Friday, August 31, 2012

Police Brutality Meets Portworkers’ Demands for Fair Working Conditions in Buenaventura

by Carlos A. Cruz Colombia Team

At 2AM on the 29th of August, five hundred striking Afro-Colombian port workers were met with riot police brutality. Instead of protecting the legitimate voices of these workers in their demands for national and international labor laws and regulations to be upheld, the riot police chose to unleash violence, resulting in the serious injury of four workers, including a pregnant woman.

After twenty days of negotiations with TECSA (Terminal Especializado de Contenedores de Buenaventura S.A.), the company refused all points that comprised the workers’ list of demands, even those internationally recognized as workers´ rights: the right of freedom of association and the right to organize, which are protected both under Colombian Constitutional Law as well as under ILO Convention 87 from 1948; and the right to direct forms of contracting with open-ended contracts, which should have been applied under Decree 2025 of 2011 as part of the Obama-Santos Labor Action Plan. Given these failed negotiations, the workers decided to strike.

The Port Workers’ Union of Buenaventura (Union Portuaria) and its president John Jairo Castro have been spearheading organizing efforts to get workers directly contracted so they can have a fair working wage (it has been shown that indirect forms of contracting result in a 50% decrease in salary). However, these efforts continue to be met with death threats and repression, despite the fact that working conditions in the port sector was a priority issue in the Labor Action Plan to be addressed before the passing of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Because of the commitment in this Plan to address the violence faced by workers, it is crucial that the violent actions perpetrated by the riot police against striking workers is immediately investigated. Otherwise, it will be apparent that our governments’ concern was only superficial and was just meant to pave the way for the ratification of the FTA instead of making substantial changes in labor conditions in Colombia.

Under the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement commerce between the two countries is supposed to increase, making maritime shipping ports a very important and strategic part of the Colombian national economy. The pacific port city of Buenaventura sees 60% of the millions and millions of dollars’ worth of goods from the U.S. coming in and out of the country day after day.  The workers of the port, however, cannot even afford a decent living for themselves or for their families, let alone the bright shiny goods coming in from the shipping containers they unload every day.
The workers of the port are mostly Afro-Colombian, and they work under very precarious labor conditions. There have been a number of deaths in the port due to the lack of enforced safety standards, and most of the contracting agencies that provide employment in the ports don’t provide any safety protection, instead burdening the workers with these costs.

The majority of the port workers can’t even address their unfair working conditions as they are legally barred from joining a labor union. If they do try and join a labor union they are fired and often blacklisted from getting a job. Workers report management giving them the job on the condition that they don’t join a labor union, and how can they say no when there is a sixty-percent unemployment rate and Afro-Colombians are severely discriminated against in the job market?

Sociedad Portuaria bought the port when it was privatized back in the 90’s, and now leases out all the functions of the port to TECSA who then subcontracts other intermediary companies to run the operations in the port, circumventing labor rights as these companies don’t provide a framework for trade union membership. In the meantime, length of shifts surpasses what is permitted under labor law, and health deductions get taken from paychecks even though workers receive no access to health care.  All these abuses and exploitations have been well-documented and even acknowledged by the Colombian and U.S. governments.

On Saturday, negotiations are set to begin again between TECSA and the Port Workers Union. Given the failures to comply with stipulations in the Obama-Santos Labor Action Plan, U.S. Embassy representatives should attend these negotiations to ensure that a peaceful and just resolution is obtained.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Live from the Caravan for Peace: Mexican Drug War Victims Travel The US and Call for Policy Change

By Alissa Escarce, former Witness for Peace Delegate

Maria Trujillo Herrera  from Mexico gives testimony
about her four disappeared sons
For the past two weeks two white buses, each emblazoned with red block letters spelling “Caravan for Peace,“ have been rolling through the Southwestern desert.  This Caravan, the latest from Mexico’s Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, is led by Javier Sicilia, “el poeta,” who left literature for activism following his son’s murder at the hands of drug war violence.  After nearly a year and a half of traveling around Mexico, sharing stories and pain with thousands, and speaking truth to the Mexican government, Sicilia and the family members of nineteen other innocent drug war victims have crossed the border to the U.S.

They have come in the name of the 70,000 murdered and 15,000 disappeared since Mexico adopted a militarized approach to combating drug trafficking. They are here to address the nation that pushed the Mexican government to initiate the drug war; that both consumes and prohibits drugs, setting the conditions that have allowed drug cartels to thrive; that launders the profits of drug sales and extortions; that sells 90% of the firearms used by drug cartels in barely regulated markets; that through the Merida Initiative has spent billions on arming and training Mexico’s corrupt, often murderous military, rather than funding programs to alleviate the inequities at the root of much crime; and that has deported hundreds of thousands of Mexican citizens to dangerous border towns

I, an American citizen who has witnessed the hypocrisy of the War on Drugs on both sides of the border, have joined them on the bus.

