Colombia’s childcare sector union Sintracihobi emerged victorious from a two-week nationwide strike last month, signing an agreement with government welfare agency ICBF that increases food rations for program’s children, establishes contracts through 2018, and protects public funds earmarked for childcare from being channeled into the private sector. An estimated 20,000 women went on strike from Cartagena to Cali, set up encampments outside ICBF offices, held daily marches and rallies, and – with the around-the-clock support of PASO staff – maintained a 24-hour picket at the institution’s national headquarters.
For 20 years, childcare workers known as community mothers have been administered via community-based associations run by the workers and the parents of the children under the program’s care. The Santos administration has been clear that its intention is to shift these contracts to large private foundations, which would leave workers and parents with no voice in decision making processes. In addition to this, the union has denounced corruption, inadequate funding, and opaque administration at the hands of private intermediaries leading to a crisis in which the children increasingly suffer from malnutrition. Cases of children having died as a result have been documented throughout the country. In 2016 ICBF introduced a new system to review standards and issue contracts, which left 30% of the aforementioned associations, some of them with decades of experience, out in the cold and forcing their employees into private foundations.
Sintracihobi won the hearts of the Colombian public by demanding above all protections for the children that are supposed to benefit from ICBF programs. In addition they rallied around the community-based associations’ transparent and democratic administration of public childcare funds. The agreement signed promises to increase the quality and quantity of the children’s nourishment, and to reincorporate all associations in the next round of contract designations. The press carried the union to victory in a country in which unions are traditionally portrayed as corrupt or extremist, representing a major win not only for the community mothers and the children they take care of, but also for the public image of the Colombian labor movement. The strike was also a success in organizational terms, fueling Sintracihobi’s new growth campaign, which the union is conducting with PASO’s support.
The agreement signed between Sintracihobi and ICBF is not a traditional collective bargaining agreement as defined by Colombian law. Rather the agreement is the result of an innovative strategy the union uses to go over the heads of its members’ direct employers and negotiate broader political issues directly with government agencies responsible for oversight. Although six senators and ranking representatives of the national offices of the Inspector General and Ombudsman signed on to the agreement as guarantors, enforcement will require ongoing grassroots pressure and coalition-building strategies with policy makers, parents, and other civil society groups.
The union is optimistic and continues to build on the momentum set in motion by a 24-day strike in 2013 in which the community mothers won a minimum wage, healthcare, and pension benefits for all childcare workers funded by ICBF. Most importantly, with this recent win Sintracihobi sent a clear message to Colombia’s government: childcare workers will have a voice in decisions regarding the future of their jobs and the quality of the services they proudly provide for Colombia’s most vulnerable children.