Global Policy Forum

General Motors' Hunger Games

The September hunger strikes by the workers of the General Motors subsidiary Colmotores brings the issue of labor rights in Colombia back to the table. The workers claim that they were not dismissed due to declining productivity, but in fact because “they were injured on the job and deemed no longer useful.” Worker abuse is common in Colombia. It leads the world in anti-union violence, with over 3000 trade union activists assassinated since 1986, with no recourse to justice due to weak political will and judicial mechanisms. Despite its questionable labor and human rights reputation, the US has implemented a Free Trade Agreement with Colombia promising there will be reforms, but there is no real change in the situation on the ground so far.

By Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli and Adam Schaffer

September 10, 2012

“Hasta la muerte! “To the death,” chanted 12 hunger strikers outside the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá, Colombia. General Motors subsidiary Colmotores had fired the workers a year ago, claiming they were dismissed because of declining productivity. In truth, they were injured on the job and deemed no longer useful. On August 1, they sewed their mouths shut in protest.

On August 6, Colmotores briefly sat down to negotiations with the workers, who formed the Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of General Motors Colombia (ASOTRECOL), but ended up walking out later the same day. Protests in the United States and Colombia soon sprouted—Martin Sheen and Noam Chomsky have been among the more well-known public defenders of the GM workers. Under mounting public pressure, Colmotores agreed to negotiations facilitated by the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service on August 23.

The talks, however, did not result in GM rehiring the workers or compensating them for lost wages. After three and a half days of mediation, the talks were broken off last Friday. The hunger strike and U.S. protests have begun anew, and what happens next is anyone’s guess. 

Amid Colombia’s decades-long internal armed conflict, abuse of workers’ rights has been common, and even though violence has subsided somewhat of late, Colombia currently still leads the world in anti-union violence. Since 1986, some 3,000 trade unionists have been assassinated in the country. Even more alarming is that due to lack of political will and weak judicial institutions, less than 10 percent of murders result in convictions.

Despite the violence, in 2006 the United States and Colombian governments and economic sectors began intensively lobbying for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Although House Democratic leaders put the FTA on hold due to labor and human-rights concerns, once Obama took office, the FTA moved forward. To assuage concerns among members of Congress, trade unions, and human-rights activists over Colombia’s deplorable labor-rights record, President Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced the U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan, which outlined commitments by the two nations to address several key labor concerns, including the protection of workers under threat and investigations of prior attacks. 

Obama announced in April at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena that the Labor Action Plan’s recommendations had been met, and that it was finally time to implement the FTA, which had passed through Congress in October 2011. The changes Obama applauded in Cartagena, however, bear little resemblance to the actual labor situation on the ground.

Within two weeks of Obama’s announcement, Daniel Aguirre, a key sugarcane union leader who had worked to implement the Labor Action Plan, was killed in front of his home in Valle del Cauca, Colombia. Aguirre’s tragic death was no isolated incident; 34 trade unionists have been murdered—and 566 have received death threats—since the Labor Action Plan was signed in 2011. The Labor Action Plan’s reforms have yet to be effectively implemented.

The GM case is a reminder of Colombia’s precarious standing on the labor front, and the dangers of large-scale foreign investment in a country experiencing internal armed conflict and serious security obstacles. GM is but one of a long list of employers—from the sugar and palm oil industries to shipping and mining—refusing to recognize Colombian workers’ basic rights. Despite promises of a new era of labor protections, the rights of working people are in danger of weakening further. With the new FTA, trade liberalization promoting big business has vastly outpaced Colombian authorities’ reforms to protect workers.

Today, many of Colombia’s workers are still hoping the United States will hold true to the commitments made in the Labor Action Plan. The fact that the workers from ASOTRECOL brought GM to the negotiating table shows that civil society, labor, and government pressure on GM can force recognition of these rights, but the failure to reach a fair settlement in August shows pressure may need to continue. This moment will be decisive for GM, and Colombia. If Presidents Obama and Santos keep their promises and push GM to respect its workers, a country long defined by labor violence will at last see an example of security, justice, and fair working conditions.


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