. There are also an increasing number of publically funded private childcare centers, whose employees are eligible to join the union as well.
These women, through Sintracihobi, have accomplished some amazing things over the course of the past three years. After working for almost three decades without getting a paycheck, with the help of Senator Alexander Lopez, they organized a 24-day national strike in 2013 which led, for the first time, to regular salaries and benefits.
After some huge wins, the mothers have entered 2016 ready to move forward, and there is still much to fight for. Because they worked for 26 years with no salary, there were not issued social security payments and cannot retire, even though many would be eligible for retirement in their late 50s according to the number years they have worked. A legal team organized by the union has filed thousands of individual lawsuits, but meanwhile many women in their 70s and 80s continue to work with serious physical issues. This hurts the quality of service that is provided for an estimated million of the country’s poorest kids.
There are also huge problems with the private for-profit operators who benefit from a patchwork of public contracts with ICBF thourghout Colombia. Many of these operators, which are in charge of providing food for the kids, skim money off the top resulting in children getting either rotten food, or going hungry. Mothers go into their own pockets to keep the kids fed, but in some regions kids are dying of malnutrition. Allegations of corruption are widespread, and the National Director of ICBF recently saw her fiancé arrested several days before their wedding on corruption charges.
As a result of the mothers’ excellent work, the British union UNISON has decided to partner with PASO and Sintracihobi. Components of this three-year project include the following:
– Seminars and leader-to-leader training with community mothers and their colleagues in the childcare industry. Thinking through agendas, making plans and really figuring out how to function like a trade union are some parts of this capacity building that we intend to help with.
-Technical support so that the union can learn to manage a website, social networks, and databases.
– Training with regards to dues deduction, so that the union has resources to continue the struggle when the project is over.
– As mentioned earlier, if the mothers decide to take direct action, PASO will provide accompaniment and monitoring, in order to prevent a violent response on the part of the police or illegal armed groups.
Because of the developing crisis in ICBF, it is likely that Sintracihobi will organize another national strike this spring. PASO will be there, not just to provide accompaniment, but also as a partner in planning, preparations, and just doing the work, side by side, with the community mothers.