The sun blazes down
on these palm trees in Colombia. They were planted here for the palm oil agribusiness. Workers have been arriving at the plantation
since dawn. José Guarín is one of them. He’s using a sharp knife
to cut the fruit down from the trees. [José Guarín, palm tree cutter
and president of SINTRATERCERIZADOS] “Being a cutter means I have to assess which bunches of fruit in a given lot
are ripe for harvesting. Every day I cut down
an average of 250 bunches of fruit.” Guarín and his colleagues have a tough job. What is more, in Colombia’s palm oil sector
working conditions are often precarious. One of the problems is the existence of ambiguous and
disguised employment relationships, such as the abusive use
of subcontracting or outsourcing. But when we visit José Guarín, the news
is good. Direct hiring has arrived. “For me, direct hiring is a success. Since 2006, when I started working at Palmas del Cesar, I’ve been hired through cooperatives
and other forms of outsourcing that never allowed me to join a trade union, or to discuss my job benefits.” At the end of 2015, a Labour Formalization Agreement
was signed with Palmas del Cesar S.A., leading to the direct hiring of 225 workers. Trade union, company and government – all made an effort to achieve
this tripartite agreement. René Morales,
of Complaints and Grievance Committee, said that formalization required
a huge effort on the part of the union. Today they’re pleased
to have achieved direct hiring, but he warns that much remains
to be done in Colombia. “In the palm oil agribusiness, workers are in a fairly precarious situation. We know that 80% of Colombia’s palm oil
workers are subcontracted in some form or another. This means that at least 30,000 workers
are unlawfully subcontracted. In the Minas region of Cesar Department,
the Ministry of Labour and entrepreneurs are part of a programme that promotes
labour formalization in the palm oil sector. The programme is being carried out
with ILO support as part of a project funded by the United States Department of
Labor. Colombia is one of the world’s
principal producers of palm oil, with a yield of roughly 1.3 million tons a
year, of which between 400,000
and 500,000 are exported, according to the manager of Palmas del Cesar,
Fabio González. We asked Fabio González
how labour formalization was achieved. “The negotiations weren’t easy. But we have to realize that
it was difficult not only for the company, but also for the Ministry of Labour itself,
for the workers, for the unions, because we had to fit a lot of things
into the equation. Formalization is clearly an improvement, it’s an overall improvement that brings
with it new challenges, of course, but the first great outcome is social peace.” A driving force behind formalization
is the Government of Colombia, which imposed steep fines in cases
of ambiguous and disguised hiring. The Labour Formalization Agreements
are a form of contract created to promote direct hiring
and avert the fines. According to the Deputy Minister for
Labour Relations and Inspection, Enrique Borda, 100 Formalization Agreements have
been signed, with a hoped-for total of 150. “We would like to replicate
the Palmas del Cesar experience, and we’re doing this in the palm oil sector
everywhere in Colombia where oil palm trees are grown and also
in other sectors of the economy, like the port and hydrocarbon sectors. We’re opening the door to a new horizon
for these workers: formality, or direct hiring.” In the area in which José Guarín lives, over 400 palm oil workers have been
formalized in the context of the project. There’s still a long way to go,
but this is a good beginning. “What this experience has taught us is that without direct hiring
there is no decent work. When hired directly,
workers are paid better wages, they benefit from a social safety net
and respect for labour rights, including freedom of association and
the right to engage in collective bargaining.” José Guarín arrived in this oil palm-growing
area with his family in search of work and a better
life. “We were given some instruction by the ILO. A yellow booklet on Labour Formalization Agreements. We started to study and we gradually realized
that we could demand our rights and so we started going into things in greater
depth.” And now that labour formalization has arrived, in the form of direct hiring, he feels optimistic about the future. “For me,
labour formalization gives me the possibility to make the dreams I’ve had
for so many years come true. You see this bit of land that I have … now I can start saying that
I can start working on a life plan. When you have a direct contract
and job stability, things change …” International Labour Organization (ILO)

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