Colombian GM Workers on Hunger Strike Until Death Sew Their Mouths Shut
By Noah Gimbel, TRNN
The Real News Network
Thursday, Aug 23, 2012
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 GM’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 – the Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of General Motors Colombia – 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 – Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for labor organizers. According to the Colombia’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. He’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 workers’ rights both on the ground and in the U.S.
HUNTER-BOWMAN: On the labor situation specifically, we’re basically giving Colombia a free pass on this. Colombia’s the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists, that’s not the only problem there. There’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, we’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, they’ve lost some of their leverage.
The FTA and the Labor Action Plan that was signed along with it suggests that they’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 – for that I was fired. Others were fired totally differently – simply when the production of cars slows, they fire us. And unfortunately, the plant’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 – 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 – injuries suffered on the job, injuries caused by General Motors. We ask that they cover our healthcare – since we were fired by GM, we haven’t been able to get any medical attention because we don’t have any money to pay for the costs. Moreover, we ask that GM reintegrate us into the workforce, with workman’s compensation, in positions that we can work in spite of our injuries.
We don’t think we’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 workers’ struggle.
It’s very sad that we’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 doesn’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.
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