Colombia: Obama’s Bloodiest Betrayal?

On November 9, 2011, the family of Juan Carlos Galvis – a prominent union leader with Sinaltrainal and personal friend of ours – was subjected to a violent home invasion by two presumed paramilitaries.  The intruders entered the Galvis home while Juan Carlos and his son were away and assaulted his wife, Mary, and his two daughters, Jackeline and Mayra.  They grabbed Mayra, a child with Downs Syndrome, and put a gun to her head, threatening to kill her if Mary did not tell them the whereabouts of Juan Carlos and his son.  They then bound and gagged Mary and Jackeline, again asking them to say where Juan Carlos and his son were. The assailants then proceeded to spray paint Mary and Juan’s faces on a wedding photo the family had posted on the wall. Before leaving the home, they stole two laptops, some USB memory drives, documents, and trashed the house. The traumatic attack left Mayra in shock for days and unable to speak.

The family was forced to flee to another town where they are now hiding. Their fears are well founded. Two of Juan Carlos’ Sinaltrainal colleagues, John Fredy Carmona Bermudez and Luis Medardo Prens Vallejo, were killed in recent months.

All in all, 30 unionists were killed in Colombia last year. The National Labor School (ENS) reports that 4 have already been killed this year, and other trade union movements have reported additional murders (e.g., Justice for Colombia has reported 6). Such killings have made Colombia, where around 3,000 unionists have been killed since 1986, the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist, and if the assassination rate this year continues as it has thus far, Colombia will most certainly retain this notorious distinction.

Meanwhile, the Colombian government has done nothing effective to prosecute those responsible for such anti-union violence, with the UN recently reporting that Colombia’s rate of impunity for such crimes remains at 95% – meaning that only 5% of the union killings have ever been successfully prosecuted.

It was these two factors – the unprecedented rate of union killings and the high rate of impunity for these killings – that led Barack Obama in 2008 to declare in his third debate with John McCain that he opposed the Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

While being a trade unionist in Colombia is dangerous, those that are unionists are the few that can more freely organize. Under the Alvaro Uribe Velez Administration the “associative labor cooperatives” (CTAs) model proliferated throughout Colombia. This union-busting model that precludes direct contracts between workers and companies gravely debilitates working conditions, salaries, and occupational safety protections. Workers have risked losing their meager livelihoods by holding stoppages to obtain direct contracts that are more likely to guarantee their basic labor rights.

In April 2011, Presidents Obama and Santos presented a Labor Action Plan designated to address anti-union violence, persecute union crimes, do away with labor intermediation, and improve conditions for workers in the port, sugar, oil palm, and other sectors. Since the LAP was signed, Colombia has played the game of appearing to comply with the LAP while at the same time undermining its purpose. It has met surface requirements like setting up the Labor Ministry, passing legislation, and fining abusive companies.

While the number of trade unionists killed has gone down (and of course, as Father Javier Giraldo opined some time ago, there are indeed many less unionists to kill), the security climate and death threats against them has not changed. This leaves the possibility that the number of murders and attacks could flare up once the FTA moves forward. The murder of trade unionists and labor activists is often spun to be unrelated to their labor rights activities—robbery, jealous lovers or links to narcotrafficking are the reasons used to whitewash the murders. For example, Hernan Dario, a lawyer who represented the largest public sector union in Valle del Cauca (Sintraemcali) and several labor activists in the sugarcane sector, was murdered. His name was subsequently dragged through the mud based on unsubstantiated allegations linking him to drug dealers. This tactic was utilized in order to create an environment of confusion and impede actions for justice in this case.

Last year, Colombia passed a law that supposedly banned CTAs, yet the reality is that this only restricts them by name since other forms of labor intermediation, including the Simplified Stock Companies, shell companies, and supposed “union contracts,” have replaced them. In the sugar and port sectors, leaders of work stoppages and those affiliated to trade unions are rarely rehired through these new contracts. The Ministry of Labor and the labor inspectors designated by the LAP are not effectively intervening to remedy these situations. Over 70 Afro-Colombian port workers in Turbo who attempted to form a union in October 2011 have been fired. Those workers were given an ultimatum—sign a letter stating they will not affiliate with a trade union or enjoy unemployment.

The Ministry is not even intervening to implement the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) recommendations as mandated by the Labor Action Plan. The case of 51 fired public sector workers of EMCALI is just one of many examples. Rather than implement the ILO’s March 2012 recommendations to rehire the workers, authorities proceeded to evict the workers who held a hunger strike in Cali last week. These victims of Colombia’s unjust labor practices, all of whom have been unemployed since 2004 since they were blacklisted for standing up for labor rights, are not even permitted to protest.

Some of the workers who would most benefit from effective implementation of the Labor Action Plan are Afro-Colombians. Most Afro-Colombian workers, who make up an estimated 25% of Colombia’s population and a disproportionate number of the country’s over 5.2 million internally displaced, work in sectors where labor rights standards are weakest. As such, many are not able to freely exercise their right to unionize, and if they try to do so face death threats or impoverishment. Many Afro-Colombian workers describe their situation as “modern day slavery.”

Afro-Colombian dockworkers in Buenaventura, a key port for the FTA, work in one of Colombia’s most abusive environments. In this port, Afro-Colombians come to work in hazardous conditions for 24 to 48 hours straight, often sleeping on the containers. The demanding environment obligates them to stay inside the port complex for an entire week without the possibility to return home. Healthcare is often reserved for the more privileged individuals working in offices, and workers who are hurt or disabled are often fired. Those attempting to organize are threatened or denied employment. It took a work stoppage in January 2012 for some of these workers to receive direct contracts. The majority of port workers continue to be employed through intermediaries, and those with the direct contracts have low salaries and are prohibited from unionizing. Only today, after months of pressure, has the Ministry of Labor opened up an investigation into some of these abuses.

Still, despite continued anti-union violence, the high rate of impunity, serious impediments to union organizing, and the dire conditions faced by workers, President Obama is now poised to announce at the Summit of the Americas that Colombia has complied with the Labor Action Plan. Working conditions and protection for trade unionists in Colombia do not reflect the U.S. government’s evaluation of the Labor Action Plan. If Obama goes ahead with his plans in Cartagena to green light the FTA, Colombian and U.S. workers will lose their last bit of leverage to stem the tide of anti-union violence and defend the rights of Colombia’s most vulnerable populations.

Daniel Kovalik is general counsel of the United Steelworkers. 

Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli and Anthony Dest work for the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)



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