In Colombia, All-Women Childcare Union Emerges as National Player

Neil Martin; first published by Labor Notes on March 24, 2017

Sixty thousand women childcare workers in Colombia are on the verge of winning pensions and back pay, after decades of making just half the minimum wage.

Their union, Sintracihobi, has been able to achieve these remarkable results—despite representing only a minority of employees in the childcare sector—with an approach that combines legal action, political advocacy, and mass mobilization.

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Sintracihobi has led a 25-year struggle to defend publicly-funded childcare programs and to end discriminatory labor practices that have targeted some of the country’s most vulnerable female and minority workers, excluding them from pension payments and minimum wages.

The union has drawn on innovative protest tactics, often incorporating traditional cultural actions like Afro-Colombian dances with member-led peaceful occupation of public spaces. Equally important, it has relied on a back-to-basics organizing strategy, holding the endless assemblies, rallies, and meetings all over the country necessary to move thousands of people into action.

STRIKE AND TOPLESS PROTEST

The government provides childcare for 1.2 million of the country’s most vulnerable families through a state agency, the Colombian Family Welfare Institute (ICBF), which subcontracts 120,000 childcare workers through various intermediaries. Almost all are women.

These workers traditionally earned less than half the national minimum wage, approximately $200 per month, despite working long hours and putting their own homes at ICBF’s disposal.

A 2012 Constitutional Court decision ordered ICBF to pay all workers the minimum wage, plus healthcare and pension benefits, but the agency refused to comply. So Sintracihobi organized a month-long national strike in October 2013 to pressure the ICBF and the Treasury Ministry to comply with the decision. Thousands of women participated.

Childcare workers set up encampments outside the offices of ICBF. Three weeks into the strike, a group of women in their fifties and sixties resorted to a topless protest in Bogota’s Bolivar Square, drawing increased media attention. In response, the Treasury finally set aside funding to meet the union’s demands.

PRIVATIZATION THREAT

But big problems remained. Many of Colombia’s childcare providers continue to work into their seventies and eighties, often with work-related disabilities.

The court-mandated pension payments, issued from 2014 on, provided a solution for the next generation of workers—but not for the women who had worked since ICBF programs were launched in the 1980s.

On top of this, the Colombian government has begun to promote the private administration of state-funded childcare programs. Service contracts are being denied to the traditional worker- and parent-run childcare “associations” and instead awarded to “child development centers” run by private NGOs.

A study from the University of the Andes indicated that this predominantly private model is four times as expensive and yields similar results in terms of children’s development. And it has led to the dismissals of thousands of workers over the age of 50 or who suffer from work-related illnesses—with no compensation.

Meanwhile the ICBF and its director Christina Plazas, appointed by President Juan Manuel Santos, have come under policymakers’ scrutiny for alleged nepotism and misappropriation of funds. In early 2016 the union denounced a humanitarian crisis, documenting cases around the country where children enrolled in ICBF programs were dying of malnutrition. The crisis drew wide coverage in the national press.

STRIKE TWO

On April 4, 2016, Sintracihobi went on strike again. Eight thousand women stopped work. Childcare providers marched, sang, danced, set up tents, and camped outside ICBF offices in 24 cities and towns. Other unions, students, and taxi drivers provided the strikers with food and other necessities.

The union demanded that ICBF fix problems with access to food for the children in its programs, end nepotistic contracting practices that favored private foundations, guarantee labor stability for childcare workers, and provide a solution for the pre-2014 outstanding pension payments.

The strike again attracted lots of national press coverage, which put pressure on Director Plazas. The message was simple: bad management, broken promises, and corruption at ICBF had caused a human rights crisis. Children were starving while sick, elderly, and disabled women were forced to keep working to make ends meet. Even in a country where the mass media vilifies unions, this message could not be ignored.

VICTORY

Direct action and news media attention gave the union enough leverage to build a base of support among elected officials and government oversight agencies. That allowed Sintracihobi to negotiate directly with ICBF, as opposed to individual employers.

After a week of negotiations, the union reached an agreement with the ICBF, ranking officials from the ombudsman and inspector general’s offices, and six senators to meet workers’ demands through legislation and internal ICBF policy reforms to be rolled out over the following months.

Sintracihobi then worked with this coalition of senators, led by longtime ally Alexander Lopez of the left-leaning coalition party Polo, to draft and pass comprehensive legislation, establishing that:

  • food provided by ICBF must meet nutritional instead of caloric criteria
  • childcare providers must be reimbursed for the costs of equipment such as stoves and refrigerators
  • a pension subsidy equivalent to the minimum wage must be made available to women who have worked in ICBF programs for more than 20 years

The legislation also improved job security for outsourced ICBF workers and opened the door to the possibility that these jobs could be brought into the public sector in the future.

Colombia’s congress approved the bill in December, but Santos has refused to sign it into law. However, this came on the heels of a landmark decision in which the Colombian Constitutional Court ruled that ICBF must pay pension and back pay to childcare workers for years worked prior to 2014.

DEATH THREATS

The joy was short-lived, however. Just a day after the court’s decision, three members of the union’s legal team received death threats.

The culprit has not been identified, but the motive would seem to be tied to the pending implementation of the ruling—one puts the cost at $285 million.

Anti-union violence has been on the decline recently in Colombia. Still, an average of 27 union activists were murdered annually between 2011 and 2015.

It’s clear that the government will look for ways to avoid complying with the sentence. That’s the union’s next big challenge.

ROOTS OF SUCCESS

Sintracihobi’s national leaders are childcare workers who devote their free time to the union. Olinda Garcia, president since 1989, spends almost every weekend traveling around the country to support and help organize local branches.

“We have good turnout when we organize protests and strikes,” she said, “because we show results and because we spend a lot of time teaching our members and supporters about their legal rights and how they have been denied.”

The childcare workers have also gained support by fighting for good public services for children and vulnerable families. “Our union demands that our members provide quality childcare,” said Stella Hoyos, a national officer and childcare provider from Popayan, “and that the government offer adequate nutrition, age-specific pedagogy, and equal treatment for all children.” These issues are given priority in the union’s political advocacy work.

Less than 4 percent of Colombia’s workers are union members, but this number has increased every year since 2012. Sintracihobi’s work provides an example for other unions in Colombia and internationally. It demonstrates how a well-organized minority can use direct action plus public opinion to win major benefits for all workers in a given sector.

Neil Martin is the executive director of PASO International. UNISON, the U.K.’s largest public sector union, supports PASO to develop communications, member education, and external organizing strategies in partnership with Sintracihobi.