Saturday, May 31, 2008

No riot for the nuns

I went to see the cool nuns again. They were even more bright-eyed and sparky talking about the strike in Yarima they are now supporting, than when they had recounted being in a riot with the strikers of Puerto Wilches.

Yarima is a corregimiento [district of a municipality which includes a village of the same name and smaller outlying villages] in San Vicente in the department of Santander. It's fairly near Puerto Wilches, where people were giving their own strike credit for inspiring this new one.

The nuns were liking how the Yarima strike is lots more organised than the Puerto Wilches one. This is easier as it's a much smaller community and people all know each other. They have an evaluation meeting at the end of each day to look at what they could do better. (I really like the sound of that myself.)

There has been a great sense of solidarity from the area. Yarima has a big advantage over Puerto Wilches in that oil palm is newer, and it is not as widespread. This means more countryside left for sympathetic farmers to grow useful stuff, like food. When these farmers pass by,they leave the odd sack of corn or yucca or half a dead cow.

The strikers said they are actually eating better now than they did when they were working. Now the wonderful generosity of the local farmers mean they get three hot meals a day, and there has even been food left over. When they were working in the fields, their food would be cold, less frequent, and less of it.

Being well-fed is great, but the cash they are lacking after forty days of striking certainly does not mean their lives are now easier. They have no money to pay for their rent, for any medicines their family need, or for their children's schooling. Many can no longer make the down payments on their motorbikes, which will leave them without transport.

According to the nuns, the strikers' policy has been to block the roads to any vehicles connected with coal, palm, oil or rubber, and letting all other vehicles pass. The idea of targeting other industries was to put pressure on the government to help move on the negotiations.

The strike hit the national news early on, as the president of the oil workers' union (USO) Jorge Gamboa Cabellero suffered an assassination attempt while visiting the strikers. That's how it was reported in the press anyway. The nuns made it sound less certain. Whether the two armed infiltrators who had been taking photos of the crowd were actually intending to kill USO's president as they moved towards him, I'm sure we will never know. The crowd at the time were fairly convinced, swiftly surrounding the men and disarming them. Jorge Gamboa says he owes them his life.

The palm workers were originally striking to demand better working conditions, similar to the situation in Puerto Wilches. Their main demands were for:
1) the system of employment through cooperatives to be abolished and the companies to employ their workers directly, complying with their legal responsibilities such as social security payments
2) a rise in pay which has been frozen for years.

Below Google & I have translated part of the background information they gave with their list of demands. [I recommended Google translator if you interested in reading any of these Spanish links in English.]

Because the palm companies had still not responded to the workers' demands, three days ago the local community called a civic strike in solidarity. This has widened out the issues, making links to other local problems, such as the degradation of both the environment and infrastructure (eg roads) caused by the companies taking natural resources from the area. The health centre is in a state of utter disrepair, and the community notes how wealth is being extracted from their territory while their circumstances are getting worse.

The Governor of Santander visited yesterday. He made some agreements with regard to social investment, but nothing relating to improving the palm workers' conditions.

When I started writing this, I named it 'No riot for the nuns', but since then I've learnt that the riot police turned up this morning and there was a confrontation. Tear gas. Rubber bullets. Two thousand people. Fifteen injuries. People seeking refuge in the church (pictured). But let's presume the violence was all one sided and it wasn't a 'riot'. And I don't think the nuns were necessarily there. So please excuse me for not thinking up another title.

If anyone would like to email me a message of solidarity (by posting a comment), I can send it on to the nuns and they can take it to the strikers. If it's in English, make it shortish and I'll translate. I'm sure it would mean a lot to the strikers to know people are thinking of them.

Workers' List of Demands: Background

[The first paragraph deals with the change of land use since palm arrived in the area in 1985 and how this led to land theft, forced displacement, and people's conversion from farmers to palm labourers, working on the same land previously belonging to their families. Then it discusses how labour rights have degenerated over time, especially with the formation of workers' cooperatives.]