I joined the Caravan for Peace in Los Angeles, my hometown and the Caravan’s second stop.  I had been looking forward to the event since I saw it announced, in April, in a Mexican newspaper.  I was living in Oaxaca at the time, working with the binational migrant workers’ rights law center Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (Center for Migrants’ Rights, or CDM), an organization that works in communities that experience a lot of migration.  It was the longest of several periods I had spent in Mexico since 2007, since the time that President Felipe Calderon first declared war on the drug cartels and that the U.S. committed to supporting it through the Merida Initiative.

Back in 2007, the drug war was barely on my radar, and my visit to Mexico gave me little reason to notice it.  By the time I returned in 2011, though, insecurity had reached such extremes that it was impossible to ignore.  I reflected on this change during the Caravan demonstration in Austin, Texas, where I ran into a former colleague from CDM.  We had worked together in 2008 in the city of Zacatecas, which was, at the time, relatively unaffected by drug war violence. This colleague left Zacatecas for Austin about a year ago, after months of seeing neighbors’ funeral notices, hearing about shoot-outs in the parks where her toddler liked to ride her tricycle, and encountering hooded men armed with machine guns and grenades on her way home from her second daughter’s birth.

Caravaneros line up to board the Caravan for Peace bus
By the spring of 2011, CDM’s main office had to relocate to Mexico City following a string of strange threats. Our security protocol became the central topic of most staff meetings, and we stopped working in many regions altogether.  Clients and colleagues alike suffered trauma.  Communities became suspicious of outsiders.  Like many human rights defenders working in Mexico, some of us began to wonder whether this conflict would make our work so difficult that we might be forced to shut down.

I am on the bus, then, not because of personal tragedy, but because of a commitment to social justice in both Mexico and the United States. I have seen that the drug war is not only destroying innocent lives at an astonishing pace, but also paralyzing movements and civil organizations that work for justice of every kind.  I am outraged by the ugly reality of policies carried out in my name, and so I believe that the caravaneros’ cause, as we move across my country, is also my own.

Those of us on the bus come from different backgrounds, and are here for a range of reasons.  Most have experienced the spike in violence in Mexico, and have come “to conquer injustice,” in one young man’s words, and to promote peace.  Many have lost children or brothers or husbands in the conflict, and have come to share their stories in the hopes that their histories will not be repeated.  Those whose loved ones have been “disappeared,” but perhaps not killed, harbor hopes of finding them.

The Movement for Peace with Justice has become a space of solidarity and hope for many who feel as one bereaved mother, who explained, “my heart dried up with my son, and in my pain I feel alone… but this movement made me feel less alone, as I met other mothers who had experienced the same thing.”  We hope to expand that space of solidarity to include compassionate U.S. citizens, whose government’s policies have planted the seeds that have led to this violence.  “To people in the United States, our pain feels far removed,” says a man whose brothers have disappeared.  But the anguish of realizing a sister has been tortured, or of receiving a nephew’s corpse, should translate beyond physical and cultural borders.  By sharing these personal stories of tragedy, the Caravan hopes to open serious discussions about U.S. policy.

Members of the Movement for Peace with Justice and
Dignity, including Javier Sicilia (right), give testimony at
one of the Caravan's stops
The buses, as well as the public events organized in city after city, are primarily places for storytelling, and the stories told make clear why these questions of policy are so urgent.  Rafael, who has joined the caravan with his mother and brother, tells me about the changes that unfolded in his community following Calderon’s first drug war campaign.  Rafael and his family live in a rural farming community in the state of Michoacán, where in 2006 Calderon attacked the Familia Michoacán cartel, capturing its leaders and removing its members from political posts.  It was as power dynamics between cartels began to shift in Michoacán, and as headless organizations broke down into warring factions, that violence in Michoacán was unleashed.  “The cartels started to terrorize the civilian population, so that people wouldn’t dare report them to the government,” his brother Carlos adds.  “They built fear as a protective barrier.” Four years later, four of Carlos and Rafael’s brothers, door-to-door metal salesmen, have disappeared.  During that time, the influx of assault weapons into Michoacán was so great the price dropped from around $2000, to $300.

To me, the most powerful event has been an evening vigil held a few days ago in Brownsville, Texas.  We stood in a circle with locals, candles shimmering in our hands, steps from the tall rusted fence that divides our two nations.  After a moment of silence and a few speeches on politics, Margarita, a warm woman I knew by smile and her tendency to call all of us “Beautiful!,” began to describe the struggle that had brought her to the caravan.  Her daughter, the wife of an officer in the Mexican military, disappeared in Oaxaca over a year ago.  Margarita had gone from authority to authority, from the government to the military to private investigators, encountering wall after impenetrable bureaucratic wall.  After months of searching and confronting criminal organizations, she was finally presented with a decapitated, decomposing body.  She was told that it belonged to her daughter, a fact that DNA testing initially confirmed.  Later, presented with a head, she requested more DNA testing—which resulted inconclusive, positive one time, negative the next.  She was provided with gory details of her daughter’s last days.  “She was raped every day!” she screamed, her voice ripping.  “She was shown the bodies decomposing in the mass grave where she was soon going to be thrown!  They told me of her pleas, how she begged them ‘please, please don’t kill me.’” To this day, Margarita cannot be sure where her daughter’s body was laid to rest.  “But I will keep fighting, even if it kills me!” she finished.  Behind her, a crowd of mothers held her, shaking, faces shining with tears and rage.

