“You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone,” Janet Jackson once wisely proclaimed.
I like to think she was talking about human rights. You know, that inconvenient old concept, enshrined in dozens of European and British laws, which apparently plenty of politicians in my country want to scrap and certainly millions of people in my country take for granted.
Including me, that was, until faulty salesmanship and worse Spanish cost me a chunk of money in a very decent Bogota shop (before you ask, I bought something to do with the Internet. This is why you should always buy dresses instead of modern technology. You never get home to find you’ve been mis-sold a dress and it’s suddenly turned into a pair of trousers).
“You know what?” I said, flinging the useless ding-dang-dongle onto the counter.
“I don’t even want the Internet. I can get Wifi in McDonalds. Just give me my money back and we’ll forget it.”
The shop assistant smirked at her colleagues and slowly shook her head. My money, it seemed, was staying firmly inside the company’s till.
“But I’ve got 28 days to return it,” I continued weakly.
The shop was silent for several seconds before a fellow customer ended my humiliation and addressed me in heavily-accented English.
“Are you talking about consumer rights?” he chuckled.
“You’re in Colombia. We haven’t got around to that yet.”
Ahhhhh, the Consumer Rights Act. Suddenly it entered my Top-10-Things-I-Miss-About-England; below family and friends but above cooked breakfasts and plain chocolate digestives.
Nowadays, it is not the only piece of legislation on that list.
I am a freelance worker; contracting my services by the hour to a range of clients. In September, I took a three-month pay-by-the-hour contract which also hired around 15 other freelancers; mostly Colombians.
When the client demanded extra work (four hours of writing on a Sunday) but refused to pay any extra; only two people complained. Myself and a fellow Brit. Our Colombian colleagues, it seemed, knew the truth.
There is no such thing as employee rights here.
I know a Colombian chef who loathes politicians. They had the audacity to pass a law ruling that anyone working beyond 10pm must be paid a small stipend to cover their taxi fare home.
The owners of the restaurant, where he worked at the time, reacted in the way it seems the best Colombian bosses should.
They stopped ’employing’ (that means paying) their workers after 10pm. Of course, he continued to leave the restaurant any time between midnight and 2am. It just meant that every dish he prepared after 10pm was a labour of love.
It’s not a trick limited to the services industry. Another friend works in a high-end Colombian firm whose owner is probably one of those mythical beings who can actually visit Bogota’s Ferrari showroom (yes, we have a Ferrari showroom, it’s just that the number of people sleeping rough outside is generally double the number of prospective customers inside)
He told me that no-one in his company ever gives the standard four weeks notice, for fear of being sacked on the spot and losing their final month’s pay. You can apparently seek compensation for unfair dismissal, but the network is so tight you’d never work again. It’s best to pack up your mug and family photo and disappear quietly into the night.
My curiosity was aroused but when I started digging, I found too many stories to keep your attention in one blog post – pregnant women being sacked for, er, being pregnant; lapsed health insurance; friends working nearly two weeks straight because bosses couldn’t be bothered to schedule a day off.
My experiences, my friends should be unrepresentative, anecdotal – a dangerously small sample group. Until you consider that Colombia has one of the highest rates of trade-unionist murders in the world; probably one reason the United States waited so long to sign the recent trade agreement.
I did the four hours work. I gave up my sunny Sunday and I didn’t get paid a bean. It’s not worth dying for. Or is it?