Weaving a path of identity and citizenship

Women banana workers take action

With Adela Torres Tovar 
Weaving a path
of identity and citizenship
Women banana workers take action 
Last March 26, SINTRAINAGRO signed a new collective bargaining agreement with AUGURA, the association of banana producers. Unlike in previous negotiation processes, this time the union did not have to resort to strong pressure measures. Among the gains obtained by the union was an increase in the number of women hired to work in plantations, as for many years they have practically been denied jobs there. But SINTRAINAGRO has also turned into a meeting point for combative women who, in a context of exclusion, are fighting to build a better life for themselves.  
Adela Torres Tovar is a 47-year-old divorced mother of two: Mayleth (25) and Aidés (23). In 1993 she was hired to work in the banana plantation “El Tato,” where she was employed in deflowering and packing tasks.

Back then, when the smell of gunpowder was a constant presence in Urabá, she was able to make her way in a world and a union dominated by men. Nobody did her any favors and it was only through her efforts that she reached the position of general secretary of the National Union of Agroindustry Workers of Colombia (SINTRAINAGRO), an organization where quotas are established for power but not for gender.

In the last elections she received the largest number of votes, a significant fact that evidences that many of her fellow workers see Adela as a leader capable of representing the interests of all workers. This speaks well of Adela, but at the same time it reveals that something is changing in both the behavior of male workers and the dynamics of the organization, as they move towards reducing women’s discrimination in the work place and in the labor movement.

“Nothing is easy in Urabá,” Adela says. “Some claim it’s the best spot in Colombia; but it can also be a dead end. Here, you’re far from schools and universities; the distance you have to travel to reach a decent hospital is more deadly than whatever illness or injury you have. The women of Urabá have more children than in any other region of the country, and we start having babies very young,” Adela says, as her husky voice introduces us to that complicated scenario she knows so well.

“But there are also positive things happening here, like the last negotiation for the collective bargaining agreement. Just as everyone was getting ready for a strike, the union and the banana producers’ association surprised us all by signing the new agreement in record time.”

“Now a lot of people are talking of a ‘miracle’, but there’s nothing miraculous about it,” she stresses. “We’ve been working hard to further the process of social dialogue in the region, strengthening the union and its bargaining capacity. We also have to acknowledge the positive intervention of the vice president of the republic, Angelino Garzón, who knows a great deal about this region, its history and all its problems.”

Women banana workers

From violence to violence

“Our luck started when tragedy hit our men; after the La Negra massacre in Honduras, there were a lot of widows, and no men.”1

The spiral of violence that swept across Urabá in the mid 1990s coincided with a greater presence of women in banana plantations. “During that period, many men were killed, and others were forced to move, generating a great labor shortage that led to the hiring of many women.”2

When the IUF launched its international campaign “We Are All Urabá”, in 1996, in the municipality of Apartadó alone there were 4,000 widows (in a population of 60,000) whose husbands had been killed in violent incidents.

“Back then,” the general secretary of the union recalls, “the requirements for women seeking employment in plantations were more flexible. There was great need for labor and women were the solution. I remember that they went around from neighborhood to neighborhood looking for workers, inviting women to sign up as banana workers. Nowadays, many producers see hiring women as a problem.”

Then, when the region quieted down and illegal armed groups stopped operating in Urabá, women started to be pushed out of work.

“Now we represent only 6 percent of the workforce in Urabá’s banana plantations. Apparently peace also discriminates against women,” Adela complains.

Poverty with a woman’s face

From violence to neglect

“I have four kids, and I’m a mom and a dad.
Same old story: he left me.”3

A study conducted in 2004 by the Escuela Sindical Nacional (National School for Unions) revealed that 71 percent of women banana workers were heads of household as a result of the armed conflict –as explained above– or due to cultural reasons that cause great conjugal instability among many men.

Another situation that negatively affects women’s participation in the labor market is that Urabá women have in average more children than women in any other part of the country. The average number of kids per woman in Urabá is four, and most women begin giving birth in their teenage years. This study also noted that most women workers became mothers at 17, and that has not changed today.

“Becoming a mother at such a young age,” Adela says, “limits your chances of continuing your studies and acquiring more skills, and that reduces your opportunities in the labor market. This explains, to a large extent, why women swell the ranks of the informal economy and are more likely than men to be unemployed.”

Walking and healing their wounds

From violence to making a dream come true

How can the problems that affect most women in Urabá be solved? How can they pick themselves up after each new frustration and not give in to the paralysis of “it can’t be done”? 

Adela has been a member of the union’s negotiating committee for the last five collective bargaining agreements. In this decision-making sphere, she has insisted on addressing the problems, needs and interests of women workers, and she has achieved several gains.

“In the agreement we just signed we secured a very significant gain: a clause that stipulates that at least one more woman has to be hired in each of the 291 plantations in the region, regardless of how many are already employed there. This provision will increase the total number of workers and generate more opportunities.”

“This is a very positive thing, but since the problems that affect women in this region are so many and so severe,” Adela continues, “we need to implement many other initiatives, such as creating spaces for dialogue and to support them, and by organizing solidarity actions.”

“But we do know one thing: that all of this cannot be achieved alone. First we need to organize and establish ties with other stakeholders in civil society, because the problems we face exceed the union’s reach and possibilities. Therefore, at our organization, Fundación Social Tejiendo Huellas, we try to identify new ways of looking at things and to create new attitudes that will advance our projects of solidarity economy and citizenship promotion through organization and active involvement. It’s a great challenge, but we’re getting there,” Adela says.

“Our organization has a longstanding dream: the Garment Project. A few years back a clause was included in the collective bargaining agreement stipulating that the work garments of the 18,000 banana workers was to be supplied by the women members of Fundación Social Tejiendo Huellas.”

“Today we have 55 women trained through an agreement with the National Learning Service (SENA) and SINTRAINAGRO, which has lent its headquarters to hold the courses. The project involves the making of the 64,000 work garments that the banana plantations need every year, for which 250 women are necessary.”

The venture is moving more slowly than is necessary to meet the demand, but the women are working responsibly and confidently.

“Because we can’t fail,” Adela, their leading mentor, concludes. “We’re doing the best we can to advance the dream of many women, who see in this project the path to their social well-being, and the Fundación is committed to raising the level of employment and contributing to rebuilding social fabric and development.”



Foto. Gerardo Iglesias