TUC passes unanimous motion condemning anti-trade union violence in Colombia

In response to the shocking recent rise in violence against Colombian trade unionists, Britain’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) has passed a unanimous motion expressing support for Colombia’s trade union movement and the country’s struggling peace process.

At its annual conference in Brighton, held over 8-11 September, the TUC resolved to continue lobbying the British government to pressure its Colombian counterpart to fully implement the 2016 peace agreement as the most effective means of tackling violence against trade unionists and other social activists. It also called on all TUC member unions to support the work of Justice for Colombia (JFC), the TUC’s official campaign to support trade unionism, human rights and peace in Colombia.

Moving the motion, Dave Todd, vice-chair of the POA prison officers trade union, highlighted recent findings by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) that ‘Colombia accounted for almost two-thirds of worldwide trade unionist murders in 2018, with 34 out of 53 documented cases committed there’. This was in addition to thousands of trade unionists murdered in Colombia in the last three decades, he said.

The motion also backed Colombia’s exclusion from the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD) due to the country’s appalling labour rights record and the ongoing repression of trade unionism. In 2018, the OECD, which is formed of more than thirty of the world’s richest countries, invited Colombia to join its membership despite the sharp rise in killings of trade unionists, which the motion cited as a major factor in Colombia’s longstanding status as one of the world’s worst countries for overall labour conditions.

The motion was seconded by the ASLEF train drivers’ union and supported by a number of others. ASLEF General Secretary Mick Whelan, who as chair of JFC has visited Colombia to observe the human rights situation, said that state failures to fully implement the agreement had contributed to the political instability affecting many parts of Colombia. Violence has been particularly concentrated in regions where paramilitary and other armed groups have sought to occupy territories vacated by the FARC’s reformation as a political party.

James Allen of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) asked TUC delegates to imagine themselves in the shoes of Colombian trade unionists. ‘I don’t have days where there are threats to me and threats to my family. I’m not thinking that my trade union colleagues are being threatened, beaten or murdered, worrying that it could be me next’, he said.

The Colombian agricultural trade union FENSUAGRO has been particularly impacted by violence, said Tom Murphy of Unite the Union, the largest trade union in Britain and Ireland. ‘Fensuagro have had over 30 members murdered since the peace process began, suffered attacks, threats and forced displacement by armed groups’, Mr Murphy said. Unite and FENSUAGRO have a formal partnership through the Workers Uniting international trade union.

The deputy general secretary of the NASUWT teacher union, Patrick Roach, said Colombian teachers faced higher levels of violence than in any other trade union sector. He highlighted recent threats sent to executive committee members of Colombia’s largest trade union, the FECODE teachers union, following long-running education strikes over underfunding and poor conditions. He also paid tribute to school principal Orlando Gómez, who last month was abducted from his workplace and killed in southern Colombia. ‘I know that Congress will join in condemning Orlando’s murder and send our condolences to Orlando’s family and to all our comrades in FECODE’, said Mr Roach.

Also in attendance as an international guest of the TUC Congress was Diogenes Orjuela, the president of Colombia’s TUC equivalent, the Central Unitary of Workers (CUT). Mr Orjuela spoke at a JFC fringe event on the right-wing policies of the Colombian government which have further eroded worker rights and on the importance of international support for the peace process. Mr Orjuela also met with several trade unions, as well as the TUC and ITUC, to discuss the most effective ways of consolidating and expanding British support for Colombian trade unionism.

Here is the full text of TUC ‘Motion 73: Justice for Colombia’:

Congress is outraged and deeply alarmed at recent findings by the International Trade Union Confederation on violence against trade unionists in Colombia. The ITUC says that Colombia accounted for almost two-thirds of worldwide trade unionist murders in 2018, with 34 out of 53 documented cases committed there.

These shocking figures are more than double Colombia’s tally of 15 murders the previous year, which even then made it the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. More than 3,000 trade unionists have been killed in Colombia in the last 30 years. 

Colombia is one of the worst countries in the world for general labour conditions, which is directly connected to violence against labour organising. Congress believes that ending this violence will not only save lives but will improve conditions for millions of working people.

Despite the escalation in murders of trade unionists, Colombia has been invited to join the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, formed of the world’s richest countries, even though its record clearly violates established standards on labour conditions.

Congress notes that the UN says that implementing the 2016 peace agreement is critical to tackling endemic violence in Colombia. More than 700 social activists, trade unionists and FARC former guerrillas have been murdered since the peace agreement was signed in November 2016.

Congress calls on the General Council to:

  1. Lobby the British government to pressure the Colombian government for full implementation of the peace agreement.
  2. Support Colombia’s exclusion from the OECD until it drastically cuts violence against trade unionists and other social activists and implements the agreement.
  3. Support the work of Justice for Colombia politically and financially and encourage all unions to affiliate at national, regional and branch level wherever possible.