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Colombia plan to strengthen workers' rights isn't working, witness says

Jorge Parra, John Walsh, and Manuel Ospina at the GM workers protest
outside the US Embassy in Bogota.  

The plan to strengthen workers' rights in Colombia isn't working and a big part of the problem is the use of temporary workers, reports Brother John Walsh, who just returned from that country.

Colombia is the most dangerous place to be a trade unionist, and Brother Walsh works for justice in Latin America and the Caribbean. He is Portland regional vice president for the GCC/IBT 767M and serves on the board of directors of Witness for Peace, a grassroots nonprofits that tries to change  U.S. policies and corporate practices that contribute to poverty and oppression.

Walsh visited the injured GM workers' protest at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota. The workers had been there for more than 1,000 days, protesting GM's refusal to put them on light duty after they were injured. According to Worker's World

Since the beginning of the occupation, the workers have demanded that GM fulfill its legal obligation to place them in jobs they can perform despite their injuries. If they cannot work, GM is obligated to provide them with lifetime income. GM has gotten around the law, the workers say, by forging medical records to make the injuries appear not work-related.

The injured workers have held hunger strikes from time to time. Recently, Brother Jorge Parra (pictured above) sewed his lips shut to show his commitment to the cause. 

Brother Walsh shared his observations about Colombia with us:

“In Colombia, starting a union is easy, but keeping one going is difficult – it’s the reverse of the U.S.”  

So says Jorge Eliécer Caicedo, leader of a local in the Colombian agricultural union Sintrainagro.  Since he’s had the experience of visiting the U.S., where he spent time with Los Angeles-area Teamsters, he has a firsthand sense of the labor movement here. 

An example of what he’s talking about in Colombia is the sugar cane refinery La Cabaña, where in 2012 Sintrainagro organized 600 workers, and 115 of them were quickly fired; another 100 were on the verge of losing their jobs when we met with Sintrainagro in May. 

This happens because workers lack permanent employment.  Companies hire for a limited time, and when that time is up, union members don’t get rehired.  We heard the same story from workers with another cane- cutters union, Sintracatorce, and from the women of the flower workers union, Untraflores, whose product gets sold mostly in the United States.  

The abuse is not limited to work in the fields. Workers on the docks, at Coca-Cola, in the transit system, in health care and for the phone company all told us the same thing.  The failure to hire on a permanent basis violates the US-Colombia Labor Action Plan. The plan was supposed to guarantee union rights before the two countries implemented a free trade agreement, but enforcement is feeble.  Even when the Colombian Ministry of Labor assesses fines for violations, there is no guarantee the fine will actually be collected, because that is the responsibility of a different agency of the Colombian government.

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