The fight of young call centre workers in Colombia is an international struggle

Benjamin Vandevandel, seconded education officer with FGTB Youth, met Danna Vargas, a young Colombian worker and trade unionist specialising in labour law. The following article is based on their discussion and thoughts.

By Benjamin Vandevandel (Jeunes FGTB) et Yolanda Lamas (IFSI)

Trade unionism is internationalist by nature. When we defend the interests of one worker, we defend the interests of all workers. The FGTB’sinternational trade union cooperation institute, IFSI, for example, defends the interests of workers in Africa, Latin America and Asia. The IFSI’s aim is to contribute to FGTB partners’ capacity building efforts by working with them to plan five-year projects, co-funded by Belgium’s government agency for development cooperation.

The IFSI is currently working on a “youth” project in Colombia with the CUT. Young people are confronted with more discrimination than their older counterparts, with one ‘junk contract’ after another if they stay away from trade unions and fail to defend their social rights. The project aims to strengthen the defence of young people’s rights and their representation within trade unions. Union membership rates among young Latin Americans are very low, at 1% compared to 4% for older workers. Is it an issue of trust or a lack of interest? The CUT wants to strengthen its “youth” department and make young people aware of the need to unionise, to better defend their rights. As the problems young people encounter are often the same the world over, the new project for 2022 to 2026 involves FGTB Youth, to enable young trade unionists to work together to find potential solutions.

“Spending a few hours talking with a Colombian colleague is a reminder of how universal issues such as access to solidarity mechanisms and respect for the labour law are. Danna shed light on the situation experienced by young people working for telecom and digital platform companies,” explains Benjamin.

Danna’s story is very telling: “I was contacted by workers from the French multinational and world leader in call centres, Teleperformance, which has an office in Bogotá. The average age at the company is between 18 and 22 and the call centre sector is a hotbed of labour law violations. Their lunch break is just 15 minutes. We found many cases of workplace and sexual harassment, broken promises of bonuses for good sales results, etc. The pandemic has made matters worse: employees had to work without masks or access to sanitiser gel. Those who work from home use their own equipment and the company only offers 50,000 Colombian pesos for internet subscriptions that cost 100,000 pesos. The average salary at the company is 1,200,000 pesos (274 euros), just 200,000 pesos above the minimum wage of one million pesos (228 euros). The costs are huge. On top of that, a camera is installed in workers’ homes, to monitor them, which is a serious invasion of their privacy.”

Danna is a witness to an extremely challenging situation, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, in a country which, according to the ITUC’s Global Rights Index, is already one of the world’s top ten offenders in terms of state repression of labour, trade union, environmental and indigenous rights.

Colombia is notorious for its high rate of informal work (officially 47.7% in August 2021, but CUT reports a rate of over 60%), and for the high number of human rights and environmental defenders murdered in the country: 542 , including 22 trade unionists. Being a rights defender is a high-risk occupation, and the current government plans do not show any promise of improving matters. Congress is currently debating legislation to boost the employment of young people under the age of 28. Whether it be the legislation on first jobs or the extension of training periods, trade unions see the measures more as a way to help employers recover from the Covid crisis by lowering their costs in terms of pay and social security contributions for young people. The bottom line is that young people end up earning less and have lower if any social security cover.

An appeal is launched to young trade unionists not to back a discriminatory law

Colombia… Belgium... the internationalisation of the struggles against the rise of authoritarianism is a reality.

The testimonies of colleagues from across the Atlantic show that caution is also needed in Europe. Despite being called democratic, the recent convictions of 17 Belgian trade unionists for “malicious obstruction of traffic” is just one example of how employers and the political right will always attack those defending workers’ interests. In Colombia they are murdered, in Europe they are prosecuted: these are two aspects of the violence perpetrated around the globe by employers and their allies on the right and far right.

Our conversation with Danna makes us realise how crucial it is to internationalise the trade union struggle, the environmental struggle, the indigenous struggle, .... Wherever rights are lost or not respected, the world of work as a whole suffers the consequences.

The world is complex, multicultural and one model of society cannot be transposed to another without nuance, but no worker in the world would refuse access to education, health care, respect for labour rights and respect for their environment. The struggle Danna faces in Colombia is the same as that faced by trade unionists the world over: “Young people need to be educated to fight for a decent world of work throughout their lives. What happens in Colombia also affects Europe, and what is decided in Europe affects young people in Colombia: the internationalisation of our struggles is essential because even the most authoritarian governments hate being the targets of criticism!”