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.

No comments: