By Austin Robles
Minutes before he started to sew his mouth shut, Jorge Parra 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.”
One year ago, on August 1st, 2011, several dozen workers from General Motors Colombia (Colmotores) started a protest in front of the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá. The Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of Colmotores (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 advancement in their case, four leaders of ASOTRECOL decided to sew their mouths closed and initiate a hunger strike.
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. Consequently, GM does not accept the injuries as work-related, instead claiming that they were incurred under normal circumstances outside the plant.
Having seen no progress in their case over the past year, four members started a hunger strike on August 1st, 2012. Another set of members will join by sewing their mouths closed each week until their case is resolved. The dramatic move reflects their growing desperation. Before receiving six stitches in his lips, Carlos Ernesto Trujillo Rojas explained that the workers can not wait any longer. “They fired us without just cause, endangering us and our families. 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% ownership. Failing to stay afloat after the Bush Administration pumped $20 billion into GM in 2008, the Obama Administration shelled out another $30 billion in taxpayer dollars in 2009. At the start of 2012, the U.S. still had $25 billion invested in GM.
GM seems to have recovered from its financial turmoil and was this year restored to its position as the largest automobile manufacturer in the United States. However, billion-dollar quarterly profit margins for GM did not translate into willingness to settle the small claims of ASOTRECOL members.
The U.S. government has maintained silence on GM’s situation as well, despite its pledges to support labor rights in the South American country. The U.S. walked a tight rope this past year as the Obama Administration tried to convince Congress to pass a free trade agreement (FTA) with Colombia. Signed by the Bush Administration, the FTA stalled for years in Congress due to concerns over the trading partner’s labor rights record. According to Garry Leech, almost 75% of the world’s union leaders killed in the last 20 years were Colombian, and less than 5% of these killings result in a conviction. 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. Their situation 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. Jorge and other fired workers’ resolve in their hunger strike is evident. “We are set to continue until the final consequences,” he declared. “May God accompany us and help us.”
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