Inter-American Regional Executive Committee (IAMREC) member, Margarita talks about the danger to her life due to her trade union activities, the violence against social movement and unions leaders in Colombia and the current situation in the context of the pandemic, economic crisis and attacks on labour rights.
Margarita López is president of the Acuavalle Workers' Union (SINTRACUAVALLE), a public water and sanitation company in Valle del Cauca, Colombia. She is also a member of PSI's Global Women’s Committee (WOC).
Read the full interview below:
“Right now, we are experiencing an extremely aggressive second wave of contagion. The situation is complicated. The weakness of the health system did not take long to become evident. The people who are infected and need to go to be hospitalized are required to travel to other municipalities, to other regions of the country, because in the largest cities the health system doesn’t have beds for patients with Covid-19. A lockdown would mitigate the problems we have, but that is not easy because we also have the economic crisis that this health crisis has provoked. Many people cannot survive without going out, as most of the population depends on informal jobs and on what income can be generated with their community's own efforts.”
Unpaid care work has made it even more difficult for women to have a job
“We think and say repeatedly that the pandemic has a woman’s face. Because it has profoundly affected the rights of women and girls. Unemployment rates amid this health and economic crisis in Colombia have increased significantly. And women end up being the most affected. We are reaching almost 40% unemployment for women. So, we in the union movement understand that care work is central to all of this, as we live it and we have analyzed it within PSI. Unpaid care work has made it even more difficult for women to have a job, because they must take care of children because schools are closed. Women are caring for the elderly, people with disabilities, and all this has increased, and has been taken up disproportionately by women. According to the data that we have been able to collect, not only has women’s unemployment increased, but so has their hours of work (paid and unpaid) when compared to men.”
“Violence is added to all this context of the pandemic. The systematic murder of social movement leaders hasn’t stopped. So far in 2021 [at February 3, the date of this interview], there have already been more than 17 cases. Throughout 2020, 421 social movement leaders were assassinated. More than 700 social movement leaders have been murdered since the signing of the peace agreement [on September 26, 2016]. Among them, there are human rights defenders, ex-combatants of the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] demobilized from the peace process, trade unionists, environmentalists. Violence and violation of human rights, labor rights, trade union rights, the lack of respect for life itself are a constant in our country. This is an issue that has effectively escaped the control of the government, which has been unable to demonstrate management and control of this serious problem. And to this we need to add the serious problem that we have with feminicides in Colombia.”
Dismissal of Sintracuavalle workers
“In Sintracuavalle [Acuavalle Workers' Union] we are currently in a serious conflict, as five workers have been dismissed without just cause. It was an arrogant and unilateral decision of the manager of the company and we have denounced it at the Ministry of Labor. We are demanding the reinstatement of these five colleagues. In the history of our union, this is the first time that a group of workers have been fired like this. Additionally, we are dealing with problems like outsourcing of the core activities of the company which puts the job stability of workers at risk. So, workers are being fired, the company is being put into debt, core activities are being outsourced, and then there is only one step to total privatization.”
All the social movement leaders who have been assassinated, the demobilized leaders of the FARC, all of them are being left totally unprotected by the State.
“These firings and our fight for reinstatement coincided with the withdrawal of my personal security protection that is provided by the State. I’ve had this protection for more than seven years. It is a result of all the death threats I have received, all this struggle, and the reprisals against trade unionists and the movement in general in Acuavalle. I have been threatened with death, persecuted, and was attacked in 2012. The history that I have built, carrying a tombstone on my back, all the resistance, everything that I have done for the people as a union leader, my defense of water, the fight against privatization, and now the government abandons me and has left me totally defenseless. Today the workers of Acuavalle are contributing a portion of their low salary to have a security person accompany me. The situation is really difficult. Just as thousands of leaders in Colombia die, today my life is in danger, and the State has cut off my protection. From one day to the next. I was in a meeting when the security protection was lifted. Social leaders and trade unionists are being assassinated daily and at the moment I am fighting against the dismissal of these five comrades and they have left me totally unprotected. The National Protection Unit that is responsible for this decision responded that it is going to complete another risk assessment, but that if someone has not suffered direct threats recently, they simply say that they cannot send police. The systematic withdrawal of security protection for trade unionists in Colombia is growing. All the social movement leaders who have been assassinated, the demobilized leaders of the FARC, all of them are being left totally unprotected by the State. I was declared a military target by the Águilas Negras [Black Eagles]. And I was also threatened by the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia [United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia] [both extreme right-wing paramilitary groups]. They sent me messages where they threatened to kill me, they demanded money, they said that if they were not given money, our families would also be victims. And despite all that, the government withdrew my security protection.”