The horror of these stories is difficult to absorb, and they are the stories of many tens of thousands of Mexicans—and, I’m learning, a stunning number of U.S. citizens and residents, who have come to tell stories of pain that echo those of the caravaneros.  My seatmate on the bus, for example, is a U.S. citizen born in Mexico.  Her brother, also a U.S. citizen, was a truck driver for a large American company.  He disappeared about a year ago while driving a truck across the border.  She often babysits her brother’s U.S.-born son, and has found that eleven-year-old boy cannot sleep. “I’m afraid,” he tells her. Locals at our many stops come to tell of family members assassinated following deportation, of painful decisions to seek asylum in the U.S., of being limited to choosing between drug violence in Mexico and anti-immigrant violence in the U.S.  Even those with no ties to Mexico have found common ground with the movement, drawing connections to the scourge of mass incarceration in the black community, and with the lack of funding for treating addiction.  Many kinds of pain are bringing people together.

That the United States has had a part in creating the conditions for so much inhumanity troubles me deeply.  Some of our challengers on this side of the border say that because the U.S. has provided Mexico with military aid, that we have done our part, and that we should just throw up our hands. But story after story suggests that militarization has only escalated the horror, and if we are sincere in our wish to halt horrific human rights violations, we must demand a fundamental shift in our drug and foreign policies.

In quieter moments, the Caravan is deeply spiritual, drawing on Catholic and Aztec and Buddhist rituals, on poetry and folk songs. Sicilia has insisted that victims’ pain not lead them to hate, and discussions of love for our American hosts are frequent.  A few days ago, as our hosts in New Mexico closed a ceremony, they said a prayer I wish my whole country could have witnessed.  An older woman, dressed in traditional clothes, raised her arms in the air and shouted, “To everyone who is rotting Mexico, including politicians on both sides of the border, may their conscience awaken.  Let’s send them love!”  The crowd flung its arms towards the sky.

On Monday morning we left Texas for Mississippi.   As we crossed the Texas border, one of my bus mates commented that this would be our true departure from what is both historically and culturally Mexican territory.  The further we go from Mexico, the more we will need your support.

We need the support of every person of conscience, around the world and especially in the United States.   If you can, join us at an event in a city near you. Join us in Washington, DC on September 12th, and invite five of your friends.  We need everyone to be there.

If you want to learn about these issues from those most affected by them, join Witness for Peace in Mexico City this September 22nd through the 30th for its first ever Drug War delegation! I participated in a Witness for Peace delegation to Mexico last year, and couldn't recommend it more highly. For more information go to

Monday, August 27, 2012

Labor Activists Mendoza and Galvis Under Attack

by Jessye Weinstein
WFP Colombia Team

Two trade union leaders in Barrancabermeja’s Coca Cola plant —William Mendoza, President of the local chapter of the Food Industry Workers Union (SINALTRAINAL) and Juan Carlos Galvis, member of SINALTRAINAL’s National Executive Board—are facing false accusations of terrorism. Barrancabermeja is a paramilitary stronghold, and understanding that paramilitaries are largely responsible for the systematic killing of unionists in Colombia, Mendoza and Galvis are sure that a prison sentence in the parapolitical climate of Barrancabermeja would mean imminent death.

The accusation against these two men of having taken part in placing a bomb in a Coca Cola plant in 1998 was brought by three demobilized paramilitary leaders responsible for hundreds of assassinations. These paramilitary leaders took advantage of the 2005 “Justice and Peace” demobilization law to simultaneously exchange their “testimony” against Mendoza and Galvis for varying degrees of amnesty, while continuing their same campaign of terror towards union leaders that they had waged before demobilizing. Although the charge was leveled in 2008, it is only now being activated, coinciding rather perfectly with the implementation of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Many see this as hardly a coincidence.

In order for the trade agreement to enter into effect, a Labor Action Plan (LAP) was signed by Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in April 2011 with the intention of improving labor conditions in Colombia before the implementation of a binding economic treaty.  Although the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement went into effect on May 15, the LAP never met many of its stated goals, now leaving little leverage for improving labor conditions. In fact, the history of FTAs in other countries   even suggests that the passage of FTAs can be met with a dramatic upsurge in violence against unionists as state energy ceases to be placed in efforts that give a pretty face to the labor situation during negotiations. One example can be seen in the significant rise of violence in Guatemala since the implementation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2006: no trade unionists were murdered in 2006; four were murdered in 2007, then nine in 2008, and 16 in 2009.

Relating this back to the Mendoza and Galvis case, it is interesting to note that although the charge was leveled in 2008, nothing became of the case during all the years of FTA negotiations until the eve of implemetation.  William’s analysis is simple: “Now that they’ve finalized the Free Trade Agreement, they want to finish off SINALTRAINAL. The government now wants to use the judicial process against Juan Carlos and me. They want to send us to prison where we will be assassinated, and in that way strike a blow against SINALTRAINAL…They couldn’t kill us, so they are now trying to frame us.”

