“Riegel Deceits, Exploits, Steals and Lays Off Workers”: Temporary workers in the Colombian Cut-Flower Sector on Strike

According to the workers on strike, the workers at Riegel have not been paid their social security for the past 11 months, in spite of the amount for social security being deducted from their wages. Event though the company paid part of the wages owed in response to the first week of the strike, many other workers have not received any compensation, including the workers leading the resistance. Workers are also owed their family subsidies and were not given their uniforms and appropriate working attire during their time at Riegel. Magdalena Toscano has worked for two CTAs. Under a plastic man-made shack put up by the strikers, she tells me in her previous job she worked for five months and was never paid. Now, after losing her job, she is fighting to get three months of family subsidies (40 U.S. Dollars), 11 months of social security, working attire and severance compensation owed to her, all which amount to almost 1 million Colombian pesos ( approximately 200 U.S. Dollars). The other 200 laid off workers, 90 men, and 110 women, including some pregnant, disabled and senior workers, face a similar situation.

As the struggle continues today, Untraflores lodged an official complaint with the Ministry of Labor, which sent an official ministry representative to visit the plantation. A list of violations has been drafted but with little success as the company is yet to show up to negotiate conditions. The Superintendent of Society (Superintendencia de Sociedad) -the governmental body in which a company’s restructuring is negotiated- was unaware of the workers’ conditions and Untraflores has arranged for the “Promoter of Creditors” (The Promotor de Acreedores, assesses how much the company owes in a restructuring process and to whom) to visit the site with the company to evaluate the situation. Should the Promoter of Creditors deem the company does owe salaries, social security, pensions and compensations, the company is forced to pay every creditor, but workers first, by law.

Workers’ are resisting the rainy weather, precarious conditions, threats, the blatant neglect of the company, and the slow bureaucracy of the government. They claim their compensation and social security, that which they have earned in exchange for their labor, is their right. In an economy where workers are said to earn what they work for, it is contradictory and unjust to call this anything but unwaged and uncompensated labor. However, the cut-flower sector in Colombia seems to hold the pretense, through this and many other documented cases of labor rights violations, that unwaged labor is somehow an acceptable practice, or not their problem due to dubious contracting practices.  Temporary workers face a difficult challenge in struggling to defend their rights after restructuring or company closures. Temporary employment agencies and CTAs have been known to disappear after a company is liquidated. As a result, the agency or the CTA is not held responsible because technically they are not the employers. Diana Sanchez, one of the workers, said the CTA gave them a non-existent address. When problems arose, workers were unable to contact the CTA until Untraflores was able to track down the headquarters after extensive research. 

The support of Untraflores and non profit labor rights organizations is essential in this and every struggle of the Colombian working class. Workers survive under exploitative and irresponsible working conditions that are perceived to be the norm. At times workers are satisfied simply with wages being paid on time, whilst other violations are sidelined for their fear of losing their jobs and their needs to meet their families’ basic needs. Worker organization to protect and promote their rights is a dangerous task in Colombia. As members of the international labor rights community, we must get involved to raise awareness of labor rights violations, to promote consumer responsibility and hold companies accountable for unscrupulous business practices.

For more information about workers’ rights and labor struggles in the flower sector, check out ILRF’s Fairness in Flowers Campaign here.