Rethinking work: Reporting Latin American labor abuses


Eusebio Rodriguez, a co-op worker, gathers clusters of palm fruit on a plantation near Puente Sogamoso, Colombia. He earns about $15 a day but would like to join a union to receive better pay and benefits.


John Otis

BOGOTA, Colombia — The best thing about being a US journalist in Latin America is that you gain perspective.

When things go wrong, the woe-is-me navel gazing usually lasts only until my next reporting assignment when I invariably meet someone with real problems.

That’s been especially true researching stories for “Worked Over: The Global Decline of Labor Rights,” a year-long GlobalPost series on the struggle for labor rights around the world.
The challenges I have faced in the workplace throughout my 25-year journalism career provide some common reference points while speaking with sources. But my issues seem almost trivial when placed alongside the wretched salaries and working conditions in the factories and plantations of Latin America.

For example, I used to work for the Houston Chronicle. Texas is a right-to-work state that’s extremely hostile towards unions. Not surprisingly, the Chron was non-union but I was well-paid so never gave it much thought.

In fact, over my career, including reporting stints in Minnesota, New York and Latin America, I’ve never belonged to a labor union. And it never seemed to matter.

In Colombia, however, joining a union can lead to vast improvements in salaries, benefits and job security. But the question of whether or not to sign up can be a life-or-death decision.

As we detailed in this story about the killings of public school teachers, Colombia remains the world’s most dangerous place for union activists, partly because they are often viewed as left-wing troublemakers in cahoots with the country’s Marxist guerrillas. 

Imagine trying to form a local of the American Federation of Teachers only to receive death threats or a spray of gunfire in the classroom. Union-busting tactics are alive and well in the United States but at least we don’t have paramilitary gunmen hunting down leaders of the AFL-CIO.

Only about 3 percent of the Colombian workforce is unionized, one of the lowest rates in the hemisphere. But given the threat level, I’m surprised the number is that high.

Not that joining a union is always the answer. In this story, we detailed the phenomenon of Mexico’s protection unions which work in cahoots with business owners to tamp down worker salaries and benefits. 

It was extremely depressing to see how corrupt union leaders, acting more like Mexican mafia dons, could control the vast majority of the country’s labor unions. But it was also inspiring to talk to young Mexican organizers who, in the face of incredibly long odds, were determined to form independent syndicates.

On all of these stories, I've had the beat pretty much to myself.

While entire publications, like the Wall Street Journal and Fortune, are dedicated to dissecting what’s good and bad for business, there is very little sustained coverage in the mainstream media of what’s good and bad for workers – or, in more leading-edge language, “the 99 percent.”

Yet government policies on international trade, interest rates, and banking regulations can have an immediate impact on labor.   

When the Bush administration’s laissez-faire policies helped provoke the US financial meltdown in 2008, I learned what it was like to be downsized. My pink slip arrived from the Houston Chronicle a few weeks before Christmas 2008 sending me into a holiday funk.

Still, I made a smooth transition into book writing and freelancing. My income took a hit but I kept the repo men at bay.

Now, compare my little drama to the hellish situation of workers on oil palm plantations in northern Colombia whom we profiled in this story. These guys (and gals) earn $15 for a day’s work in which they must each harvest more than a ton of palm fruit, which is used to make palm oil.

Not only do they work long hours in sweltering conditions, but the clusters of palm fruit are covered with spines. Harvesting them is like spending all day in a cage full of porcupines.

Bad as the job is, these workers need the money. Yet they have almost no job security because they are usually hired on short-term contracts, a widespread tactic by employers in much of the world to avoid hiring full-time workers and assuming responsibility for them.

As a result, these workers never know how long they’ll be employed: they may pink-slipped several times a year.

So, again, I could relate… but only to a point.