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Driving Home Labor Rights in Colombia

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“Here we have two governments and a very standard labor issue with a small group of workers, yet no resolution, which is very disconcerting. If this can’t be resolved, what can we expect to happen in terms of broader protection for labor?”
Lisa Haugaard, Executive Director of the Latin America Working Group

On September 13, 2012 the Washington Office on Latin America, the Latin America Working Group Education Fund, Witness for Peace and the United Steelworkers welcomed Jorge Parra, leader of ASOTRECOL, Association of Injured Workers and Ex-workers of General Motors Colombia, to speak about the group’s struggle protesting their illegal firing from the U.S. – based company.  Claiming they were fired for their work-related injuries, members of ASOTRECOL have been protesting in front of the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá, Colombia, demanding to be reintegrated into the company -and to be fairly compensated for their work-related injuries.

Jorge explained how he was fired after developing carpal tunnel syndrome and a herniated disk in his back. Speaking with other injured and subsequently fired workers, Jorge and his colleagues began to notice a systemic pattern of dismissals after workers were diagnosed by company doctors.  The injured and fired workers formed ASOTRECOL on May 19, 2011, seeking just compensation for their injuries, as well as reintegration and retraining for other jobs within GM.

 On August 2, 2011, ASOTRECOL set up tents in front of the U.S. Embassy, demanding that their rights be recognized. The association presented its case to the labor ministry without any resulting action. After a year of protesting and seeing little results, they decided to escalate their efforts. On the one year anniversary of protest, ASOTRECOL members began a hunger strike and sewed their mouths shut.

 After three excruciating weeks, GM finally sent a delegation to visit Colombia in response to mounting public pressure. However, members of ASOTRECOL were denied access to speak directly with members of the delegation. Negotiating through intermediaries, GM agreed to a mediation session with ASOTRECOL through the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services [of the United States] (FMSC). Although ASOTRECOL is made up of 68 members, this particular mediation session would only be evaluating the cases of 12 workers who had suffered the most debilitating injuries.  “We accepted given that the situation of those 12 was very bad [and] with the hope that in the future we could resolve the situation with the rest of our colleagues,” Jorge explained. 

It took a mere four days of negotiations for both parties to conclude that they were not going to come to a solution to which they could both agree. GM’s final offer to ASOTRECOL was a measly $30,000 for the group of 12 members to split amongst themselves –an insignificant number as the medical costs for Jorge’s surgeries alone exceed $50,000. The strongest point of contention between the two parties was the subject of reintegration and retraining for new jobs with GM.  GM still refused any sort of programs that would reintegrate the injured workers back into the workplace.

This entire process has been extremely difficult for ASOTRECOL. The lack of progress in resolving their labor plight reflects broader problems in the current state of labor rights in Colombia, a country known for having the highest rate of violence against trade union members and labor activists, along with high levels of impunity for violence perpetrated against the labor sector.   Jorge explained how his group has seen no results after repeatedly asking government agencies for intervention and protection from the very real threat that exists for labor rights’ defenders in Colombia.   Joining Jorge Parra in the discussion was Latin America Working Group Education Fund’s Lisa Haugaard, who weighed in on how the case of ASOTRECOL is emblematic of the continued labor issues in Colombia after the implementation of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.  She explained how many labor unions and human rights organizations objected to the implementation of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement due to the levels of violence and constant threats levied against workers in Colombia. Ultimately, these labor unions and human rights organizations pressured and urged the U.S. government to at least fully implement a Labor Action Plan prior to the entry into force of the Free Trade Agreement.P1030892_2Lisa Haugaard visiting ASOTRECOL in Colombia. Phot credit: Dana Brown, USOC

Lisa recently returned from a delegation to Colombia and reported that the Colombian Ministry of Labor needs to act in a decisive way. She noted that while the Labor Action Plan was a step in the right direction to address the problems that Colombia’s workers currently face, there still is a lot of progress to be made. Indirect hiring practices, one of the main areas that the Labor Action Plan seeks to address, remains a major concern  as workers are not directly employed by the actual company, and instead, are employed through intermediary  sham “cooperatives” allowing companies to wash their hands of any labor abuses and not be held accountable for any violations. In the case of the port workers, one of the priority sectors of the LAP, direct hiring is rare and while fines have been levied against companies engaging in indirect hiring practices, often times these fines are of low value and insignificant to large corporations.

Another major concern is the alarming threats of violence against labor activists. Protection measures that were laid out in the Labor Action Plan have not been fully implemented, leaving trade unionists and labor activists extremely vulnerable. In fact, threats against workers are most prominent in the priority sectors of the Labor Action Plan and those who are trying to use it as leverage. It is, therefore, of paramount importance that the protection measures for labor activists and trade unionists outlined in the LAP are fully implemented.

“The ASOTRECOL workers have their tent directly across from the front entrance of the U.S. Embassy, literally just across a narrow street,” said Lisa. Given that GM is a U.S. company, the U.S. government needs to do more to remedy the situation and work towards better labor practices. The Congressional Monitoring Group on Labor Rights in Colombia recently released a statement reaffirming their commitment to the implementation of the Labor Action Plan. While their commitment is positive and encouraging, it is a huge political mistake for the Obama administration to declare the situation fixed or adequate, as there is still much to do regarding the labor situation in Colombia.

Colombian Senator Lopez Maya, a prominent labor rights advocate in Colombia, then called in to the discussion, passionately articulating how Colombia has yet to live up to the framework for change outlined in the bilateral Labor Action Plan. “Colombia has tried to show a good face by agreeing to the Labor Action Plan but in practice it’s completely the opposite,” the senator stated, and violence against labor leaders and activists has continued to plague Colombia. Since the signing of the Labor Action Plan, 127 labor conflicts have been officially documented; in labor sectors like the port and palm workers, workers continue to be treated like slaves. According to Senator Maya, “The U.S. Congress should be embarrassed by the Colombian government’s implementation and should be overseeing it better.” He concluded the discussion by returning to the situation of ASOTRECOL and stated, “It’s a shame that international governments have to pressure the Colombian government to push this situation [ASOTRECOL]. It’s a shame that a U.S. company takes advantage of Colombian workers.”

Unfortunately, the case of ASOTRECOL is one of many continued labor rights problems in Colombia after the implementation of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. The U.S. government must act now and take strong actions to ensure the full implementation of the Labor Action Plan and work towards better labor practices before more lives are devastated in Colombia.