Jorge Parra, the President of the Association of Sick and Fired Workers Of General Motors Colombia (ASOTRECOL in Spanish), started his makeshift tent city with fellow fired General Motors workers right across the street from the United Sates Embassy on August 1, 2011. Their reasoning was very clear: Since the U.S. government bailed out General Motors in 2008, the government and U.S. taxpayers became major stakeholders of this multinational corporation and assumed responsibility for its behavior in other countries, including Colombia.
From their tent city, they have launched a strong grassroots campaign that has attracted the attention of U.S. Congresspeople, Colombian trade union federations, nongovernmental organizations, opposition senators and hopefully the GM CEO.
These fired workers have shown incredible endurance, sleeping out in the cold and rainy Bogotá weather with metal rods in their spinal columns as a result of the surgeries they’ve undergone due to injuries acquired at the GM plant. Their endurance shows their determination to attain labor practices and standards that are fair and comply with the law.
Colombian Workers and the Free Trade Agreement
What they ask is for the U.S. government and General Motors in Colombia to comply with safety and labor standards supposedly guaranteed by Colombian laws and the 2011 Labor Action Plan between the Colombian and the U.S. governments.
The Labor Action Plan was geared to address the grave human rights abuses in Colombia in order to ratify the notoriously debated Free Trade Agreement proposed in 2006. There was fierce opposition from many sectors of Colombian society, including indigenous and afro-Colombian communities and U.S. trade unions and confederations, which stalled the FTA’s ratification for 5 years, and with good reason.
Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world to exercise labor organizing and unionizing rights. According to the AFL-CIO, 2,850 Colombian trade unionists have been killed in the last 25 years with almost complete impunity.
Colombian labor leaders face life and death situations and find abuse in almost all aspect of labor. Approximately three million Colombian workers are employed by subcontracting mechanisms that give a type of temporary worker status in order to break up unions, limit medical care, deny extra pay for over-time, weekends and holidays, and limit the right to a fixed contract. An estimated 300 to 400 workers in the GM plant in Colombia are hired under these exploitative schemes.
These and many more abuses resulting from subcontracting schemes are specifically addressed in the Labor Action Plan, but remain intact in Colombia when they shouldn’t.
In an environment of impunity, corruption and weak institutions, the newly-created Ministry of Labor and its labor inspectors, which have received $2 million U.S. taxpayer dollars in order to implement the Labor Action Plan, are working against the rights of workers.
Jorge and many more workers in Colombia, specifically in this case, endure precarious safety standards, long working hours, and don’t have adequate access to mechanisms to address these issues. Instead, workers are simply fired once they get injured or start working to address these labor violations. This is what happened to about 164 workers at the GM plant.
The fast pace, the heavy equipment and the lack of proper medical attention led to several injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome, spinal injuries and hernias. Instead of taking care of its workers, GM management obtained their medical records and fired them, listing false claims so the firing wouldn’t be related to their injuries.
What is even more troubling is that these fired GM workers have been targets of persecution and harassment by private security firms contracted in secrecy. Members of the association have reported being fallowed and photographed outside their homes and their children’s schools. Even more alarming is that the Labor Action Plan’s protective measures for labor leaders are not being fulfilled; 51 trade unionists were murdered in 2011 alone, and 5 have been killed to date in 2012.
The far reach of multinationals and their deep political and economic ties more often than not sabotage, stall and hinder judicial processes in their favor.
Labor inspectors, called for by the Labor Action Plan, signed off on these illegal firings, protecting the companies instead of the workers. In a legal motion and investigation filed by ASOTRECOL, one corrupt labor inspector was actually sanctioned. The remaining concern is that the Labor Action Plan calls for roughly 400 of these officials.
The GM case is one of several in Colombia relating to labor abuses, exploitation, persecution and anti-union organizing. To highlight these issues, in early May, Jorge and other Colombian workers from the most exploited sectors of the Colombian workforce, who are specifically mentioned in the Labor Action Plan, will be going to Washington, DC, to express the ground-level reality of the Labor Action Plan. Their objective is to renegotiate the implementation of the Free Trade Agreement until the plan becomes a reality and not just an unenforced document signed over to the U.S. in order to implement the FTA.