Irish Radio Covers Trade Union Rights in Colombia

Justice For Colombia News | on: Friday, 3 October 2008

In his continuing series of radio columns to mark the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Colm O'Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland addresses Article 23 of the declaration: "Everyone has the right to work for a fair wage in a safe environment and also has the right to join a trade union."

Text follows:

At eight o clock in the morning on the 8th of August last, while most of the world's attention was on the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, Luis Prada was walking to work. Luis worked in a clothes shop in the town of Saravena in the east of Colombia where he lived with his wife and five children.

As he neared his shop a man walked up to Luis and shot him 17 times in broad daylight before fleeing on a motorcycle with an accomplice.

Luis was the third member of his family to be assassinated. He had spent most of his life living under death threats, forced to move home on numerous occasions.

In the minds of his killers, Luis' crime was that he was a member of the Colombian Trade Union Federation.

Luz Maria Diaz Lopez was a teacher at a rural school in Putumayo. She was seven months pregnant when she and her colleague Emerson Ruales were shot dead as they made their way to work. Both victims were members of the local teacher's union.

Jose Martinez sold lottery tickets for a living. At ten o clock on the night of the 23rd of August he was shot dead by unknown gunmen. Jose was also President of the Colombian National Lottery Worker's Federation and a leading campaigner against proposals to privatise Colombia's national lottery.

He was the 38th trade union member to be assassinated in Colombia this year and the third in the month of August.

Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world to carry a union card.

Oscar Arango started working in a Coca-cola bottling plant in Carepa in 1984. It was a good job. The union had secured bonuses, overtime and health benefits for employees.

But in 1994 paramilitaries began to organise in the area. Backed by the Colombian security forces they have targeted human rights activists and trade union members with impunity.

Research carried out by Amnesty International indicates a co-ordinated strategy between the Colombia military and paramilitary death squads to undermine the work of trade unionists through assassination and intimidation.

The second Coca-Cola worker and union member to be killed at the Carepa plant was Oscar's brother, his body left by the side of the road. For two years Oscar and his colleagues were attacked and intimidated, their offices firebombed, their officials hunted through the streets of Carepa by paramilitaries.

In December 1996 when paramilitaries walked into the factory and murdered a union member at his place of work, it was the final straw. The next day the workers were all assembled at the plant and forced to sign letters resigning from the union.

Managers at the plant immediately imposed a pay cut with wages being reduced from around $400 a month to $130 a month, Colombia's minimum wage.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) puts the conviction rate for the murders of trade union members in Colombia at 1% and as Oscar puts it, "To be a trade unionist in Colombia is to walk with a gravestone on your back."

While Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world to be in a union, the right to be part of a trade union, to join with your co-workers to negotiate better wages and safer working conditions is one that is under threat around the world.

144 trade union activists were killed in 2006. Nearly 5,000 men and women were arrested for trade union activity with hundreds suffering beatings or torture. Almost ten thousand people lost their jobs for trying to organise.

In the mid-eighties 12 Dunnes Stores workers in Dublin's Henry Street went on strike for two and a half years. They refused to handle goods from Apartheid South Africa. Nelson Mandela later said that their stand helped keep him going during his imprisonment.

Trade union activists are human rights activists. They work to ensure that our right to a decent wage, to a safe and secure working environment, to be treated with respect by our employers are protected and enhanced. They often do so at great personal risk.

There is an old trade union slogan that declares an injury to one is an injury to all. It is as good a summation of the notion of human rights as I have heard.

Article twenty-three of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Everyone has the right to work for a fair wage in a safe environment and also has the right to join a trade union.

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