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Colombia : Workers Rights = Human Rights

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Confronting Terror in Colombia with Trade Union Action

With 39 assassinations during 2007, Colombia remained the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. Although there were fewer murders there was a trend towards other forms of violence: the number of attempted killings doubled, there was an increase in the number of forced removals, illegal raids and arbitrary arrests, whilst the quantity of threats remained constant. It should be stressed that often the assassinations and death threats have targeted relatives, not just as a means of impeding trade union work but also as a way of restricting the number of violations registered as attacks on trade unionists. 76% of the violations were committed against workers in the local authority and personal service sectors and sub-sectors such as education and health. Although more than 30,000 paramilitaries have been "demobilised" in the last three years under a controversial government scheme, there is convincing evidence that they are continuing to threaten, assassinate and abduct trade unionists, sometimes with the collusion of the security forces. Although amendments were made to the Law on Justice and Peace, which governs this so-called "demobilisation", there is continued concern that it will extend the impunity.

According to The Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Colombia (CUT), the main Colombian trade union federation, these violations are a direct consequence of their trade union activity. They occurred at times when unionised workers are involved in resolving an industrial dispute or taking industrial action, when attempting to exercise their right to collective bargaining or to organise a union, or when peacefully and lawfully responding to the loss of their rights and benefits.

Colombian Security Forces, Paramilitaries and Guerrillas

For several years now, Colombia has been rated the world's most dangerous country. The entire country is in a state of civil war, with government forces, guerrillas and paramilitaries constantly clashing. This internal triangle - the guerrillas, i.e. the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), the paramilitaries, i.e. the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), and the public authorities, i.e. the government - is affecting all sectors of civil society, which is already hard-hit by poverty and destitution. In 2002, violence against trade unionists saw a marked increase in the cases attributed to the guerrilla organisations. Caught in the middle, trade unionists are often wrongly labelled as guerrillas by the three groups.

The security forces and their paramilitary allies have repeatedly labelled those campaigning for socio-economic rights as subversives. These accusations have been followed by serious human rights violations against trade unionists and members of other organisations campaigning for socio-economic rights. To this extent, the long-running conflict in Colombia between left-wing guerrilla groups and State forces has provided a cover under which powerful economic and political sectors further consolidate and defend economic interests.

Targeted Trade Unions

The violence perpetrated against trade union activists is preventing any effective exercise of freedom of association in Colombia. The new Government led by President Álvaro Uribe is pushing for labour reforms. These reforms threaten basic rights, such as the right to work, organise and collective bargaining.

Targeted are trade union leaders and activists in strong negotiating positions and those with the greatest power to exert public and political pressure on both the State and important economic sectors. Amongst trade unionists particularly targeted are public sector unions, trade union confederations including the CUT which co-ordinate national strikes and other union activity, and unions representing workers in strategic sectors of the country's economy including oil, mining and energy.

In the public sector, teachers and health workers account for approximately 70% of the assassinations. This may be because of their active role in the debate on fiscal adjustment policies and privatisations. The new Government's efforts to centralise power and establish law and order translate in practice as ever growing restrictions on rights and political freedoms.

Flagrant impunity

The reign of anti-union terror was carried out with virtual impunity. Despite evidence of involvement by paramilitary groups opposed to the Government and by groups closely associated with the Government, none of the murders during the year resulted in successful prosecution of the perpetrators. In addition, the Government is planning new legal restrictions further restricting organising and collective bargaining rights.Many of the problems faced by the Colombian trade union movement are shared the world over: attacks on wages and conditions, demands for 'flexibility', privatisation, and antagonism from anti-union employers. These agendas are driven by global concerns: world trade rules, movement of capital around the globe, the rise of multinational corporations and competition for cheaper labour.

Making a Difference

It is high time for the world to act. The crimes against human and trade unions rights in Colombia have to stop. The perpetrators, who kill and terrorise the trade unionists, have to be punished. The Colombian government must be pressurised to respect core labour standards and the UN declaration of human rights.
Therefore ICTU's Global Solidarity Committee has established the Irish branch of the trade union solidarity network "Justice For Colombia"
- To provide concrete support to trade unions and other civil society organisations in Colombia in their struggle for human and trade union rights
- To campaign against the systematic human rights abuses carried out against trade unionists and other civil society activists in Colombia.
- To insist that UN and ILO conventions and recommendations are implemented in Colombia in both law and practice.

Please

[email protected]

What you can do:

    
  • Address the issue within your trade union
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  • Affiliate to the Irish Branch of Justice For Colombia, contact the ICTU Global Solidarity officer.
  • 
  • Justice For Colombia - www.justiceforcolombia.org
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  • International Centre for Trade Union Rights www.ictur.org