Hunger Striking for Labor Rights in Colombia

Source: Foreign Policy in Focus

Minutes before he started to sew his mouth shut, Jorge Alberto Parra Andrade explained his rationale to me: “Essentially GM gave us a choice: to die of hunger or to die waiting for them to solve this problem.”

Mr. Parra is one of 68 injured workers fired by General Motors Colombia who started a protest in front of the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá one year ago, on August 1st, 2011. The Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of General Motors Colombia (ASOTRECOL) had two simple demands: fair compensation for injuries incurred in the workplace and reintegration into GM’s workforce. In commemoration of their protest’s anniversary — and without any movement on their case — four leaders of ASOTRECOL decided to sew their mouths closed and initiate a hunger strike. Another three joined on August 8th, and a small group will join each week until their cases are resolved.

ASOTRECOL workers claim that they were among 200 employees injured on the job in GM’s plant in Colombia’s capital city. The majority of ASOTRECOL’s members have undergone multiple surgeries, most commonly to treat spinal injuries, tendinitis, carpal tunnel, rotator cuff syndrome, and lumbar damage. After working their bodies until they were disabled and unable to perform manual labor any longer, GM fired them and refused to pay medical benefits or a severance package. ASOTRECOL also alleges that GM lost, altered, erased, or fabricated their medical histories to exclude their injuries from the company’s official records, and that the Ministry of Labor approved the documents.

Consequently, GM does not accept the injuries as work-related, instead claiming that they were incurred outside the plant. Luis Alvarado Vásquez, the Inspector at the Ministry of Labor who reviewed ASOTRECOL members’ records, was convicted for falsifying their records and approving their illegal firings. He was suspended from work for 12 months and has a warrant out for his arrest. However, since his cases were not automatically voided, ASOTRECOL must reverse them by entering Colombia’s lengthy legal process.

The injured workers and their families do not have time to wait years navigating the legal system. The dramatic move by ASOTRECOL activists to start a hunger strike reflects their growing desperation. Before receiving six stitches in his lips, Carlos Ernesto Trujillo explained that the workers are running out of money to pay for their homes or support their spouses and children. “They fired us without just cause, endangering us and our families,” he said. “We are taking this decision because our health has worsened each day, we’re losing our houses, we practically live in the street, and we’ve been forgotten by the government.”

Inaction by the United States

ASOTRECOL’s case is especially alarming considering the U.S. government’s stake in General Motors. Two years before ASOTRECOL began its strike, GM filed for bankruptcy protection and reorganization with the United States government. It was the fourth-largest Chapter 11 filing in U.S. history, and the U.S. government became the company’s largest shareholder with 60-percent ownership. When GM failed to stay afloat after the Bush administration pumped $20 billion into the company in 2008, the Obama administration shelled out another $30 billion in taxpayer dollars in 2009. At the start of 2012, the United States still had $25 billion invested in GM.

GM seems to have recovered from its financial turmoil and this year reclaimed its position as the largest automobile manufacturer in the United States. However, even the billion-dollar quarterly profit margins for GM did not translate into a willingness to settle the small claims of ASOTRECOL members. The first week of the hunger strike, GM attended a mediation session with representatives from the International Labor Organization, the Office of Inspector General, and the Ministry of Labor, but walked out on the first day. GM did not even stay at the negotiating table long enough to initiate a dialogue with ASOTRECOL.

The U.S. government has remained silent on GM’s situation as well, despite its pledges to support labor rights in the Colombia. The United States walked a tight rope this past year as the Obama administration tried to convince Congress to pass a free trade agreement (FTA) with the South American country. Signed by the Bush administration, the FTA stalled for years in Congress due to concerns over the country’s abysmal labor rights record. According to journalist Garry Leech, almost 75 percent of the world’s union leaders killed in the last 20 years were Colombian, and less than 5 percent of these killings have resulted in a conviction for the perpetrators. In 2011, out of 76 union leaders killed globally, 29 were Colombian.

Despite Colombia’s record as the “most dangerous country in the world to be a unionist,” the U.S. government passed the FTA, which went into effect in May 2012. The countries implemented an “Action Plan for Labor Rights” to provide enhanced protection for Colombia’s most at-risk industries. Still, seven unionists have been killed in Colombia this year, and many more have received death threats.

ASOTRECOL is a case in point for labor rights violations in Colombia. The situation of these workers is all the more deplorable given the U.S. government’s promises to protect labor leaders while at the same time remaining one of GM’s largest shareholders. Although ASOTRECOL’s case is little-known in the United States, U.S. taxpayers are de facto GM shareholders. The U.S. government should recognize its two-sided stance on this case and pressure GM to stop ignoring these workers before they die of starvation. Mr. Parra and other fired workers’ resolve in their hunger strike is evident. “We must reclaim our rights and demand an end to the human rights violations committed by General Motors. GM must answer for its actions and what they have done to us,” concluded Parra. “If necessary, we are willing to die fighting for justice.”

Austin Robles is a U.S.-Latin American relations specialist currently working on the Witness for Peace Colombia Team.