Defending workers’ rights in the palm oil industry
Colombia / Freedom for Justice / 6 mar 2018
Palm oil is everywhere – in our foods, cosmetics, cleaning products and fuels. Its low market price and useful properties in food processing means the food industry now uses it in half of all supermarket products. Palm oil plantations currently cover more than 27 million hectares of the Earth’s surface – an area the size of New Zealand. Rainforests and human settlements have been replaced by palm oil plantations, which contain almost no biodiversity. This not only has negative consequences for the environment and local wildlife, but has also led to large-scale displacement of local communities. As plantations replace forests that communities depend on for livelihoods, many have found little choice but to become workers in palm oil plantations.
Palm oil work is extremely physically demanding, requiring lifting and balancing heavy 12-meter long iron poles to reach the tops of trees. In Colombia, Latin America’s biggest palm oil producer, workers often report dangerous working conditions. Injuries are common, the hard task of cutting and lifting clusters of palm fruit damages workers’ shoulders and backs, forcing many to retire at a young age. Workers also face intimidation and retribution when trying to organise for their rights in labour unions. Over one hundred social leaders and human rights defenders have been reportedly killed in Colombia in 2017, many of these union organisers.
Corporación Justicia y Libertad is a non-profit organisation working in the Magdelena Medio region, where armed conflict has hindered access to justice for those suffering human rights abuses. In the absence of a state presence in rural territories, they have undertaken the challenge of supporting people fighting for their rights, particularly through supporting plantation workers’ trade unions. The total number of workers in the Colombian palm oil sector is estimated between 120,000 and 180,000 of which, only 40% have a direct contract with the palm oil company. This leaves the remaining 60% unprotected. Corporación Justicia y Libertad works to formalise these labour relations, ensure pension rights and sick pay, and create mechanisms for the peaceful resolution of conflict between workers and employers.
Through giving legal advice to different unions in the region, Corporación Justicia y Libertad’s main objective has been to achieve fair employment contracts, eliminate any other means of indirect contracting and to promote and defend the trade union as a space of advocacy for the right to decent work. Their efforts have achieved the formalisation of more than 1,400 workers contracts from different companies in the region. One trade union organiser said of their work, “Through the Corporation, our organization has undertaken training processes that have allowed our union bases to be less vulnerable and we have undertaken strategic legal actions to achieve our objectives”.
Providing legal advice and supporting unions ensures that palm oil workers have some power against the multinational companies that employ and often exploit them. This has lead to improvements in their working conditions and a better enforcement of labour rights.
Corporación Justicia y Libertad is a finalist for #WalkTogether Prize for Courage as part of The Grassroots Justice Prize.