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Women Taking Charge: Afro-Colombian Domestic Workers in Medellin Form Union

When Maria Roa arrived in Medellin 10 years ago, her primary focus was to provide a better life for her three children. She took a job as a domestic worker, as many Afro-Colombian women do, but quickly realized the position was underpaid and overworked. Despite the nature of this physically and emotionally challenging work, domestic workers like Maria have been successful in their organizing efforts to form a new union, the Union of Domestic Service Workers (UTRASD), to combat workplace discrimination, improve benefits and establish job security.

What makes this story remarkable is that Maria and her sisters face not only a challenging job, but one of the most challenging organizing environments in the hemisphere. The most recent U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices in Colombia noted that “most serious human rights problems were impunity and an inefficient judiciary, corruption and societal discrimination,” particularly against indigenous persons and Afro-Colombians. 

The report continued, “Other problems included extrajudicial killings, insubordinate military collaboration with members of illegal armed groups, forced disappearances, overcrowded and insecure prisons, harassment of human rights groups and activists, violence against women, trafficking in persons and illegal child labor.” 

Colombia’s high unemployment rate and large informal economy call out for worker empowerment—workers acting collectively to better their own lives are a critical piece of the shared prosperity puzzle. Despite a Labor Action Plan that is part of the advance the U.S.-Colombia trade promotion agreement, the State Department notes that “violence, threats, harassment, and other practices against trade unionists continued to affect the exercise of the right to freedom of association, as violence and discrimination against union members discouraged some workers from joining and engaging in union activities.” Clearly, the government of Colombia has much to do to secure labor and human rights. 

That is why the AFL-CIO applauds last week’s news that 28 Afro-Colombian domestic workers founded UTRASD. The creation of this union is a milestone for Afro-Colombian domestic workers. Read more about labor rights in Colombia here, here and here

Recognizing the organizing efforts of domestic workers around the world, the AFL-CIO has announced the International Domestic Workers’ Network (IDWN) will receive the 2013 George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award.

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