Today, the outlook for our community and our workers is dark. We watch as the environment deteriorates from the aggressiveness of crops that do not respect the rivers, streams or gullies. The indiscriminate felling of forests has brought us serious problems of erosion and the destruction of water sources, with disastrous consequences for the extinction of flora and fauna. Autonomy and food security have been lost as we have gone from being the food pantry of Magdalena Medio to consumers of traditional products brought in from other regions such as yucca, corn, plantain, fruit, and meat and milk derivatives that we previously produced. These are required for our nourishment and that of our children. In addition, we now have to pay the extra costs for transporting these foods.

The cultivation of palm throughout these 20 years has only generated the unbridled exploitation of our workforce and our land, without any compensation apart from the miserable wages we earn. The long hours of work only serve to line the pockets of the executives at the expense of the suffering of our people. We watch as our men and women hand over their youth, health and even life in this work, without seeing any improvement in their quality of life as was promised at the start of this project. The technical and technological training did not happen, the social investment did not happen, and neither did the decent work with fair working conditions which we inhabitants of this region deserve, as the owners and generators of so much wealth.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Responses to 'Fiercely disappointed'

I'm grateful for having wise friends who responded to my last blog in ways that moved on my thinking.

From a friend with Pakistani heritage:

i wonder if you are judging the organisation too harshly - not in terms of their patriarchal and class hierarchy, but i think what the manager says is fair. In the wider social setting - doing the work that the women in the canteen do - they probably would have a lot less "pay" for longer hours (i am guessing). The fact that they work half a day (by local standards) enables them to work elsewhere also. Working many jobs is not uncommon in developing countries. I have a cousin who works 5 jobs. He leaves home at 6am and returns at between 1-2am. 7 days a week. Its not living as we would like to think of it - but the reality for the majority of the world.

I guess i am saying be careful not to judge people by your own standards of living...


From a friend who works for a labour rights NGO:

I would say that you should definitely NOT talk to funders, at least not until you have actually spoken to the workers themselves to see if they actually want you to crusade on their behalf.

Writing to funders could have several consequences: one is that they decide to up their funding to ensure a minimum wage is paid, more likely they will either ignore it or possibly pull funding. their funders are likely to react to an international observer contacting them as a potential PR issue, and defensiveness is very often the approach.

I know it's disappointing - we want the groups we work with to replicate the justice they are calling for in their own structures, but this is often not the case. You need to look at an issue as a whole - where would the extra money come from - higher fees for food, more funding (from where?), from cutting the number of staff? Are staff at higher levels paid really high wages and could they take a pay cut to ensure minimum wage for canteen staff?

As you said in the email while they are discontent with their salaries they also feel some sense of ownership over the project, and maybe they feel that they are willing to work on a semi voluntary basis. This is where the real difference between the palm companies and the social group lies. People are often willing to make sacrifices for something they believe is for the good of themselves and their families, but why should they do the same for a multi national company that doesn't give a shot about anything but extracting the maximum profit they can.

So I would say that the only thing to do for now is try to have this discussion with workers themselves, but you need to understand the financial workings of the organisation too. In that way you can hear if they have their concerns or demands and provide them the information they might need themselves to push for higher wages. If they want to do that, then maybe you can have a role in supporting and facilitating this process. Social justice is often not just a matter of numbers, but a matter or process. If workers can speak to their managers and raise their issues, and more importantly their concerns can get heard, then that's really what's important. I would say this is where you might have a role. But be careful of taking actions that could really make things worse, and make sure that if you do take action in solidarity, it is based on the wishes of those you are showing solidarity with and not on disappointment with reality or simple outrage at injustice.

Hope that helps - sorry if I misunderstood and you've already done these things.


I had the following reactions to my friends' emails:

- Primarily I've been worrying about how much sleep my friend's cousin gets.

- I agree I was judging the organisation by my standards and the ideal that people should at least be paid the minimum wage. The reality is that even the state doesn't pay all its workers the minimum wage. I guess the economy as it is just doesn't support it.

- I've transferred some of my anger at the injustice in this organisation, to the injustice out in the world in general. Seems fairer not to just pick on them. These same problems are everywhere. Actually this organisation has a reputation for walking the talk more than most. At least it includes its beneficiaries in its structure, and meets with them. Unlike many of the more paternalistic NGOs here, which spend their time meeting with other NGOs.