Mendoza’s words situate his personal experiences within the context of living in the country still internationally recognized as the most lethal nation in the world for trade unionists. We must not allow the false accusations coming from paramilitary leaders, nor the false rhetoric coming from our government ensuring compliance with the Labor Action Plan, to mask the reality of the labor situation in Colombia and threaten the lives of labor leaders.

Contact your Congressional representatives and members of the Congressional Monitoring Group on Labor Rights in Colombia to express your concern about this case.

Members on the House Congressional Monitoring Group:

Howard Berman,              202-225-4695    
Rosa DeLauro,             202-225-3661    
Keith Ellison,             202-225-4755    
Sam Farr,                     202-225-2861    
Steny Hoyer,             202-225-4131    
James McGovern,            202-225-6101    
Michel Michaud,             202-225-6306    
George Miller,             202-225-2095    
Sander Levin,             202-225-4961    
Nancy Pelosi,             202-225-4965

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Nimbyism and Colombia’s “Socially Responsible” Mine, Cerrejón

By Jeanine Legato
WfP Colombia

Southeastern Massachusetts, where I am from, was deeply embroiled in a nimby (Not-In- My- Backyard)  debate in 2008 about the proposed construction of Cape Wind, an offshore wind farm in Nantucket sound.  The debate lasted years and only recently passed its final regulatory obstacle of approval by the Federal Aviation Association.  In the meantime, it has dominated local airwaves, newspapers, and public discussion, and called the attention of just about every important national news outlet. The innocuous “How ‘bout them Red Sox” conversation in Massachusetts shifted for a long time to, “How ‘bout that wind farm?” Critics of the farm, bent on saving the view sheds of their waterfront homes have lost out over time to the proposal’s proponents, who fought for the environmental, economic and energy security benefits of renewable energy.

Yesterday, in the Wayuu Indigenous Reservation of Provincial located in the northern Colombia province of La Guajira, I witnessed another nimby scenario play out, albeit colored by much different circumstances, none so privileged as a debate over the Kennedy’s vacation home, and certainly not as well covered by the media.

Culminating a five day expedition along the banks of the Rancheria River to document its degradation since the arrival of coal-giant Cerrejón (BHP Biliton, Xstrata, Anglo American), and to call for the defense of the same ecosystem before the mine’s proposed 26 kilometer detouring of the river to mine the high quality coal beneath, communities called a press conference in Provincial and asked, “why is our resistance ignored in the media?”

The answer: Cerrejón, whose slogan is “Mining Responsibly”, dominates the press-beat in La Guajira with its multi-million investment in communications.  Furthermore, while the Cape Wind project was stalled by years’ long debate and strict environmental regulations, Cerrejón has been subjected to neither by the Colombian press or government.  President Juan Manuel Santos promotes deregulated mining and foreign investment to make extractive resources the “economic engine” for the country.

To the 150 participants on a five day excursion for the defense of the Rancheria River, comprised of Guajiran community members, and national and international NGO representatives, the economic myth was manifest.  La Guajira is Colombia’s poorest province, 34 years after Cerrejón’s arrival.  In visiting three of the dozens of communities displaced by Cerrejón, the mine’s claim to social responsibility was questionable at best.

In Patilla, multiple families remain in the dust-polluted town in the shadow of a massive mountain made of mining waste.  Cerrejón claims that Patilla is its most successful relocation case, boasting a video on its website of an inaugural party at “New” Patilla, the urban resettlement where Patilla residents were relocated.  Not featured in the video are the dozens of families that Cerrejón did not relocate on grounds that they were Patilla natives, but not residents.   As a result of the job precariousness that the mine imposed on the once agricultural economy, many Patilla natives moved part-time into town to find work or facilitate easier commutes to their kids’ schools.  Cerrejón refuses to compensate them for their homes or include them in rights to relocation.  To pressure the “resisters” to sell, Cerrejón has cut off their electricity for weeks at a time and been late in sending potable water supply to the community (the Rancheria River, once suitable for human consumption, cannot be used even for cattle due to mining pollutant content).

Further down the road, eight families remain in Roche, once the area’s densely populated social capital.  In its rush to relocate residents to New Roche, Cerrejón fueled disputes in the community, offering financial rewards for the families who were willing to leave Roche the quickest and delegitimizing the community leaders who advocated for resistance or slower-paced negotiations.  In April 2012, Cerrejón filed for the Colombian State to expropriate the remaining Roche families, a process that may occur in early October without Cerrejón having made a good-faith effort to work through tenuous points in the negotiation.

Three Inhabitants of Roche are unable to span the circumference of a Caracoli tree found along the Rancheria’s river banks.  Cerrejon’s expansion threatens the over two-hundred- year presence of local Afro Colombian communities as well as ancient flora and fauna.
As a Wayuu Indigenous community, Provincial strongly opposes the rerouting of the Rancheria River. They have begun an internal reflection process to preclude the prior consultation process that Cerrejón, required by ILO 169 and Colombian law, would have to carry out before exploring the project.  Cerrejón president Roberto Junguito told local press that an expansion project indicating the detouring of the Rancheria hasn’t been officially presented, making the communities’ call for debate and consultation on the topic an unnecessary controversy.    

