By Alexzandria Sanchez
A group of protestors have dedicated the last 8 years of their lives permanently occupying a corner of public space in front of the U.S embassy in a make-shift camp. These protestors are a part of The Association of Injured Workers & Ex-Workers of General Motors Colmotores in Bogota, Colombia (ASOTRECOL).
General Motors Company, an American multinational corporation, has a long history of firing injured workers and refusing to take responsibility for the injuries workers have sustained, particularly in Colombia.
An estimate of 300-400 GM workers in Colombia are hired under an exploitative, subcontracting mechanism that gives them a temporary worker status that allows for the breaking up of unions, limited access to medical care, no overtime pay, including weekends and holidays, and a limit on their right to a fixed contract.
Workers are viewed as disposable assets within the company, easily replaceable and undeserving of fair treatment and compensation.
In May of 2011, 68 current and former workers created ASOTRECOL after many auto workers were laid off due to injuries they sustained while working. Many injuries included herniated discs, back injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, and much more. Some of the auto workers were left with debilitating issues that hinder them from ever working again.
Colpatria, the worker’s compensation company, was fined for falsifying the medical records of worker’s to reflect their injuries were not “occupational.” The labor inspector who authorized their terminations was arrested. However, justice has not been completely served for these injured workers.
After multiple failed attempts at mediation with GM, members of ASOTRECOL began a hunger strike by sewing their mouths shut. This strong grassroots campaign gained international attention, leading to international supporters demanding GM to acknowledge the pleas of these members and enter a negotiation process. About 100 people in the United States fasted in solidarity of ASOTRECOL’s hunger strike.
Supporters around the world also mobilized and protested GM headquarters in Detroit, as well as outside CEO, Dan Akerson’s home. Others sent letters to their local GM dealerships.
Due to the amount of pushback GM was facing, a large delegation of GM executives and lawyers traveled to Colombia to begin negotiating with the members of ASOTRECOL.
The workers were demanding disability benefits for those who could no longer work as well as compensation for lost wages after being wrongfully dismissed. However, the central demand of the workers was retraining and new job opportunities at the plant.
Members of ASOTRECOL ended their hunger strike in 2012 once plans for mediation began. The U.S. government’s Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service was asked to mediate. The negotiations ended with no settlement due to GM’s unwavering position on restricting workers from being rehired.
GM offered monetary compensation that was not sufficient for workers and their families to live on. The financial value was less than $1,000 a year for each worker until the average age of retirement in Colombia, which is 74. In furthering context, the benefits GM offered would not cover the cost of a back surgery for just one worker.
On Labor Day, several members of ASOTRECOL sewed their mouths again, after not hearing from GM about any continued talks or attempts for mediation. By October of 2012, 109 faith leaders, representing 12 different denominations across the U.S sent a signed letter of congregations of more than 17,000 religious priests to GM, encouraging them to commit to returning to talks with ASOTRECOL.
President of ASOTRECOL, Jorge Parra, and other members continued using their hunger strike and sewn mouths as a form of protest against “the right to work” legislation which had parallels between the legislation and the changing labor laws in Colombia that paved the way to union-busting.
The injured Colombian workers have gathered more than 76,000 supporters around the U.S, Brazil, Canada, and Germany in their fight for justice.
The U.S government has yet to hold GM accountable for any of its human rights abuses. After investing about $50 million to bail out GM from its bankruptcy in 2009, the U.S and its taxpayers became major stakeholders of the multinational company, therefore, assuming responsibility for its behaviors in other countries, like Colombia.
The right to justice should not be confined to borders of countries, or based on nationality and ethnicity. The pleas of these workers are deserving of our attention and support. These workers have mobilized and maintained their resilience through the hardest of situations. What they are demanding is not foreign or exaggerative.
Right to fair pay, equal opportunity, safe working conditions, and compensation due to occupational injuries should be uniformly distributed among the environment these workers are subjected to.
These stories of labor issues, exploitation, and persecution are not only examples of how unjust our labor systems are- in the U.S and abroad, but also stories of resistance and perseverance. Regardless of how powerful multinational corporations are, their attempt to wield power has not stopped this grassroots campaign for justice. Their voices will not be silenced, even with their mouths sewn shut, they are speaking volumes.