Inspiring Workers: Alberto Santana

Alberto Santana currently holds the position of StreetNet’s Vice-President. A life-long labor rights activist, he is passionate about social protection inclusive of informal economy workers and fostering the participation of young people in the trade union movement.

Defending labor rights as a family tradition

Alberto grew up immersed in the trade union movement. His father has been a union leader of the metallurgical sector nationally and internationally for over fifty years. However, Alberto did not expect to become a union leader himself. His father always told him he had to invest in his studies and become an educated professional.

However, after finishing his degree in Industrial Engineering in the 1990s and working for a few different companies, Alberto started organizing for labor rights and becoming more active in the trade union movement. “We don’t always listen to our fathers” he explains “but we do follow in their footsteps”. As such, his father has always acted a mentor figure.

Alberto held many different positions in the National Confederation of Dominican Workers (CNTD), mostly related to youth, international cooperation and social security.

After working for trade unions and understanding the needs of workers, Alberto pursued a law degree. He is now a union leader, lawyer, and business owner. As a lawyer, he only works on cases related to labor rights and social security, assisting workers to defend their rights.

Alberto also started his own business, a consulting company specializing in labor issues, and he is also involved in businesses of the tourism sector and street sales, mainly traditional crafts handmade with Larimar, a precious stone exclusive to the Dominican Republic.

As Alberto says, “I have always been a very independent person. I do not like to be dependent of an employer”. Therefore, it is no surprise he has turned to the defense of informal economy workers – most of whom are own-account workers – through the national federation of informal economy workers FUTTEINCO, which Alberto helped to establish. Its mission if to enhance the quality of life of informal economy workers in the Dominican Republic at the national level.

Getting involved with StreetNet International

The informal economy employs a significant number of workers in the Dominican Republic. According to Alberto, “Around 58% of Dominicans are informal economy workers”. Many of these workers are in the tourism sector and the wages are generally higher than the Dominican minimum salary, making it an attractive alternative for those who cannot find a high paying job in the formal economy.

The growth of the informal economy, for Alberto, is an expression of emerging trends for workers at the global level. He says “The world economy has changed and what we used to know as big trade unions with millions of affiliated workers no longer exist. The companies have changed that model and outsource the work. It forced many workers out to the streets. And if they are in the streets – with family, with responsibilities, with expenses, bills, rent, income to send their kids to school- it is very difficult. Their only alternative is to become an informal economy worker, an own account worker.”

In the 2000s, there were already a few associations of informal economy workers in the country, some of which were affiliated with CNTD. In 2009 at a regional meeting of CSA-TUCA, when Alberto was the person in charge of international cooperation in at CNTD, he met StreetNet’s President at the time, Oscar Silva, who was aware of the work CNTD was developing related to informal economy workers. Oscar Silva encouraged representatives of the Dominican Republic to unite existing organizations of informal economy workers and eventually become affiliated to StreetNet.

In 2011, FUTTEINCO was created to unify informal economy workers across the Dominican Republic. A couple of years after, FUTTEINCO asked to join StreetNet. In 2016, they attended the fifth International Congress in India. There, Alberto became one of StreetNet’s leaders.

“The comrades gave me the honor of becoming StreetNet’s Vice-President” he said. “It was my first International Congress. It is an honor. I have always acted with dignity and humility because to be Vice-President is a very important position”. On StreetNet’s sixth International Congress in Kyrgyzstan, in 2016, Alberto was re-elected. “It was the best satisfaction I could have had” he adds.

Despite being honored of fulfilling the position of Vice-President, Alberto states that this will be his last mandate. Why? Because Alberto is determined to practice what he preaches regarding youth participation. “I want others to step up and have opportunity to lead, same as I had, to cooperate with the international movement of informal economy workers”. 

Fostering youth participation and combating machismo

In Alberto’s view, “society mistreats young people, often it does not even allow them to have a first job”. In the Dominican Republic, Alberto estimates that over 60% of young people were first employed as own account workers and could not find a formal job.

Alberto urges young informal economy workers to unite and organize to defend their rights. “It is impossible to defend labor rights alone”. Therefore, the main goal for young people should be to join collective movements and be given the opportunity to lead. “Alone we arrive faster, but together we arrive much further” Alberto summarizes.

“They must unite so they can defend the public spaces that belong to them in an organized way”, he explains “As StreetNet has often stressed in its work and trainings, we have to be organized in the public spaces that belong to us so that authorities can respect us. That way, we can have a sit at the table to discuss issues as equals. That is why we have to strive to always do things the right way”.

In Alberto’s view, it is clear that without youth participation in collective movements for labor rights, trade unions risk disappearing even more rapidly than what is already happening. He wants to lead by example and will step down as leader in both FUTTEINCO and StreetNet to encourage young people to take his place. Without the strength and active involvement of young people, he explains, “we cannot win the battle against the established powers that have a lot of resources and want to defeat us”.

For Alberto, the labor movement in the Dominican Republic must not only open space for young people, but also for women. He criticizes the machismo culture that permeates many Latin American countries, and which hinders women’s participation as equals. “In the case of most couples both husband and wife work in the informal economy. They have businesses in their homes, in the streets, in shops, etc. And the alpha male – as we call it – does not allow his wife to participate. It is a feature of Latin American culture that has to be deconstructed so that women can be empowered”.

Therefore, one of his plans is to propose a training aimed at men, rather than women, to assist them in deconstructing the machismo culture and elevate women as equal partners. “Women have already done a great job to empower themselves” he adds. Now, it is important to work with men to promote equality.

Social protection for informal economy workers as a priority for the future

One of the reasons why Alberto plans to step down as a union leader is to focus on social protection of informal economy workers. In the Dominican Republic, these workers should have access to it, but the law is not implemented. “They must be granted the rights enshrined in law” Alberto says. He is currently a member of the advisor team to the General Director of Social Security in the Dominican Republic.

The COVID-19 has impacted informal economy workers severely and the Dominican Republic is no exception. Given the importance of the tourism sector, lockdowns and close borders are disastrous for thousands of workers who rely on tourists to make an income. Some of Alberto’s comrades have not worked for over half a year due to the pandemic.

“COVID-19 changed the world” says Alberto “And we must also change and adapt our strategies. The pandemic changed how we live and the priorities for labor issues. So, the next step must be to re-think our plans to effectively support informal economy workers”.