Children in the Provincial Reservation perform a traditional Wayuu dance representing an edible cactus flower found in their territory.

However, according to independent news outlet La Silla Vacia, the Ministry of the Interior- the entity responsible for oversight of prior consultation- confirmed that Cerrejón solicited the formal initiation of the prior consultation process on November 29, 2010 and December 7, 2010. Prior consultation is not to be confused with prior consent; Cerrejón has been widely criticized by communities and NGOs alike for misrepresenting information regarding damages in the consultation process and, as with the case of the Rancheria River, not consulting with communities before advancing legal exploration processes with the Colombian government.  

The collective experience of just these few communities is enough to give legitimate claim to their campaign’s simple slogan, “Cerrejón lies.”

 Bathing in the Rancheria, running my hands along the riverbed and turning up baseball-size pieces of coal, I had to agree.  Walking through the woods and finding half- hidden pipes that spew black coal processing water into the river, I had to agree.  Cerrejon’s ridiculous claim that rerouting the river would not cause further harm to communities is a shameless lie, or, at best, a deranged dismissal of the dizzying damage this mine has already caused to suffering communities over the course of three decades.

150 delegates representing local, national, and international communities traversed the Rancheria River over five days to document the environmental characteristics of Guajira’s most important water source.

This is a case of nimbyism where there is no possible benefit to the locals.  100% of Cerrejón coal is exported, including to the U.S market.  What Guajirans stand to lose from the rerouting of the Rancheria River is not just a view, but the last vital life source sustaining them in the face of forced displacement.      

Join the Witness for Peace Colombia team in their current investigative project to find out where Cerrejón coal is being imported to in the U.S.  Write to get involved.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

GM Workers Enter 4th Week on Hunger Strike with Growing International Support

By Austin Robles
WFP Colombia

Dozens of people protested in front of GM's headquarters in Detroit last week, outraged at the company's treatment of its Colombian workers. In Bogotá, 2,700 miles away, a small group of Colombian men were touched by their actions. "They've changed my perception of what I thought Americans were like," one of them told me. “They’ve never met us but they’re doing so much for us.”

Witness for Peace Colombia Team fasting in solidarity with Asotrecol   

I met Jorge my second week in Colombia. I went to meet officials at the U.S. Embassy and immediately noticed a make-shift camp outside the main entrance. Living there are 13 men who belong to the Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of General Motors Colmotores (Asotrecol), and they just commemorated their protest’s anniversary.

A welder at General Motors’ South American subsidiary, Colmotores, Jorge performed manual labor at the plant until he was disabled. He underwent three surgeries and now walks with a cane in his hand and several screws in his spine. GM fired him when he could no longer work due to his workplace injuries, and paid him no medical benefits or severance.

In conversations about Jorge’s case with people in the United States, I sometimes hear that I can’t expect the same standards here that would be applied stateside. The issue in Jorge’s case is that GM didn’t even meet Colombian legal standards. The Ministry of Labor had to review workers’ medical records to ensure they incurred no workplace injuries. The Inspector on some Asotrecol members’ cases was convicted for falsifying records and has a warrant out for his arrest. Colpatria, Jorge's professional risk insurance provider, was also fined for illegally changing his medical records to reflect "common" rather than "occupational" injuries. Sadly, the falsified records do not get nullified automatically, and cases do not get reversed due to corrupt oversight, so Jorge and others in his situation have not received justice.

After one year without any sign of a resolution from GM, Jorge decided to sew his mouth shut and go on hunger strike until his case is resolved. Minutes before he put six stitches in his lips, Jorge 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.”

The hardest part of working on Jorge’s case has been fighting for social justice against a U.S. corporation. In every country I’ve lived or traveled, locals have almost always differentiated between the U.S. people’s good nature, U.S. companies’ greed, and the U.S. government’s indifference.

It is sad to have to differentiate between U.S. entities when our ideals and behavior should be based on justice uniformly. Colombians shouldn’t have to react with surprise when people in the States stand up against injustice, even when it’s for someone we’ve never met. GM should be ashamed not just for violating Colombian law, but for not setting a standard that could improve labor conditions in Colombia. The U.S. government, which bailed out GM with $50 billion and remains one of its largest shareholders, should also be ashamed for not holding GM accountable for human rights abuses. Companies and governments are the institutions with the power to make the most noticeable impact abroad, but, in this case, have fallen far short of improving human rights conditions.

I have gone to see Jorge almost every day since he stopped eating. He no longer has the energy or optimism he used to boast, and he is worried GM will let him die before settling his small claim. Across the United States, people are starting to take notice of this case. In over 20 states, they fasted or held protests in solidarity with Jorge and Asotrecol this past Wednesday. They will hold more this Friday, not just in the U.S., but also in Brazil, Canada, and Germany.

As Jorge enters his 4th week on hunger strike, I hope that GM soon corrects its error in this case, and that it one day realizes that it can be a force for positive global change.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Labor Action Plan Monitoring Report

This is a Labor Action Plan Monitoring report done by Witness for Peace delegates and International Team this past July. It includes the on-the-ground labor reality for Colombian workers now that the Free Trade Agreement between Colombia and the U.S. has been implemented. The report includes specific recommendations and case studies  for U.S. officials, policymakers and civil society to track where labor law is not complied with and bring about effective change set out by U.S. and Colombian labor accords.

