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Colombian Trade Unions: A Target for Intimidation and Assassination

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Luis Adolfo Cardona worked as a forklift operator at an American-owned bottling company that packages 50,000 cases of Coca-Cola’s famous fizzy beverages a month. On an unassuming morning, Cardona narrowly escaped death when right-wing paramilitary troops attempted to kill him. Unfortunately, not all labor union activists are so lucky. Isídro Segundo Gil, the gatekeeper and the union’s chief negotiator at another Coca-Cola bottling plant in the small, rural town of Carepa, Colombia, was gunned down by a band of paramilitary insurgents on December 5, 1996. After shooting Gil ten times, the armed men sped away from the premises on motorcycles. Not even a few hours had passed before the militants were back. They attempted to kidnap another union leader, who just barely got away, and then set fire to the union’s offices later that night. The armed group returned a week later. The workers were then gathered in the cafeteria and given an ultimatum—either quit or be killed.

For most of its modern existence, Colombia has struggled with internal violence, most recently in the form of human rights abuses and brutality against organized trade union groups carried out by paramilitary and insurgent armies. This group in particular has been subjected to a disproportionate amount of violence. In the past twenty years, over 2,000 activists have been gunned down, making labor activists and trade union members likely the most targeted group of civilians in the country.

Perils Facing Colombian Labor
Labor unions within Colombia are a fairly new phenomenon, as the creation of such organizations did not gain a good deal of momentum until well into the late 20th century. Typically, labor groups tend to be based in urban areas, with private and/or public sector workers organizing in the pursuit of mutual interests and benefits. However, such groups tend to be highly fragmented as a lack of political unity keeps them from effectively coming together to further their interests. While union factions may have similar goals, their political and economic ideologies, as well as their methodologies, may differ. Therefore, each group could find itself advocating for their interests alone, resulting in a politically polarized and fragmented organization, which contributes to their structurally unsound nature.

Characteristically, Colombia has often experienced a significant divide between labor unions, the government, and the political elite that governs the country. By not yet fully accrediting the potentially important political and economic importance of labor unions, the government has failed to advocate “the creation, organization, legitimatization, and strengthening of the nation’s labor unions.” While the law supports union organizing at the most basic plant level, it does not encourage the organization of workers into inter-plant industrial unions. Industrial-wide strikes are therefore impossible. Thus, binding arbitration, which requires an outside and non-affiliated party to come to an agreement between the unionist and management, is used in order to seek a solution for problems between workers and their employers.

Problems Affecting Trade Union Activists
There are many legal stipulations contained by Colombia’s labor laws, which more often than not lead to unsatisfying results for plant laborers. Fringe benefits are a common resolution when workers organize for better working conditions. Usually utilized by company leaders to evade further union activity and to offer workers a false sense of appeasement, these marginal benefits compensate for the lack of a substantial salary increase as part of contract negotiations at the plant-level.

Other problems also illustrate the general ineffectiveness of collective bargaining in Colombia. Groups usually lack the necessary level of senior management required to initiate change, a result of their small size and lack of similar structure. Local plant management lacks professional qualifications, which would enable them to organize workers and regulate with employers. Rather, they possess strong, authoritative personalities, creating a highly divided working environment. Such circumstances ignite intense internal battles and breed an environment that is not conducive to positive labor or managed leadership skills.

The privatization of public service companies has also stirred up considerable activity among trade unions. Groups campaigning in support of the poor tend to resist the evolution of large-scale industries, typically financed by foreign corporations, as the process tends to then lead to the exploitation of the communities’ workers and resources. Workers’ rights are often lost in translation and the companies who employ them often exploit their labor. Any labor agitation in support of workers’ rights is usually thwarted by the corporation’s use of violence and threats, reports Amnesty International (AI). This violence against trade union workers prevents the effective practice of freedom of association.

