By Bárbara Orozco Díaz
On August 2, 2011, the Association of Injured and Former Workers of General Motors Colmotores (ASOTRECOL) set up a resistance camp in front of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota to continue the struggle for labor rights and denounce labor rights violations committed by the company Colmotores, a subsidiary of General Motors, which this year marks 11 years of resistance.
GENERAL MOTORS COLMOTORES - A HISTORY OF WORKER ABUSE AND LABOR RIGHTS VIOLATIONS
The Fábrica Colombiana de Automotores (Colmotores), incorporated in 1956, was purchased by General Motors in 1979 when the latter acquired 77.4% of the shares and total control. Since then, the Colombian subsidiary of General Motors was renamed General Motors Colmotores (GM Colmotores).
General Motors, founded in Detroit in 1908, has been during the twentieth century and early twenty-first century the world leader in automobile production. It lost its world leadership in 2009 and went bankrupt, being rescued shortly after by the Obama administration who injected $50 billion creating the General Motors Company Foundation with the US Government holding 60% of the shares. The US President Barack Obama said:
“The companies need to make dramatic changes in the way they run their businesses”
1990s - Dismantling of Trade Unions and Violation of Human Rights
The first Colmotores workers' union, SINTRACOL, was created in 1962, with half of the company's workers affiliated with it, which grew to 2,000 employees. Although there were no serious confrontations over the years, the workers went on strike in 1997 to demand that all employees be on the payroll and a wage increase. After 28 days of strike action, the wage increases and the withdrawal of the demand that fixed-term workers (60% of the workforce) be put on the payroll were agreed upon.
In these years of economic opening in the country, the Labor Reform was approved through Law 50 of 1990, which facilitates fixed-term contracts, favouring the position of the company.
2000s - Consolidation of Anti-Union Policy
The Labor Reform of the 1990s was consolidated between 2002 and 2006 through another Labor Reform which, among others, included the authorization of layoffs with low severance pay and the prohibition of unions to negotiate pensions and other benefits.
The anti-union policies of the government and employers led the International Confederation of Trade Unions (ICFTU) to declare Colombia as the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists in the report presented at the International Labor Conference in Geneva in 2003 and confirmed in the 2009 and 2011 report.
In the mid-2000s, in this Colombian context of great violation of human rights, particularly to the union movement, GM Colmotores undertook a set of managerial, organizational and labor strategies to increase productivity levels and proposed an industrial reconversion plan that included a global manufacturing system (GMS) and the automation of assembly plant processes.
It implemented measures to bind all fixed-term workers through outsourced forms and the imposition of a collective bargaining agreement that dismantled the unions. In addition, GMS intensified the pressure and workload that resulted in serious impacts on workers' health. The company never recognized the work-related injuries from its medical service and the insurance company ARP Colpatria, so not only did it not apply prevention and relocation measures, but it also dismissed injured workers without complying with the law that prohibited it from doing so.
Colombia - United States Free Trade Agreement
At the same time, the approval of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between Colombia and the United States was under discussion. The negotiators of the FTA claimed that it established strong labor rights protections based on the May 10, 2007 Labor Agreement, however, most of the U.S. representatives were opposed to ratification until the Colombian government took immediate action to overcome the country's labor and union problems. Therefore, the Labor Action Plan (LAP) was designed with 37 concrete measures on 10 issues that was signed on April 7, 2011 by the presidents of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos and his U.S. counterpart, Barack Obama. The FTA entered into force on May 15, 2012.
The measures incorporated in the LAP, for the most part, responded to problems pointed out by the union movement, but they were not sufficient and needed verification mechanisms. Likewise, the LAP does not change the essentially negative content of the FTA for Colombian and U.S. workers, and non-compliance with the LAP by the Colombian government and business would not generate any commercial or legal consequences, since once the FTA is ratified by the U.S. Congress and once it enters into force, the LAP measures would not be binding.
A former worker, Jorge Parra, later president of ASOTRECOL, began to document his case and having gathered enough information, denounced his situation to state authorities. As a result, ARP Colpatria confirmed that 200 workers of GM Colmotores were suffering from lumbar pathology in 2011 and was fined by the Ministry of Labor for concealing information that prevented it from declaring the illness to be of occupational origin. That same year GM Colmotores had dismissed 45 injured workers.
In this way, the Injured and Former Workers of General Motors Colmotores identified similarities in the injuries they suffered due to the way they worked and formed ASOTRECOL on May 19, 2011 with 68 injured and former workers. They demanded their rights to health and the recognition of the work-related origin of their injuries so that they could be guaranteed health care and compensation. Additionally, the workers demanded that their labor rights be restored by reintegrating them into the company and paying them back lost wages, also providing them with a process of rehabilitation and job readaptation to place them in positions in accordance with their health conditions.
ASOTRECOL undertook a diverse repertoire of collective actions of mobilization, struggle, resistance and enforceability, actions that have been of a non-contentious and contentious nature, to which have been added actions of a communicative nature and international advocacy.
They filed a complaint with the national authorities in charge of regulating labor and safeguarding human rights, but the judges ruled in favor of the company, 48 workers lost their claims. They took them to the International Labor Organization and since these actions did not produce results, on August 2, 2011, they set up a tent in front of the U.S. Embassy. On August 1, 2012, 11 workers began a hunger strike that lasted 20 days.
11 Years of Dignified Resistance in the Cambuche (Protest Camp)
Throughout these 11 years of struggle and resistance, ASOTRECOL has protected the health rights of GM Colmotores' workers, not without great wear and tear and personal losses for its members. Although 68 workers and former workers started as associates, by 2015 only the 23 former workers remained. Despite this, the resistance and struggle still persist today because no resolution has been given to their situation and demands.
The Cambuche (protest camp) is still installed in front of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, where Carlos Ernesto Trujillo Rojas has remained for more than 11 years, where the comrades of ASOTRECOL come and go to continue with the only means they have left to claim their rights after the impunity of the crimes GM Colmotores has committed against its workers, public protest.
After 11 years in Cambuche, ASOTRECOL believes the struggle has been positive because they have finally been able to demonstrate that they are not the only ones, there are many more injured workers unjustly fired, especially from North American companies that have failed to comply with the Agreements reached in the Colombia - United States Free Trade Agreement, the Labor Action Plan, which have NEVER BEEN FULFILLED.
ASOTRECOL is still waiting for the reinstatement of GM Colmotores in its demands:
Payment for lost wages
Relocation and Rehabilitation of the workers
Creation of a Union
With the positioning of the new Colombian government, a new Labor Reform is in process in which ASOTRECOL would like to participate so that injured workers are heard. They demand respect and dignity for the labor rights of all workers in Colombia. Never again should an injured worker be fired in Colombia, that the labor origin of their illness be recognized, that they receive a pension or compensation.
ASOTRECOL's struggle reached as far as the United States, after contacting the representative of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and the GM Union in the United States, the United Automobile Workers (UWA) in 2012 and the Solidarity Committees.
Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective (WfPSC) has accompanied the struggle and resistance of ASOTRECOL since its beginning and today, after 11 years of dignified resistance in the Cambuche, we continue to call for solidarity among peoples so that not only the demands of those 23 former GM Colmotores workers receive a solution in accordance with their needs and losses throughout these years, but also so that the revision of the Colombia - United States Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is achieved in favor of the labor and human rights of workers in the country.