Labor Reality in Colombia

Continued Violations of the Colombian Action Plan Related to Labor Rights:
Witness For Peace July 2012 Delegation Report
August 1, 2012
The purpose of this report is to convey the findings and recommendations of the Witness for Peace delegation that conducted an independent investigation of labor rights in Colombia from July 20-30, 2012. Our ten-person delegation was comprised of two full-time Witness for Peace staff living in Colombia and eight delegates from the United States including trade unionists, educators, activists, and NGO workers. This delegation specifically aimed to assess the implementation of the Labor Action Plan now that the U.S. – Colombia Free Trade Agreement is in effect. Through meeting with affected groups and advocacy organizations, we found multiple and egregious violations of the plan in the areas of Cooperatives, Collective Pacts, and Violence and Impunity, as well as a lack of response to the troubling consequences of the FTA for women in Colombia. As the United States is now complicit in these labor rights violations, we ask that the U.S. Embassy do everything in its power to act on this information to remedy the continued violations of the Labor Action Plan.
I. Cooperatives
The Colombian Action Plan Related to Labor Rights intended to prohibit the misuse of subcontracting by cooperatives and temporary service agencies. Witness for Peace July 2012 delegation has found that they have been replaced by new and just as prevalent forms of intermediary employment and third party contracting. The Labor Action Plan identifies the port sector as a priority. Buenaventura illustrates the egregious labor violations of this plan. Our visit to the port provided clear examples of noncompliance with the Labor Action Plan through a variety of methods:

New forms of subcontracting
A Simplified Stock Association (SAS) is a new form of subcontracting agency that has replaced cooperatives. The port of Buenaventura and Sociedad Portuaria is especially dramatic in this regard with over 700 intermediary companies such as Simplified Stock Associations.
·        Compania Servicios Portuario Esapecializada (CSPE) is one of many SAS operated by the pro-managerial union Sintramaritimo. More and more of these “unions” are adopting subcontracting mechanisms as a means of skirting around the cooperatives. CSPE is an important example that limits workers’ rights by preventing direct contracts with corporate employers which would provide direct accountability and stability. Workers employed through CSPE have been denied their legitimate benefits and job security through their employment by a third party contractor.
·        The cooperative Coowinpropa reinvented itself as a SAS named Artica. Then it transformed itself once more into another SAS called Ecpe. However, the owner remained the same in all three forms. This not only prevented direct contracts, but it also imposed temporary employment.
Conditions on Direct Contracts
The most common demand by port workers is a direct contract relationship with the corporations.
·        Often direct contracts place conditions on workers; most commonly workers are forced to agree to not join or to withdraw from the Union Portuaria (otherwise known as a “yellow dog contract”). TECSA, in addition to employing workers through intermediaries, enforced the condition that workers not be represented by the Union Portuaria in its direct contracts with workers. Intermodal S.A.S. required that workers not be represented by the Union Portuaria and demanded that workers withdraw their complaints from the Labor Ministry. Prodeco offered workers direct contracts only if they withdrew from the union and kept their contracts secret.

Expansion of Precarious Work
According to the Labor Action Plan, temporary work arrangements are not to be used to undermine labor rights.
Workers with Intermodal S.A.S. report that even when they receive a direct contract, the duration rarely exceeds 4-6 months. These short term contracts enable a high turnover of workforce and maintain low wages, poor working conditions, meager benefits and the inability to accumulate seniority.  
The Labor Action Plan requires direct contracts and steady work for “permanent core functions.”  However, workers report that the short contracts and new intermediaries are eroding job security even in areas of core function of the port.
Proliferation of Competing Unions
The creation of competing unions undermines workers’ collective bargaining rights. Many of these unions have only a small number of members and receive preferential treatment from companies. In Buenaventura, for example, Sintramaritimo, is described by workers as a “sindicato patronal,” because it collaborates with the company to undermine negotiations. It also received resources from the mayor’s office for rent in the amount of 1,500,000 pesos.
As pointed out by the previous Witness for Peace delegation in February, there is an ongoing problem with inspections.
Even though the Colombian government complied with the hiring of additional inspectors, they are not trained adequately to identify these new forms of subcontracting.  When fines are imposed they are inadequate in amount (a 56 million peso limit), they can be appealed interminably, and they do not deter corporations from repeat violations.  For large multinationals the fines are not a deterrent and for smaller companies it justifies bankruptcy and leads to reincorporation without improvement of labor conditions for workers.
In fact, of the 91 fines imposed, no fines nor any criminal sanction for anti-union violence have been carried out.  (See the list of imposed fines attached.)
Under Section III Part B, the “strategy of offering to waive fines wholly or in part when the employer agrees to create and maintain a direct employment relationship” allows the companies to get away with their violations.
In requests for clarification of Decree 2025, the Labor Ministry has exempted the very forms of labor outsourcing that are meant to be prevented by the Labor Action Plan.
Additional Concerns
We have serious additional concerns about the labor and human rights conditions at the port and in Buenaventura:
·        Ongoing death threats against union leaders
·        Blatant racism by employers of Afro-Colombian workers
·        Lack of social investment by the port companies in the community
·        The increase in sexual violence against women and child prostitution
·        Advocate for broader language and clearer interpretation of labor law to include all forms of third party subcontracting and outsourcing 
·        Train more labor inspectors to ensure frequency of inspection, monitoring, and follow-up
·        Promote compliance through the application of fines and criminal penalties since no fines nor any criminal sanction for anti union violence have been carried out.
·        Secure the increase in direct employment relationships without conditions that undermine “the right to organize and bargain collectively”
·        Protect threatened unionists and issue an immediate embassy denunciation of any act of violence against workers