Violence Against Trade Union Activists
Since the mid 1980s when Colombian labor unions began to form, over 3,800 union leaders and activists have been murdered. Most of these deaths are linked to right-wing paramilitary groups and U.S. corporations based in Colombia, and have grave implications for effects in favor of social justice and workers’ rights in the country. Violence in Colombia extends far beyond the immediate circle of trade union activists and represents a larger, much more complex problem for Colombia that affects a wide swath of the population. The relentless bloodshed undermines Colombian culture and impinges upon the lives of community leaders, human rights activists, and advocates for social change.

A report by the ILO released in March 2002 indicates that the Colombian government essentially has been non-responsive to the deliberate violations against trade union activists. The government refutes this statement, arguing that the violations of trade union activists’ rights are a direct consequence of the armed conflict ravaging the country, and only five to ten percent of the murders actually have resulted from union activities. While the government claims that such killings actually have decreased since light has been shed on the indiscretions, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) reports that in fact, murders have increased by approximately 30 percent during that time period. This represents the discrepancy between various independent organizations, such as the AI and ILO, which have consistently condemned government negligence and the Colombian government’s repeated denials. AI, in July 2007, reported that in more than 90 percent of cases, those responsible have not been brought to justice.

American Corporations Play A Deadly Hand
American corporations based in Colombia play a deadly hand in the violence against trade union activists. Companies are attracted to Colombia due to its profitability: features such as cheap labor, an abundance of resources, low taxes, few labor restrictions, ample corporate freedom and accessibility to the world market. Throughout the years, the Colombian government has appealed to foreign investors in hopes that the investments they pump into the Colombian economy will help boost economic development and progress. The hope is that increased investor confidence attracts more foreign investors, thus accelerating development. As a result, the United States has become the largest foreign investor in Colombia. In 2008 alone, American companies invested $10 billion in the South American nation. Global corporations see a strategic potential in Colombia, as it offers resources and labor, as well as a competitive advantage against other countries.

“As more global companies are lured by lucrative returns in Colombia, labor and human rights advocates fear a growing corporate presence will cause increased violence in a country that already is home to the murder capital of the world.” One of the most appealing aspects of capital infrastructure in Colombia is the cheap and effective labor force. Companies are able to hire an abundance of workers at low wages and can get away with undermining workers’ benefits and conditions, targeting their vulnerability. Unfortunately, Colombians have few job choices and are forced to rely on such subpar labor opportunities, submitting themselves to be exploited and taken advantage of by large private foreign corporations. This creates a strained and, often times, a dangerous relationship between labor and management.

Occidental Petroleum Company, one of the largest American-based energy companies in Colombia, capitalized on their business venture in Colombia when they acquired Caño Limón, Colombia’s second largest oil field, in 1983. The oil and gas company quickly set out to create a successful enterprise, hire an effective labor force, and enjoy the subsequent profits. Not a priority for Occidental, however, was a comfortable and safe working environment for its laborers. Often targeted by paramilitary troops due to its lucrative role in the energy industry, Occidental’s employees risk their lives simply by showing up to work every day, frequently caught in the war between rebels and the military. In the past, the company’s employees have been attacked, kidnapped and even murdered by paramilitary groups. Despite this, Occidental has made it clear to their employees that the company will not protect them with increased security or liberate them by paying ransom in the event that workers are kidnapped.

The social irresponsibility displayed by Occidental Petroleum goes beyond simply ignoring workers’ pleas for increased safety on the job site. The energy company specifically employs laborers from distant cities to work in areas that are particularly heavy with paramilitary action, assuming that they are less likely to be informed about the dangers. While Occidental is careful not to divulge their security information to all employees, paramilitary troops have been successful at breaching the corporation’s security on multiple occasions. In April 2001, rebels from the National Liberation Army (ELN) exploded a car bomb outside of the company’s Colombian headquarters in Bogotá, badly damaging the building.

