Fellow Since 1997
This profile was prepared when Jairo Luna was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1997.
Jairo Luna has developed a strategy to enable unions to negotiate for public health, environmental protection, and community well-being, subjects never before brought into labor organization discussions in Colombia.
The New Idea
Jairo Luna is working for a complete change in his continent's labor union movement, encouraging workers to assume the leadership of broader movements in defense of public health and the environment. He believes that workers have great potential to support a social movement by uniting other sectors and playing a protagonistic and decisive role in defense of public health and the environment. Jairo's model analyzes the effects of production methods on the health of industrial workers, and empowers them and their unions to lobby for better working conditions and protection of the environment, while introducing issues of community well-being into labor organizations and negotiations. Workers learn to negotiate for broader concerns, instead of exchanging health guarantees for salary increases, as in the past. Whereas many past patterns of collective bargaining have focused only on labor organizations themselves, leaving out many other important social actors, Jairo has established a broader network of groups-including workers' unions, state institutions, and citizen organizations-in defense of the environment, health, and acceptable working conditions. The structure of this network is horizontal and flexible, and all actors can propose solutions and offer input.
The deterioration of the environment, with consequent damage to human health, is one of the most pressing concerns at the end of the twentieth century. Among the principal causes of this ecological destruction is the way in which manufacturing processes are organized, within a model of development which too often disrespects nature and the needs of human beings. The response by Colombian civil society to these destructive processes has been weak, especially on the part of workers organized in labor unions. Unions very seldom negotiate with business in defense of health concerns or the natural environment, and there are few instances in which they have broadened their bargaining power to work in concert with community and social organizations. The situation is aggravated by national policies aimed at opening the economy to foreign investment, while modernizing and reducing the state's regulatory apparatus. These policies are predicated on objectives that do not prioritize protection of the environment and worker health. Labor unions are the principal space for the representation of workers, especially in the most important parts of the formal sector economy. Yet these unions traditionally have oriented their demands towards wages, leaving behind other problems that workers encounter, and failing to address the broader interests of the communities to which the workers and their families belong. In the zones of Bogotá-Soacha, Valle de Aburra, and Cali-Yumbo, two thirds of Colombia's manufacturing industry produces the bulk of the wastes which contaminate the water, air, and earth. According to estimates by the National Planning Department and the Health Ministry, the Bogotá River watershed is among the most contaminated rivers in the world. In the Valle de Aburra, the Medellín River receives tremendous quantities of waste, 38 percent of which comes from industry. In the Cauca River, the amount of contaminants was estimated at 565 tons daily in 1990. Air quality, another indicator of environmental health, suggests that Colombia's cities are among the most contaminated in the continent.
Through a process of education, research, and communication, as well as the strengthening of labor, community, and government organizations, Jairo is tackling the problems of health risks and environmental contamination in the Andean Region. He has strengthened the capacity for citizen intervention and participation in these critical issues, refocusing pressure on the state for regulation and control of harmful production processes. Jairo founded the National Network on Health, Environment, and the Workplace, to provide a forum in which organized groups of unions, communities, and citizen organizations can interact with the state and confront problems. He has developed a model to train members of the network to investigate the problems and causes of health and environmental degradation, giving them tools to address them and exchange information. This network will enable societal actors to strengthen negotiations and links with entities such as the Environmental Ministry, the Health Ministry, and regional corporations. Jairo currently works with the major labor unions and institutions addressing health and environmental issues in five cities: Barranquilla, Medellín, Bucaramange, Cali, and Bogotá. From that base he plans to spread throughout the country and internationally, by using his support team to identify key leaders interested in these issues and to assist local unions in the formation of occupational health and environmental protection committees. Local Union committees invite government representatives and citizen groups interested in health and the environment to join them as guest speakers, in order to establish a dialogue between the labor union and the community. They utilize a survey to examine production processes in order to identify workplace risks and how to avoid them, with questions on how production impacts the quality of air, water, and culture. Training is provided to the groups on how to gather information about environmental problems and legislation. The groups also learn methods for self-diagnosis of the causes of health problems and environmental destruction, how to negotiate these issues with business leaders and legislators, and how to vote. Local unions become part of a broader network throughout the country, and union and community leaders who are trained in this process then train others, helping to form the team that spreads this model. As a university professor, Jairo also teaches about 30 students each semester who become the major part of his work team. The university has become more flexible in recent years, and students are able to learn and work outside of the classroom, to gain experience and learn first hand about the country's challenges. Students help design regional workshops that bring Jairo's methodology to communities and businesses, through pamphlets, national seminars that permit discussions about the problems and proposed strategies, and dissemination of the results of Jairo's research. Jairo's work at the university also validates his work with unions, as it promotes a scientific image and provides certificates for union workers. The university also establishes a center to systematize research methodology that recovers the knowledge workers share with the network. Jairo uses this knowledge derived from the experiences of workers and communities and combines it with the knowledge of professionals in citizen organizations and government and state institutions in order to propose an integrated alternative to the standard acceptance of degraded health and environment as inevitable consequences of business activity.
Jairo is a doctor with a specialty in occupational health. He is the youngest in a family of eight children. His father was committed to the needs of communities with few economic resources, working with entities that supported these populations in the areas of education and health. His mother took care of the family when he was young, and always searched to orient her family with a feeling of solidarity and respect towards all people. Many of his siblings also developed activities in social fields. In high school, Jairo was the driving force behind the formation of a student committee and a newspaper. When he entered the university, he formed the Guillermo Fergusson Group, involving students from diverse departments to develop activities for communities in Ciudad Bolivar and Bosa. While training as a medical student, he made his first contact with the Union of Health Workers. His interest in this topic continued with a course on the health of women working in the informal sector, and he became involved with a nongovernmental organization which works in this area. Through this involvement he had the opportunity to approach the Unitary Worker Central and various branched federations, with which he spent approximately ten years developing diverse activities. This experience permitted him to know the unions and witness their successes and limitations. He realized that working for health and the environment was a way to extend the perspective of unions beyond their traditional demands for salary increases. Jairo's interest in forming a group of professionals committed to the health problems of the country motivated him to join the university as a professor and take advantage of the opportunity to specialize in occupational health. During his time at the university, he began a thematic study focused on health, the environment, and the workplace. The experience enabled him to propose a wider diffusion of his model for education and investigation, as well as to establish the National Network of Health, Environment, and the Workplace so as to help solve the nation's problems and contribute to the construction of a society which guarantees a dignified life for future generations.