II.  Collective Pacts
Another key issue undermining freedom of association in Colombia is the continued use of collective pacts and the lack of enforcement to prevent such pacts.
As you are aware, Section V of the Labor Action Plan provides for reforming the Criminal Code of Colombia to criminalize collective pacts that are used to undermine the right to organize. In addition, the Labor Action Plan says that the Ministry of Social Protections, now the Labor Ministry, “will implement a robust enforcement regime . . . to detect and prosecute violations.” Unfortunately, these provisions of the Labor Action Plan on collective pacts are not being fulfilled.
In collective pacts, workers are offered short-term benefits and improved working conditions in exchange for renouncing their right to join an independent labor union, effectively removing their right to organize and allowing the company to dictate all conditions of employment. Without an independent labor union to represent workers’ interests, workers cannot effectively defend their rights and enjoy full protections of the labor code.
General Motors Colombia is one company that continues to use collective pacts to the detriment of labor rights. Since 2003, GM Colombia has signed a collective pact with workers every two years, with the last one signed in January of 2012. At the signing this year, GM workers were incentivized with money to sign the pact, which explicitly prohibits them from joining an independent union. Workers were told that their continued employment was dependent on signing the pact, so in fact they had no choice but to accept the imposed conditions. The individuals who ostensibly represented the workers were not elected and instead were appointed by GM management.
The lack of independent labor representation for GM workers has exacerbated conflicts between workers and management and left many workers subject to illegal firings. For example, workers have documented systemic patterns of illegal terminations due to workplace injuries, including debilitating conditions requiring major surgery that limit mobility and employment options for workers. Company practices included the sharing of medical records from the company clinic doctors with management, who then fired workers based on this confidential information.
Both General Motors Colombia and the Ministry of Labor were complicit in the illegal firing of injured workers. In the last year, worker complaints prompted the Labor Ministry and the Procuraduría to investigate these firings and concluded that GM had violated labor law. In a follow-up investigation, workers’ medical records disappeared from company files, and the Procuraduría was not present as required by law.  Moreover, the labor inspector who signed off on the firings, as well as the GM lawyer, have been sanctioned by the Attorney General for their illegal actions.
These illegal firings led to the formation in May 2011 of the Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of General Motors Colombia (ASOTRECOL). The founder of this organization, Jorge Parra, was fired two months later in retaliation for exercising his right to freedom of association. Without effective union representation, these workers have taken their grievances to the public by protesting in front of the U.S. Embassy. These workers are seeking reinstatement to jobs appropriate to their physical abilities; the right to form a labor union; and pensions for those workers too ill to resume employment based on their workplace injuries.
The continued existence of collective pacts and the systemic failure to prosecute labor violations indicates that the Labor Action Plan has not been implemented in full as required by U.S. Congress with the passage of the Colombian Free Trade Agreement. As concerned U.S. citizens who are closely monitoring the labor and human situation in Colombia, we request the U.S. Embassy to take the following actions:
§      Investigate the collective pact signed by General Motors with its workers that undermines their rights to organize

§      Press the Colombian government to prosecute those illegal actions under the new criminal code implemented as part of the Labor Action Plan

§      Resume discussions with ASOTRECOL and assist in the resolution of the labor conflict between GM and these illegally fired workers by advocating for the reinstatement of these workers, pensions for those with disabilities that prevent their employment, and the formation of an independent labor union

