Bryan Nott - Article on Colombia in Labour Research

Justice For Colombia News | | credit: Labour Research on: Wednesday, 13 June 2012
Original source: Click here for original article

The appalling record of human rights abuses, particularly those against union activists, continues to make Colombia the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist, writes

By Bryan Nott.

Earlier this year, alongside MPs and trade unionists from Britain, I spent a week in one of South America’s largest countries. The trip was organised by the union-backed Justice for Colombia organisation which campaigns for workers’ rights and wider human rights in Colombia.

As I returned home from that troubled country, the question in my mind was not why trade union membership in Colombia was so low (a tiny 4%), but how it existed at all.

The statistics are plentiful and paint a compelling picture. In the past 20 years 3,000 trade unionists have been assassinated for their trade union activities. Of all trade unionists killed worldwide, three in five are Colombians. And 95%-98% of crimes against trade unionists are never prosecuted.

On the basis of assassination alone, Colombia earns the reputation as being the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist. But often a murder is preceded by death threats or stigmatisation – the latter involving public statements that a person is linked to terrorism or criminality which in itself encourages death threats. In Colombia, threats turn into reality with a depressing regularity.

Right wing paramilitary groups are responsible for much of the killing and intimidation, despite government claims that they have disbanded. Officials blame “criminal gangs” for the atrocities, which is not surprising given that one-third of elected senators in 2006 had been linked with paramilitary groups. Non-violent opposition to the state frequently results in a lengthy spell in jail.

Apparently, an entire wing of the prison in the capital city Bogota is housing politicians convicted under what has been described as the Para-Political scandal. This scandal has seen a number of politicians indicted on suspicion of colluding with the paramilitary group responsible for killing thousands of civilians.

Perhaps more worrying still is how some anti-trade union activity can be traced back to Colombian security forces. In the last few weeks a death threat sent to the son of an imprisoned human rights activist by e-mail came from an IP address linked to the Colombian police service.

When Juan Manuel Santos was elected president in 2010, he replaced one of the most hard-line regimes Colombia has known under president Alvaro Uribe. Santos has made much of his presidency representing a new era, one which is more acceptable to world opinion, and this sort of rhetoric has come on in leaps and bounds. However, at the time of writing, seven trade unionists have already been killed since the turn of the year.

A significant reason for the change in tone from the Colombian Government is doubtless the fact that the US and Canada have signed free trade agreements (FTA) with Colombia. The EU is currently preparing to follow suit. But Colombian trade unions strongly oppose the free trade agreements.

The country boasts a wealth of natural resources including oil, coal, gold and emeralds. Its size and location also enables a significant farming industry, yet almost half its population lives in poverty.

This is a society crying out for investment, evident when we visited the Putomayo region where a lack of roads prevents the movement of goods.

So why do trade unionists oppose a free trade agreement that might enable an inward flow of investment into these regions? There are two intertwined reasons. Firstly, it would endorse the Santos government and its poor approach to labour rights. Secondly, it would allow natural resources to be opened up to further exploitation by multinational companies with little or no regard to the rights of native Colombians.

Labour rights in Colombia are appalling. Of a working population of 18 million, 11 million (or 61%) work in the informal sector. Of the remaining seven million, only four million have a permanent employment contract – leaving three million on temporary or casual contracts.

Less than 1% of Colombian workers are covered by a collective bargaining agreement and there are significant restrictions on the right to strike.

Maintaining a casual workforce seriously hampers any union development. Many of those who do join a union face instant dismissal. Instead, some unions told us they were moving away from workplace organisation to organising in communities.

A non-unionised workforce is attractive to business, and some of the world’s largest brands seem to approve of this approach. In July 2008, an International Labour Organisation mission to Colombia visited a Coca Cola bottling plant in Bogota. Some 70% of the operating staff and 85% of the distribution staff did not have permanent employment contracts. Instead, they were employed through agencies or work co-operatives.

Drummond Coal, one of the most prominent multinational corporations in Colombia, used the fact they do not “employ” their workforce to seek to avoid responsibility for the death of 16 workers at mines across Colombia.

As a result of opposition to the FTA, America’s Obama administration promoted a Labour Action Plan that was signed by the Colombian Government in April 2011. This plan was designed to enable collective bargaining, improving state regulation of conditions, the right to organise and collectively bargain.

But the US has now declared that the conditions laid down by the plan have been met and have ratified the agreement – much to the dismay of trade unions and human rights advocates. This was a missed opportunity to consolidate and build upon modest gains.

The US is far and away Colombia's biggest trading partner. In 2005, 39% of Colombia's exports went to the US and 29% of imports were supplied from there. This could have been used as significant leverage to improve conditions for workers and ensure their rights are enforced. Instead, a change in rhetoric seems to be all that has been achieved.

The introduction of free trade agreements has also raised a number of environmental concerns. Until recently, Putumayo which we visited had 14 indigenous tribes inhabiting cultural homelands. There are now only two. The rest have joined the 10% of the Colombian population that is internally displaced. Such displacement is often violent and leaves people living in the most desperate poverty.

As suspected, the introduction of big business into areas such as Putumayo caused significant environmental damage. In 2008 the area was declared open to mining by the Colombian government which prompted the swift arrival of multinational corporations. The absence of proper regulation has meant that those corporations have been able to ride roughshod over the native population and the environment.

As you can see, the position of trade unionists and workers in Colombia is dire. Employees are hanging on to what they have rather than join the millions of Colombians who scrape along the bottom of society.

Those who have the urge to get organised and seek more equitable working conditions face the real threat of death. Although the prospect of the European Parliament rejecting the EU-Colombian FTA is slim, supporters of Colombian workers must not give up the fight.

Colombia itself has arrived at something of a turning point. It faces the reality of an internal war that has stretched over five decades, and a drugs trade that stretches over three. Neither the FARC guerrillas, engaged in a nearly five-decade attempt to overthrow the government, nor the government can win the conflict. Tackling issues of social injustice, labour rights and human rights will only come when peace has been achieved.

This year the FARC took a genuine step towards peace by releasing its remaining security service hostages and declaring an end to hostage-taking. There are many in the administration, particularly among the armed forces, who would like to see the conflict continue.

President Santos, who served as the defence minister under the last administration, has said that he has the keys to peace. Yet we were told by people we met in Colombia that he is keeping those keys in his pocket.

Justice for Colombia has organised a delegation from Colombia to attend cross- party receptions in Belfast, Dublin and London to meet those who were involved in the peace process in Northern Ireland.

A reciprocal visit may also take place. It is a small organisation that does an immense amount of good. The reporting of Colombia in the UK even in quarters that might be thought to be sympathetic is nothing short of woeful. Until the world truly knows of the situation of ordinary Colombians then the people will continue to suffer.

Bryan Nott is partner and legal director at Simpson Millar LLP

| top | back | home |
Share |