Colombia: one of the terrible ten worst countries for workers’ rights
Colombia is the world’s capital for murders of unionists. Despite fitful progress in the ongoing peace process between the government and the FARC guerrillas, Colombia’s trade unionists are still in the line of fire, with 22 killed in the past 12 months alone. The figure would have been higher had two assassination attempts been successful from would-be assassins on motorbikes gunning for notable trade union leaders. Bystanders were not so lucky. Colombian workers also endure discrimination and having their collective bargaining undermined.
Rafael Rodriguez, branch treasurer of the Union Sindical Obrera (USO) and the union’s representative in the negotiations being held with the oil company Ecopetrol, was arrested on 21 July 2014, at Yariguies airport in the city of Barrancabermeja. Rafael Rodriguez explained that when going through airport security before taking the plane to Bogota, where he was going to take part in negotiations, a hand grenade was found in his hand luggage. He had no idea how the device found its way into his luggage. He claimed that it was placed in his luggage to frame him. Rafael Rodriguez had been the victim of an attack by hired assassins in 2013. Having failed to meet their objective on that occasion, this criminal ploy is another attempt to harm him and his reputation by trying to make him look like a criminal, to delegitimise his trade union work and to obstruct the progress of the collective bargaining process underway.
Violations of freedom of association: anti-union dismissals In December 2014, William de Jesus Munoz Zea and Lina Marcela Gonzalez Lopez, members of the trade union ASOTRAEMTELCO, representing workers at Emtelco S.A., applied for protection under the constitution after being dismissed by the company without due process. Protection was not granted and the union had to appeal against the dismissals through the ordinary channels.
On 29 June 2014, the SINTRATABLEMAC trade union was formed and on 1 July its president and several of its founding members were unfairly dismissed. The company, Tablemac MDF S.A.S., claimed it was unaware that a union had been formed. It was ruled that the dismissed workers were entitled to constitutional protection and should be reinstated.
In June 2014, an application for protection was filed against Sodimac Colombia S.A., on grounds of anti-union persecution, following the pressure placed on Juliana Ramirez after she joined the trade union SINTRASODIMAC.
Collective bargaining violations: In 2012, workers at Dimantec and Trateccol, companies subcontracted by Gecolsa, which is, in turn, a contractor for the mining multinational Drummond, formed a branch of the SINTRAIMEM union in Valledupar, as show in the registration filed with the Labour Ministry on 28 March 2012. On reaching the deadline set for the first collective bargaining agreement (2012 – 2013), the union presented its list of demands, in November 2013.
Negotiations were initiated but no agreement was reached. The union decided in a general meeting that arbitration would not take place and consequently decided to convene its members to vote on strike action. The list of demands had been presented to Trateccol and Dimantec, which were working for Gecolsa as subcontractors. Gecolsa went on to absorb Trateccol, prompting the union to withdraw its initial list of demands and to present it to Dimantec alone, so that the negotiations would be held with a single company. Dimantec responded by saying that the union’s action was “an abuse of the right” and used this argument to delay the start of collective bargaining throughout 2013. These incidents took place during 2013, and at the beginning of 2014 Dimantec arbitrarily decided that since no collective agreement was in place, the pay rise for the 2014/2015 period would not be the same for unionised and non-unionised workers. The pay rise for the former was set at 3.6% while the non-unionised employees would receive the 4.5% rise stipulated by the national government. This clear and open act of discrimination against unionised workers is a blatant violation of the most basic trade union and labour rights, as well as the right to “equal pay for work of equal value”.
Assassination attempts: Trade union leader Luis Alberto Plazas Velez was injured in an assassination attempt, thanks to the timely reaction of his bodyguard. Plazas Velez is a teacher, a member of the Sindicato Unico de Educadores de Bolivar, and has been the general secretary of CUT Bolivar for six years. He is also known for heading the drive to organise and mobilise Cartagena’s informal economy workers, grouped within UGTI Bolivar. The incident took place on 16 May 2014 in Cartagena. One of the hit men, who carried out the attack from a motorbike, was killed in the return fire, reportedly hit in the chest by a bullet fired by the bodyguard defending the trade union leader.
Jose Onofre Esquivel, vice president the Bugalagrande branch of Sinaltrainal, was the target of an attack by hit men on motorbikes on 17 June 2014 in Medellin. He was unharmed. The bodyguard assigned to protect the trade union leader returned fire, killing one of the attackers and injuring another one, who was detained. Two others managed to flee. A bus driver who happened to be passing by was shot in the leg.
Sadly, attacks continue on trade unionists. Justice for Colombia is a good source of news on the current situation.
The Terrible Ten:
At the ILO conference earlier this month, the International Trade Union Confederation launched its 2015 Global Rights Index, detailing the ten worst countries for workers’ rights abuses in the world, and reporting in detail violations in those and many more. Stronger Unions is profiling one of the terrible ten each day.