§      Work with the Colombian government to ensure the “robust enforcement” required by the Labor Action Plan Section V is carried out
III.  Violence Against Trade Unionists, Impunity for Offenders
            Colombia is known for having the highest rate of violence against trade union members and labor activists. While we believe that the initiatives included in the Labor Action Plan, such as broadening the definition of who is covered in the Colombian government’s protection program and the implementation of criminal justice reforms are a step in the right direction, we are still extremely concerned with the levels of impunity, violence and threats within the labor sector. In spite of the intended additions of 95 judicial police investigators and 480 new labor inspectors, there are abundant cases of union-related violence, threats, and other forms of intimidation towards union leaders.
            Even after both the Colombian and United States governments signed the Labor Action Plan in April 2011, labor leaders have been victims of over 500 death threats and 29 assassinations. One such case is that of Daniel Aguirre, the Secretary General and founder of SINALCORTEROS. Mr. Aguirre was assassinated on April 27, 2012 and to this date no justice has been served. Immediate action is necessary to solve this case and bring justice to the perpetrators since Mr. Aguirre is the first union leader to be killed since President Obama declared implementation of the free trade agreement.
            Other assassinations this year include that of Mauricio Redondo of USO, who was killed along with his wife on January 17 in Puerto Asis, Putumayo, and Alexander Gonzales Blandon of SINTRAENTEDDIMCCOL who was murdered on January 19, 2012 in Bugalagrande, Valle del Cauca. In 2011, the death of SINALTRAINAL member John Fredy Carmona, whose body was discovered on December 9 in Medellin, and the paramilitary attack of SINALTRAINAL Executive Committee Member Juan Carlos Galvis on November 9 have not been sufficiently investigated.
            We are concerned that these deaths will only be further additions to the backlog of cases that have perpetuated impunity in Colombian society. Such cases include Luciano Romero of SINALTRAINAL, who was stabbed to death in 2005. In fact, in SINALTRAINAL’s thirty years of existence, 24 union members have been killed, 2 disappeared, 14 imprisoned, 80 death threats received, 49 forcibly displaced, 6 exiled, and several attacked. These acts of violence against unionists are met with widespread impunity: of the 2,886 trade unionists murdered since 1986 less than 10 percent have led to a conviction. The impunity rate remains intolerable even for violence that has occurred after the passage of the Labor Action Plan.
            The continued persecution of trade unionists and labor activists is further amplified considering the fact that only 3.9% of the Colombian workforce is unionized. Death threats are another method used by re-armed paramilitary units, who in some cases cooperate with multinationals, to inculcate fear among union leaders and labor activists. The very same week that the FTA went into effect, the following labor union leaders and their families’ received death threats:
·        Jhon Jairo Castro of Union Portuaria (Port Workers’ Union)
·        Johnnson Torres Ortis of SINALCORTEROS
·        Rene Morales Silva of SINTRAINAGRO
This year, leaders of SINTRAEMCALI were threatened by the paramilitary group the Black Eagles. SINTRAINAGRO has received 13 death threats and union member Henry Diaz was disappeared.  
            Given the alarming rates of persistent threats and acts of violence, we have noticed that the implementations of the protection programs and judicial reforms delineated in the Labor Action Plan have not been achieved.  It is imperative that the Colombian government, with the support of the United States, ensures their compliance with the specific programs and initiatives outlined in the Labor Action Plan.

IV.  The Omission of Women's Voices in the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement
The concerns of Colombian women were not taken into consideration with the development and passage of the FTA, either through a government study or listening to the case of the women's movement.  Without the inclusion of specific protections for women, the FTA cannot stand as a just document.  The obligation to reduce discrimination against women is present in the Colombian Constitution as well as various international humanitarian agreements, but is absent from the FTA.  Discrimination based on gender is rampant in Colombia, and has worsened during the past five years of free trade negotiation.  According to a 2007 NGO report, the salary gap between men and women holding the same position was 14.28%.  According to the women's division of the Central Unitario de Trabajadores (CUT), the rate has doubled to 28.9% today.  Additionally, the increased economic inequality and instability caused by the FTA forces more people (especially women) to work in the precarious informal sector, without healthcare, contracts, or protection from the Labor Action Plan.
The major concerns held by women of the Sabana of Bogota during their First Popular Women's Assembly surrounded threats to the environment and the local economy. The government does not monitor the flower industry's water or soil pollution, or hold companies responsible for these negative externalities.  The displacement of food crops for monoculture and flower production has decreased agricultural job opportunities, and created precarious employment where wages are suddenly lowered or hours reduced.  Despite being hailed as one of the most unionized industries in Colombia, due to the prevalence of sindicatos patronales which are headed by the company,  the union Untraflores is alone in truly seeking to protect workers’ rights.   Furthermore, cheap agricultural imports have destroyed women's capacity to compete with their own micro-economic agricultural enterprises. 
The women most disproportionately affected by the FTA are indigenous and Afro-Colombian, as well as poor campesina women in rural areas, because of displacement by armed groups or multinational economic interests. Colombia has the highest rate of displacement in the world, and many indigenous communities are on the verge of extinction.  According to a leading indigenous organization in Cauca, more than 6,000 people have been displaced in their region this year alone.  Community leaders are concerned that this generation of children has only known violence, and child recruitment continues to be a serious problem. The ethnic rights of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities protected by the International Labor Organization (ILO) decrees were ignored by the parties who approved the FTA without consulting either community.  
Mary Bellman
Bethany Carson
Amanda Ciafone
Kate Dillon
Jessica Hayssen
Omar Martinez
Ruth Needleman`
Robert Winslow
Carlos Cruz, Witness For Peace International Team
Jessica Weinstein, Witness for Peace International Team

Friday, August 3, 2012

Fired GM Workers Commemorate Protest’s Anniversary with Hunger Strike

By Austin Robles
WFP Colombia

ASOTRECOL on strike for 365 days, since August 1st

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.

Carlos Ernesto Trujillo Rojas
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.”

Workers from GM Colombia dying of hunger with their lips sewn shut.

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