Colombian GM Workers on Hunger Strike Until Death Sew Their Mouths Shut
Asotrecol informs the international community that last night, after starting a
dialogue, we reached an accord to implement mediation under the
FEDERAL MEDIATION AND CONCILIATION SERVICE OF THE UNITED
STATES (FMCS). General Motors Corporation thereby offered us its help in
justly resolving our demands with the FMCS acting as Mediator since they
now seriously recognize the need to resolve this problem.
We are now bound by a pact to end our hunger strike and call upon our
allies to suspend all actions at GM facilities or residences of their executives
during this mediation.
We call upon you to remain attentive to the process. It is very important to
clarify that this compromise was achieved thanks principally to your
collaboration and solidarity with our struggle. It is a clear demonstration of
unity and conviction in just fights, and we are very grateful to be able to count
on your support.
Receive from us our biggest appreciation and admiration for the love you
have shown us, and we hope, from our hearts, that this Mediation comes to a
happy and just ending. We ask you to remain aware of the process. Thank
NOAH GIMBEL: At the headquarters of General Motors in Detroit, Michigan, a group of solidarity activists held a demonstration to bring attention to the plight of GM workers in Colombia.
A group of Colombian auto-workers recently began a hunger strike to the death, some even sewing their lips together. As they near the end of their third week without solid food, GM, the company that fired them, has yet to respond.
Hundreds of workers from GMâ€™s Colmotores plant have been fired after suffering serious injuries on the job without compensation, without healthcare and without pensions.
In 2011 Some 68 of those workers formed ASOTRECOL â€“ the Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of General Motors Colombia â€“ in order to collectively voice their grievances to GM management and seek remuneration for their workplace injuries and unlawful dismissals.
And they did so at great personal risk â€“ Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for labor organizers. According to the Colombiaâ€™s National Labor School, 218 unionists have been murdered over the last five years with dozens more attempted murders and thousands of death threats.
In August of 2011, when GM refused to negotiate with ASOTRECOL, a number of its members began living in tents outside the U.S. Embassy. With the $50 billion bailout of the auto giant in 2009, the U.S. government bought a controlling stake in the company, which has since subsided to a 26% share of ownership.
To mark the one-year anniversary of their struggle to get GM to the negotiating table, a group of 13 ASOTRECOL workers began a hunger strike to the death. Seven of them have sewn their mouths shut.
The Real News spoke with the founder and president of ASOTRECOL, Jorge Parra Andrade, who was among the first to sew his mouth shut in protest. Heâ€™s been on hunger strike for over two weeks.
PARRA: We organized this association legally, according to the norms in Colombia, and we began to carry out a series of coordinated actions where we denounced not only the violations GM committed against us, but also the corruption that exists in our government, with the ministry of labor, which permits these violations, which permits multinationals do whatever they want with workers in Colombia, without any limits.
GIMBEL: Thanks in part to the massive lobbying efforts of U.S. multinational corporations, the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement passed in Congress last year, and went into effect in May of 2012. Jess Hunter-Bowman is Associate Director of Witness for Peace, a human rights group advocating for Colombian workersâ€™ rights both on the ground and in the U.S.
HUNTER-BOWMAN: On the labor situation specifically, weâ€™re basically giving Colombia a free pass on this. Colombiaâ€™s the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists, thatâ€™s not the only problem there. Thereâ€™s serious problems around companies being able to go around direct contracts with workers through what they call worker cooperatives. And when we approve a FTA with a country like Colombia, weâ€™re basically saying that these labor standards that you have in place, that you are working under, are satisfactory to us. And it creates limitations for workers in terms of their ability to put pressure on both the Colombian gov. and the U.S gov. so with this already passed, theyâ€™ve lost some of their leverage.
The FTA and the Labor Action Plan that was signed along with it suggests that theyâ€™re gonna put some mechanisms in place by re-establishing the Ministry of Labor, by increasing the protection offered to trade unionists under threat, increasing the number of prosecutors, but these are simply bureaucratic steps that we believe, and our partners in Colombia believe, are not really gonna change the environment.
And you can see that in the fact that thus far this year there have already been 7 trade unionists killed in Colombia.
GIMBEL: Still, the U.S. Embassy has avoided making any statements on the firings at the GM plant.
PARRA: All I was guilty of, thanks to the confidence of my partners, was try to fight for justice, to fight for recognition of our rights as workers â€“ for that I was fired. Others were fired totally differently â€“ simply when the production of cars slows, they fire us. And unfortunately, the plantâ€™s medical center was only there to detect when workers got sick so they could fire the sick workers.
And this is very common among the workers of GM â€“ from what we have gathered, more than 200 workers have been affected by this situation.
GIMBEL: Despite a year of peaceful protest at the Embassy and legal battles with the support of international labor and human rights organizations, GM still refused to meet with the workers, claiming they were lying about having been injured on the job. In desperation, the hunger strike began.
PARRA: Our petition to GM has always been clear. We ask that they recognize our injuries for what they are â€“ injuries suffered on the job, injuries caused by General Motors. We ask that they cover our healthcare â€“ since we were fired by GM, we havenâ€™t been able to get any medical attention because we donâ€™t have any money to pay for the costs. Moreover, we ask that GM reintegrate us into the workforce, with workmanâ€™s compensation, in positions that we can work in spite of our injuries.
We donâ€™t think weâ€™re asking anything out of the ordinary. Simply the opportunity to defend ourselves in a just environment where we will be guaranteed impartiality. We want the opportunity to get a face-to-face with GM to expose the situation.
GIMBEL: The fasting workers have begun to suffer the effects of their hunger strike, as well as infections in the sutures that seal their lips, but they hold out hope that their demands will be met.
PARRA: For the first time, after many years, we have called attention to the workersâ€™ struggle.
Itâ€™s very sad that weâ€™ve had to make such sacrifices, sewing our lips and going hungry, but the struggle has brought us to this point and we need to keep it up until the end. We are disposed and prepared, and if necessary, we will die in our hunger strike if GM doesnâ€™t respond to this situation.
GIMBEL: Meanwhile, more and more solidarity activists call attention to the situation in Colombia as the workers from ASOTRECOL wait for a response.
For the Real News, Iâ€™m Noah Gimbel in Washington.