- I was quite amused/shocked to realise that while I had spoken to a few of the coordinators about this, I never spoke to a single cook about anything at all. We generally just smiled shyly at each other. Various reasons for barriers - class, communication, confidence... So I would have been making that classic mistake of speaking out on behalf of people who hadn't asked me to. Which led me to feel compassion and empathy for the managers cos this behaviour is unfortunately normal and I'm no angel either.

- From what I know of the people concerned, writing to the managers is unlikely to bring about anything positive. And writing to funders is very risky as well as inappropriate. Given I have now left the area so I can't go back and talk to the cooks, I conclude it's better for me to accept there are some things I have no power to change.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Fiercely disappointed

For the last month I've been accompanying a women's organisation, while they have been helping me talk to people about agrofuels.

This accompaniment has involved visiting their various comedores populares (canteens in working class areas) and being a visible foreigner there, and going with the coordinators when they visit the working class districts.

This is an organisation which has had three workers murdered by paramilitaries, and an enormous catalogue of threats and harassments made against members.

The solidarity provided by international accompaniment helps to decrease their sense of isolation as well as increase their reputation as an organisation with international support, so the state and the paramilitaries are less likely to mess with them.

The canteens were set up as a service to the community. They provide very cheap lunches for 2000 pesos (58p). I've been round a fair few of them now, and I generally ask how many people eat there – which ranges from 40 to a bit over a hundred – and then I do some mental arithmetic and worry about their finances.

Until it stopped in 2004, they got subsidies from the UN World Food Programme. Currently the coordinator's post is paid by core funding, and the two cooks' wages and all other costs are meant to be covered by the canteen's income.

So I would sit there calculating... 40 meals at 2000... say if the cooks got paid 40 000 (the daily wage of manual labourers in Villa Elvira)... that leaves absolutely nothing for food, electricity, water or rent. No wonder they are getting into debt.

I don't know why it's taken me so long to find out what the wages actually are. But after all this time I've been whinging on about how badly the palm companies pay their employees, I am fiercely disappointed to discover that the social organisation I'm working with, the one that's fighting for social justice, PAYS ITS COOKS LESS THAN A THIRD OF THE MINIMUM WAGE!!! 150 000 pesos (£43). Less than 5000 (£1.40) per day. For cooking, cleaning and washing up from 6am to 2pm, six days a week.

Many of the cooks are single mothers. Is there at least a policy of letting their dependants eat for free? Afraid not.

At least the palm companies almost pay the minimum wage. Although, as in many countries, the minimum wage is not the same as a living wage that actually covers basic costs.

I had already been a bit disappointed in how hierarchical the organisation was, and how firmly class determines who has the power. Not for the first time I am glad my accompaniment organisation is one which sees its role as solidarity not neutrality, giving us the freedom to question and challenge. So I wasn't stepping out of line by asking, “What do you think might happen if there was a strike to demand the minimum wage for the cooks?”

I was told that at a recent assembly, when the upper echelons were off agenda setting, those left discussed the fact they hadn't been paid for 2 months. They joked about a strike, but concluded that that would be like striking against themselves. Nice that they have such a strong sense of ownership.

I talked with one of the coordinators about decision making in the organisation. We discussed how there is no culture in Colombia of giving constructive criticism to your friends. Only of criticising your enemies. People aren't used to learning from feedback. She said that although they talk about working conditions and pay among themselves, it is not a discussion they have had with those who make the decisions. The comment that they 'lack the tools' for this discussion, given they don't understand how the organisation's finances work, particularly depressed me.

It really is so easy to replicate the same unjust systems we fight against. They may be doing their best (One of the managers I've met is extremely dedicated and committed. Most days she leaves the house at 6am and returns at 8 or 9pm. And then sometimes goes out again for a meeting. Plus working weekends with no concept of TOIL. Way harder than I'd ever work) and have some great results in terms of empowering women in general. But they lack some basic social justice within their organisation.

So although there is no culture of constructive criticism here, and although I am aware of my tendency to put my foot in it, I hope I shall be brave enough to talk to management about how paying less than a third of the minimum wage is, well, wrong. No matter how their finances work.


Update: I did ask the coordinator about how come they pay so little. I was told that it they don't pay 'wages' because they are not a company, they are a social organisation. The money is a 'contribution'. I suggested it was difficult to survive on 150 000 pesos. She explained that it's not meant for people to survive on. They are free from 2pm to do other work. They cannot be responsible for people's economic welfare.

