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  • Gloria Pérez-Rivera

Becoming Workers: Internally Displaced Youth in “Post-Conflict” Colombia

Updated: Sep 10, 2021



In September 2016 the Colombian government signed a peace agreement with the guerrilla group FARC-EP. This agreement was an event that was internationally reported to mark an “end” to the more than fifty yearlong internal conflict, a conflict in which a range of actors including paramilitary armies, narcotraffickers, guerrilla groups, and state armed forces produced the forced displacement of approximately 8 million people. In particular, young people aged 12 to 17 years old account for nearly one million displaced people, and almost two million people aged 18 to 28 are registered as “conflict victims” with state institutions. [i]




Street art in the colonial area reflects the Afro-Colombian history of the city. Cartagena was a major slavery port of the Americas, and today is home to many Afro-Colombians.


In spite of these demographics, most state programs targeted adults. How do young people navigate the everyday realities of socio-economic reconstruction in “post-conflict” Colombia and seek their own livelihoods?



Redress for youth


From 2017-2018 I conducted ethnographic fieldwork among internally displaced households in Cartagena, a tourist city on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. During this time, I came to know many young people whose families were seeking redress for their displacement during the conflict, and I observed that education programs were one of the few reparation initiatives that youth were able to, and chose to, access. While families who registered as conflict “victims” were eligible to be granted a house for the family, titles were held by heads of households (often parents), meaning that youth, even if on the cusp of adulthood, could not claim a house for themselves or their future families. Monetary redress was similarly targeted to household units. This meant, for my interlocutors, that even if the redress money arrived—a remote possibility at best—in a household of five people each would get US $1000. This amount would be enough to buy a used scooter or two computers, not near enough for a young person to start their own business or put


themselves through school.


This advertisement is an example of the goods and services that people from displaced households sell. One signs reads “fan repairs for $3000” pesos, or US $1. The other reads “there is ice, $1000” pesos (US$.05). Photograph by the author. [Image de…

This advertisement is an example of the goods and services that people from displaced households sell. One signs reads “fan repairs for $3000” pesos, or US $1. The other reads “there is ice, $1000” pesos (US$.05).




Photograph by the author.


El SENA: the business of technical education


In this situation, most of the youth I worked with took advantage of a free apprenticeship program offered through The National Apprenticeship Service—or SENA—offered with priority to demobilized paramilitaries, guerillas, and conflict victims. This program originally was created in 1957 by the Ministry of Labour with the goal of producing a reliable, qualified labour force for national and international employers. In 2014, it became a cornerstone strategy in the Colombian government’s transitional justice plans.


In Cartagena, most of the people enrolled in SENA programs were displaced men and women in their 20s who had recently graduated from high school. SENA offers a range of programs, including laboratory assistant, 3D animator, carpentry, cooking, clothing manufacturer, construction, electricity, customer service in hotels and restaurants, and computer systems. While SENA programs are free, students (and their families) invest significantly in bus fares, school supplies, and time. SENA does not promise jobs to students at the end of their programs. Still, to encourage young people to enroll in programs, SENA workers conveniently highlight the idea that employers continuously contact SENA when they need workers. In Cartagena, secure jobs have proven scarce for displaced young people with SENA diplomas, despite the city’s large touristic and port industries. However, SENA, through its programs, organizes an important exploitative flow of free or short-term contract labour from displaced people to well-off employers.


Streets in the colonial downtown are crowded with restaurants, bars and hotels, many employing SENA interns. Photograph by the author. [Image description: A street view of a downtown street. The street itself is brick. A stone wall and the front are…

Streets in the colonial downtown are crowded with restaurants, bars and hotels, many employing SENA interns.






The revolving door of free workers


SENA apprenticeship programs have two parts. The first consists of classes for at least half a day for 6 to 18 months. For the second part, students must complete 6 to 12 months of an internship to obtain their diploma. On paper, internships are considered by Colombian labour legislation to be formal work. Employers should pay minimum wages, a transportation subsidy, and health and retirement benefits to interns. However, only some employers stick to the rules. Often interns only get transportation expenses, and a meal if their placement is in a hotel or a restaurant. The economic sectors that accept SENA interns in Cartagena are tourism, the port, and, to a lesser extent, government and healthcare institutions. Hotel and restaurant managers told me that SENA interns rarely become permanent workers because companies see them as “an endless supply of free, or almost free, labour.” One of these managers explained that while a worker hired with all benefits by a hotel would “cost” about 1.2 million pesos a month (US$400), a SENA intern costs from US$70 to US$200 depending on the position. When the student finishes their internship, SENA replaces them with a new one. A cargo company manager explained that the port sector enlisted SENA interns to avoid training costs while profiting from the cheap labour of SENA interns for jobs requiring minimal skills.


SENA is aware of this exploitative dynamic and actively targets socio-economically marginalized populations. Enrolment opens every month for displaced people and demobilized guerrillas and paramilitaries, and every three months for other populations. Most of the young people from displaced households that I met in Cartagena have earned one or two SENA apprenticeships. In 18 months living in the city, I never met a displaced youth who was hired in connection with the SENA training. More striking is that none of my interlocutors, old or young, had displaced family members or friends who secured a stable job after a SENA program.


Young people know that SENA internships are exploitative, but it is difficult for them to find a job after graduating from high school. Their desire to acquire new skills and to get work experience motivates them to enroll. Young people enlist the internship to try to establish connections with other workers and employers outside of their marginalized neighbourhoods, hoping to get a job through those networks even when they saw near to no results. Others have decided to migrate to larger cities in the Andean region in search of employment.


Four years have passed since I lived in Cartagena. Since then, many young people have given up on the possibility that SENA apprenticeships could get them out of poverty or help them build livelihoods for their now-urban futures.


Subsistence entrepreneurs


They have also become young adults and are now eligible to enroll in income-generating development programs. Many youths I met are now joining their parents and embracing the idea that they, too, can or must become micro-entrepreneurs. Some have formed business partnerships with family members to produce goods and services for oversaturated neighbourhood markets: fried food, stationery, internet services. In one neighbourhood, for example, an NGO program had given materials for stationary shops to 25 income generating program participants, youth among them. Others work for informal workers for modest salaries (for example, peeling vegetables for soup vendors), or try their luck as moto-taxi drivers. Many are also having their own children; with no new home or land of their own, their multi-generational households are overcrowded.


In the meantime, younger and older generations alike continue to hope that state monetary redress will arrive and pull them out of poverty. They continue to enroll in programs, continue to learn, continue to work, and wait for true economic justice.



[i] Status as a “conflict victim” can be gained by people who experienced displacement, sexual violence, kidnapping, among other violent actions during the conflict. Theoretically, it allows access to certain state benefits and reparations




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