Quite possibly one of the most devastating assaults against trade union activists involved the Coca-Cola Company, which was allegedly complicit in paying for paramilitary executions of several union leaders attempting to organize for workers’ rights at its bottling plants in Colombia. As a result, the company faced a recent lawsuit for failing to act against threats from paramilitary death squads, thus allegedly bearing responsibility for the incidents under both U.S. and state law. Refuting this, Coca-Cola claimed to have no connection to the paramilitary squads or to the resulting violence that occurred at the bottling plants. However, Terry Collingsworth, Chief Attorney for the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), states that “there is no question that Coke knew about and directly benefited from the systematic repression of trade union rights at its bottling plants in Colombia, and that the case being pressed by U.S. labor will make the company fully accountable.” Coca-Cola denied its participation and shifted blame to two allegedly independently owned Colombian bottling companies, Panamco Colombia and Bebidas y Alimentos de Uraba.

The Role of Paramilitary Death Squads
Unfortunately, the illicit activity of paramilitary death squads has become a staple of Colombian culture. At times, these groups are said to act on behalf of larger corporations and influential landowners, undermining the integrity of efforts aimed at union organization and violently challenging their motives. While paramilitary troops are responsible for most of the killings of trade unionists, security forces and guerrilla cadres can also be held accountable for some of the violence against labor activists. The Colombia Commission of Jurists attributes 80 percent of cases resulting from attacks against trade unionists to be a direct result of felonious assaults by paramilitaries, with five percent connected to the government and 15 percent to left-wing guerillas. The considerably high percentage of paramilitaries involved in the violent attack against trade union activists is not a coincidence. Roberto Molino of the Colombian Commission of Jurists explains that, “in the case of the paramilitaries, you cannot underestimate the collaboration of government forces.”

The Colombian Government and Paramilitary Death Squads
When the International Monetary Fund (IMF) pushed to restructure the Colombian economy, the country’s labor force suffered immensely. Pressure to make budget cuts in order to decrease public sector spending and pay debt to foreign banks and lending institutions resulted in mass terminations. These social changes provoked a strong, negative reaction from labor unions. As a result, the government began to regard union activity as a threat to its pro-active, non union-friendly economic policies.
The demobilization process of the AUC that gained momentum in 2003 was supposed to break down large paramilitary groups in order to bring more peace and security to Colombia. After this process was over, President Uribe insisted that paramilitaries were nonexistent in Colombia and that the “peace process” had been a success. However, the UN reports that since the demobilization process has begun, over 150 new groups have formed and others remobilized. With this renewal of activity, there have been a multitude of human rights violations against social and civic organizations, including but not limited to, murders, forced displacement, threats, harassment, imposition of norms and conducts, limitations of mobility, enforced recruitment into paramilitary operating bands and the labeling and stigmatization of members of social organizations. Often this has posed a direct and violent threat to one’s right to freedom of opinion, expression and association. The Colombian government also granted a wide range of impunities for crimes committed by the death squads in return for guilty pleas. This perpetual lack of justice or nominal confessions sends the message to trade union activists and paramilitary members alike that their deadly assaults can be conducted without punishment.

Reactions and Backlashes

Leo Gerard, President of the United Steelworkers of America (USW) states, “union rights are human rights and our union will fight to protect them everywhere. We demand that the Colombian government protect all unionists in their country and do everything in its power to bring these assassins to justice.” Labor activists, like Gerard, in both Colombia and the U.S. continue to speak out against the human rights atrocities and the Colombian government. Because of the reckless behavior and insufficient control demonstrated by the Colombian government over the role of paramilitary forces and the collusive relationship that has formed between them and American corporations, many labor activists believe that decisive action is needed to fully halt the injustices against trade union activists that may abate but never seem to end. By addressing the problems negatively affecting labor unions and setting an effective foundation for creating and sustaining appropriate labor rights, the Colombian government will be better able to provide support for its working class.

It is far easier to say rather than to do. Upholding rights, such as those to unionize, collectively bargain, and strike for workers will help equalize the labor field and ensure that workers’ rights and conditions are properly maintained. Before changes can be made to the structure guaranteeing labor rights, action needs to be taken against those who are responsible for such violations against trade union activists, which would have a positive effect, and take the first step towards ameliorating the ongoing human rights crisis in Colombia.