“We continue to believe in the construction of a stable and lasting peace, and we believe that peace is possible in our country, even though the peace process has been stigmatized, weakened, discredited by the government of President Iván Duque and his political group whose political head is Álvaro Uribe Vélez. Duque has shown a total aversion to this peace process. We are convinced that the five decades of armed conflict that we have experienced in this country and that has claimed so many victims cannot continue, so we will continue to support the peace process. We cannot allow the former FARC combatants who have signed the peace agreement in good faith to continue to be silenced. There can be no social justice if we do not have true peace in this country. We believe that workers and unions play a fundamental role in the construction of a stable and lasting peace, we must be actors for change, lead the uprising of our peoples based on an effective and participatory democracy.”
What this government has done is legislate in favor of corporate power. To deliver and fulfill the commitments made with the business federations
“We have also put the issue of the vaccine on the table. Initially the idea of vaccination provoked many doubts because the opportunism was really apparent. A few actors have taken advantage of the health emergency to charge speculative prices for supplies and the vaccine is no exception. Unlike many countries around the world, the vaccine still hasn’t arrived in Colombia. We still don’t have the first person vaccinated. There is a lot of uncertainty. There is extreme secrecy from the government about how purchase of vaccines will happen. They are very expensive, which we think opens the possibility for corruption and speculation. All this is being used opportunistically by the pharmaceutical companies, the multinationals that ‘market life’ and sell these vaccines as commodities. The government lost control of this entire process, which could guarantee that Colombians would receive decent and timely treatment and vaccination. So, we are victims of the profound mistakes of the government, of the parties that accompany the government and of the Consejo Gremial Nacional [permanent deliberative council made up of the biggest business federations of Colombia].”
“We just went through one of the worst labour reforms for workers in the country. Through decree 1174, of August 27, 2020, the President of the Republic legalized hourly work. This was done behind the back of the trade union movement, workers, public opinion, and during a pandemic. Social security protections for workers disappear with this change. This labor reform is a deception for Colombian workers, as it allows salaries below the minimum wage, increased labor flexibility, precariousness, and attacks the union movement, because it weakens us. What this government has done is legislate in favor of corporate power. To deliver and fulfill the commitments made with the business federations behind the backs of the Colombian people.”
“Many of the Colombian national state workers’ demands presented in 2019 were not fulfilled by the government. These will be part of a new document that articulates our central demands that we are building for 2021. This document will also include new elements such as health and safety at work, which is a central issue for workers amid this pandemic where we have directly experienced the consequences of the State’s weak capacity to respond to the crisis, which has really put us against the wall. We will also include other aspects such as telework and the digitization of work. In addition to these issues, the demands that we are going to promote in 2021 must have a different economic vision for workers. Because it is not with precarious wages, precarious employment, hourly work, limiting the possibility of access to decent social security, that an economic recovery will happen. The economic crisis provoked by the pandemic must be responded to with a different approach that goes far beyond this neoliberal model that has been devastating us and that has been slowly destroying the labour and union rights of Colombian workers.”
Income and work
The trade union movement must continue to mobilize, to confront this government and all neoliberal political forces
“The minimum wage that has just been approved is extremely low. Despite the increase of 3.5%. The union movement continues to fight for a minimum wage that improves the purchasing power of Colombians. A minimum wage that can redistribute wealth and that can contribute in some way to the economic recovery that the country needs. Recovery will not be achieved with poverty-level minimum wages that were determined in a process without trade union participation. We also insist on basic income for the Colombian population during this pandemic. We continue to work on this issue as a key point to reduce the misery that a large percentage of the population in the country is suffering. Obviously, women that are heads of households are the most affected. 30% of Colombian families today do not have an income high enough to ‘buy’ public services in the market, because sadly the emergency policies adopted by the government are not policies that alleviate the needs of the Colombian people. The only thing the government has done in response to the pandemic was to forgive some of the debt of the users of public services, who today are receiving huge bills because they have not paid their water and energy bills for almost a year.”
Continue the fight
“There is no doubt that we must continue to fight. The trade union movement must continue to mobilize, to confront this government and all neoliberal political forces. But we must advance together with other social sectors. We must make clear to the population who is truly responsible for the crisis. It is not the workers that are responsible. This should encourage social and union movements, alternative forces, alternative parties, to build a democratic program to get out of this crisis, which hopefully can lead to agreement on defining candidates for the 2022 elections. We must be part of the political solution that our people require and influence the ballot box. We must promote political participation in society, but fundamentally a participation and representation in the electoral system. We must look for alternative candidates that bring a different political construction, generate votes from the workers, so that we can vote conscientiously on alternative government proposals that promote employment, social equality, that end the inequality, the poverty, the hunger and the violence that we are experiencing in our country.”