I've been reflecting a bit on how justification can be an ugly thing. And that exploiting your volunteers and having issues around decision-making, power and class are problems common to many NGOs.

I'm taking advice on my next move. I'd like to write to their funders, if I can be confident it would have a positive effect.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Solidarity raises your wages

When I spoke to the nuns just after the palmworkers strike in Puerto Wilches ended in February, they were upbeat about having been in a riot, but they painted a pretty dismal picture of what the 30 day strike had achieved. Despite the fact that it got so much solidarity and support from locals, nationals and internationals.

I have been staying in Puerto Wilches for the last two weeks, with intention of finding out what had happened since. It's horribly hot here, which made me ill and then took away my motivation to do anything that isn't sleeping.

So I've given myself a deadline to get the interviews done so that I can leave and go live somewhere cooler, with a better mattress less overrun by biting ants, and which I don't have to share with an 8 year old boy when more family come to stay, who's in the habit of kicking me in the face throughout the night.

After an eleven hour sleep, (which seems a lot even for me), I got myself up this morning with some determination to go find some people to interview.

Since then, things have been going surprisingly smoothly. We asked around for the bloke who was one of the leaders of the strike. Shortly after, he turned up where I was staying. And rather than listening to the tale of woe I had been expecting about the strike achieving nothing but an increase in repression, the word 'triumph' was repeatedly used.

Before the strike, those working indirectly for the palm company Monterrey through cooperatives (set up and controlled by the company so they can avoid various legal requirements such as paying for social security) got fined like this:

  • 6000 pesos (£1.70) for each seed bunch they cut down which had less than five seeds fallen loose – ie was not considered ripe enough.
  • 6000 pesos for each seed bunch left uncut with more than five seeds which have fallen loose – ie too ripe, although it may have ripened in the time between the worker passing the palm and the supervisor checking it.
  • 3000 pesos for each kilo of seeds found on the ground below the palm trees.
  • 6000 pesos for each seed bunch cut down by one worker, but left behind by another instead of loaded onto the cart.
  • 2000 pesos for each seed bunch stalk cut more than 2 cm long.

So basically there were four or five things you can get wrong every time you cut down a seed bunch from 2 metres above your head.

These fines ate into the wages of the workers, along with having to pay for overpriced tools, transport, raw materials and social security payments. A healthy-looking 700 000 pesos (£200) monthly wage therefore shrunk to 250 000 (£70) take-home pay: just over half the legal minimum wage.

To give you some idea of the purchasing power of 250 000 per month, consider that's just over 8000 pesos (£2.30) a day. Consider the palm worker may well be the only wage earner in the family. Consider people here tend to have a lot of children (5 or 6 is the average number).

Some common costs

Lunch: 4000 pesos.
An exercise book (and each schoolchild needs about 15 in a year) 1000 pesos.
A pen: 700 pesos.
School uniform: 50 000 pesos.
School sports uniform: 34 000 pesos.
School annual enrolment (eighth grade): 80 000 pesos.
Rent: 150 000 pesos per month for a two-bedroom house.

ie, A pen or an exercise book is an hour's wage. Lunch is half a day's work.

Food costs

Due to the 47 000 ha of oil palm here in the municipality of Puerto Wilches (about a third of the rural land) not leaving much space for food crops, bananas which used to be given away to neighbours for free are now imported from Venezuela or Ecuador.

Transport costs make fruit and veg prices high, which is a source of frustration for people given they live in such a fertile area.

A pound of potatoes: 1200 pesos (35p) in Puerto Wilches, 400 pesos in the nearby city of Bucaramanga.
A pound of tomatoes: 1500 pesos (43p) in Puerto Wilches, 400 in Bucaramanga.
A pound of plantain: 600 pesos (17p) in Puerto Wilches, 250 in Bucaramanga.

The Threats
As for the repression experienced due to the strike, well, it's not as bad as it could have been. Blokey I spoke to was verbally threatened by the police during the strike. He had a fairly exciting story about being shot at and a load of them involving themselves in a motorbike chase where they followed the assailants back to their base at the police-station. They reported it but the police have somehow chosen not to follow it up. There was also a young guy who left town for a month when him and his mum were threatened after his active involvement in the strike. He's back now though.

The Triumphs

For the Monterrey workers:
  • The fine system has changed so the 6000 fines have been reduced to 2500 pesos, half paid by the company and half by the cooperative. The other fines are now 500, also half paid by the company.
  • Workers now are allowed a 3% margin of error before the fines start. Supervisors give you the opportunity to cut the stalk to the right length before a fine is imposed.
  • The tools that had to be bought from the company are now sold much nearer to cost price: roughly half the cost they were.
  • Wages have increased by 28%.
  • There is a review committee of workers and company reps who meet monthly to look at how the fine system is running.
  • The company pays for a full-time consultant to lend expertise to the cooperatives.

All this means that the strike has lead to an increase in income of about 40% for workers in this sector. Up to around minimum wage levels. I think that's quite an impressive triumph.

Plus positive results breed others. This strike has inspired other nearby, which is now on its thirtieth day.

And there are less tangible consequences of over 3000 striking workers coming together every day for a month. A new organisation has started up with a focus on encouraging the cultivation of staple foods. People have a sense of success and unity that's nice to see. Right perked me up it has.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A tough call

I have had quite a tense couple of weeks trying to work out how I am getting home. Trying to find a yacht owner willing to let me hitch back across the Atlantic was much easier than for the outward journey. Despite my complete lack of sailing experience, there were a few boats who would have had me. (These are the sites I used to look.) Everyone was leaving in the first two weeks of May from either Saint Martin or the Virgin Islands, in the north-east tip of the Caribbean. The dream of swimming, snorkelling and learning a new skill to help future fossil-fuel-free travel meant I adjusted to the idea of leaving four weeks earlier than I had meant to.

However trying to get to any bit of the Caribbean without flying proved too much of a challenge. Strand Travel told me that no cargo ships accepted bookings for such a short leg. Odd given that on my way here a couple had got on in Martinique to travel to Cartagena.

The Cruise People were a bit more helpful and at least found me a 13 day voyage to Jamaica which had already left by the time we spoke. (And they are cheaper than Strand.)

My conscience had seemed quite prepared to do a little flying jump from an island I could get a freighter to, to whatever island a boat was leaving from. It reasoned that such a short flight wouldn't go right up into the stratosphere, where littering CO2 directly to the greenhouse gas blanket is more of a problem than down in the biosphere where it might get recycled into something useful like a tree.

My conscience was less sure about flying all the way there, and even less sure when it learnt there aren't any direct flights and you probably have to go via Miami.

I gave up flying in 1998, and since then have done two return flights to the Middle East for Palestine solidarity work which I considered to have a positive karma debt. One friend told me that given some people fly to work and others fly to Spain every weekend, my decision to fly or not on this one trip is irrelevant and is part of activists' problem of deliberately depriving themselves, which he sees as fundamentalism.

That did slightly convince me for a day. Cos I did really want to go.

Then I spoke to my parents, who sounded disappointed. Dad said, “Well, you've got to do what's right for you”, paraphrasing something George Fox said to William Penn, with the same effect.

Today I've just had to go through it all again, as I got an email from the family I was gagging to sail with, who originally did not have room for me. Now they do. Look at how much fun they're having! Ooomigod. What an incredible way to spend a year of your childhood. Happy happy blond children. And enough of them to make loads of party games viable.

So I looked into flights, squirmed some more, and eventually came back to the same conclusion:

I may regret not taking up this opportunity, but I think I would regret flying more.

For me, making that flight would be like saying that my life and my choices will not make a difference. And I know that they do. I know this because people tell me so. The person who told me I was part of her decision not to fly on holiday to Bolivia, and the person who told me she now flies to Europe less often because of me, have become part of my reason not to fly to the Caribbean.

Obviously all forms of transport I might make my journey on are going anyway, and my decision is pretty abstract and symbolic. But it is a symbolism I find I don’t want to let go of right now.

Although, granted, I may change my mind again tomorrow.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Photos of cute children

Wow, it's been a long time since I last wrote. I have a few partially formed bits I'm working on, but nothing solid enough to post yet. And now my friend Sar says she's been worrying about the quiet, so here are some pictures of cute children to pass the time. The first bloke was my roommate for 5 weeks. Credit to Jess Hurd for the last one.