Life as a Trade Unionist in Colombia

Being a trade unionist in Colombia has become a high-risk occupation and trade unionists frequently have to pay with their own lives. Figures from last year show how critical the situation has become.

Last year, 77 per cent of Colombian workers earned less than two minimum salaries while the family shopping basket cost 2.4 minimum salaries. 153 trade unionists were assassinated, 72 more were reported disappeared and around 10,000 live under the threat of death.

The year 2001 closed on a very negative note, especially for Colombian workers who found themselves under attack from many fronts and saw their stability, security and right to dignified work being snatched away. There was also a serious intensification in the violation of trade union rights.

The situation for workers and the Colombian trade union movement has had a common denominator over the last two years and that has been unemployment. Figures supplied by the CUT (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores–Central Workers Union) and DANE (Departamento Administrativo Nacional de Estadistica–National Statistics Bureau) reveal the highest levels of unemployment in the history of Colombia, with unemployment increasing from 11.9 per cent in 1996 to 19.7 per cent in 2000.

For the year 2001 the figure has hovered between 18.7 per cent and 20 per cent of the economically fully active population. This translates as meaning that a large number of people are not actually included in the statistics. Figures for underemployment in 2001 stood at 34 per cent and the number of people working in the informal sector topped 62 per cent.

As a consequence of increasing unemployment, the level of poverty has also increased and there has been a deterioration in the distribution of wealth. Evidence of this is shown in shocking statistics which reveal that the number of people living in poverty has increased from 20 million in 1996 to almost 23 million in 2001.

According to figures produced by the National Planning Board, 77 per cent of workers earn less than two minimum salaries and the family shopping basket costs more than 2.4 minimum salaries. This means that thousands of Colombians are not receiving adequate nutrition, many have had to take their children out of education and hundreds more families have no access to health care.

Trade Unions Under Attack

80 per cent of the workers dismissed in 2001 belonged to a trade union The percentage of workers affiliating to trade unions, according to the CUT, has declined from 8 per cent in 1998 to around 5.5 per cent in 2001. This situation is attributed to the fact that people’s right of association is violated, there are massive dismissals of trade union affiliated workers, ‘voluntary’ redundancy agreements, company liquidations, extermination campaigns against trade unions, assassinations, persecution, death threats and attacks on trade union leaders, etc.

Between 1991 and 2001, more than 195 trade union organisations were dissolved and in the same period of time, more than 356 trade unions went into recess. In other words, today there are 100,061 trade union members and 541 trade union organisations fewer than in years prior to 1991.

In 1990 a law was passed which introduced substantial reforms into the labour market in order, it was said, to generate employment. These reforms included reducing labour costs and making labour more flexible.

Paradoxically, the law actually increased unemployment, the economic conditions of workers deteriorated, their job security was undermined with dismissal a constant threat and they saw the foundations of a maquila system of labour being laid. Suddenly changes were being made to the working day and the working week, job security was disappearing, the trade union movement was being weakened and salaries were being reduced in real terms.

Law 100, passed in 1993, introduced the privatisation of the health service which brought with it a deterioration in public health as the network of state hospitals disappeared. Today there are 600 public health establishments that are financially bankrupt and cannot honour their obligations to the people, and in particular to the workers.

Solidarity and Human Rights

In 2001 violations of human rights increased with the implementation of policies which eroded people’s fundamental rights.

The mining workers denounced that the new Mining Code was not only damaging to workers in this sector but also opened the doors to the deadly curse of paramilitarism, as they were forced into a position of having to fight for their rights. The same situation happened with the teachers who recently opposed law 012 which reduced government funding to municipalities and as a consequence reduced the amount of money available for the education and health sectors. Their opposition to this law increased the number of assassinations of members of the teachers and health workers’ unions.

The government did not take seriously the very grave human rights situation affecting trade unionists in Colombia and did not make any real commitment to fight against paramilitaries who are responsible for the vast majority of the assassinations of trade union leaders. Indeed the participation of the state in certain of these crimes has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, not least in the case of the attempt on the life of Fenaltralse union leader, Wilson Borja, to mention but one incidence.

As for trade union activity, the year 2001 was exemplary, in that tremendous efforts were made to create unity and strengthen the struggle. The case of Funtrammetal and Fedepetrol is a good example. These federations united under the new name of Funtraenergetico and the new organisation includes oil workers, miners, metallurgists, electricians, metal workers and car construction workers. Over the year and while this unification process was underway, 11 of their members were assassinated.

Likewise, the end of 2001 saw the unification of ATT and Sittelecom which became the Sindicato Unico de Trabajadores de las Communicaciones and brought renewed strength to the struggle to defend the the country’s telecommunications industries.

The year saw a number of strikes and stoppages, such as the 71 day strike at Bavaria, the Red Cross strike and the 10-day strike by the workers at Drummond. The oil workers’ union (USO), and the teachers’ union (FECODE) also organised various strikes and stoppages over the year. There was also the badly hit National Agrarian Strike.

In spite of all the human rights violations of all kinds perpetrated against workers and their trade union organisations through the year, which resulted in 153 trade union leaders assassinated, 72 disappeared, 27 who very nearly died after being attacked with firearms and 10,000 who were threatened, workers and their union have remained steadfast in the defence of their rights and have not lost heart even knowing that they are risking their lives.

Being a trade unionist has become a high-risk occupation and trade unionists frequently have to pay with their own lives.

SARA CIFUENTES ORTIZ writes for Voz. (Translation courtesy of the Colombia Peace Association)