Company Begins Mediation with Injured Workers’ Union — in 13th Month of Protest, Workers had Sewn their own Mouths Shut
Aug. 24, 2012 – For the past 24 days, thirteen fired, disabled workers from General Motor’s Colombian auto assembly plant conducted a hunger strike outside the U.S. embassy in Bogotá, Colombia. They shocked the world with pictures of them sewing their own mouths closed to demonstrate their intent to carry out the strike to the death.
For the past 385 days, the protesting workers conducted a tent occupation in front of the U.S. embassy, demanding the U.S. government enforce workers’ rights that are supposedly guaranteed by the Free-Trade Agreement between the U.S. and Colombia. Finally, on Aug. 23, GM agreed to accept an international mediator and engage in negotiations, no doubt due to international popular pressure. The workers suspended their hunger strike as part of the agreement to negotiate.
The protesting workers, and many more, had been fired after suffering work-related injuries and disabilities, for which each was summarily dismissed with no compensation, no medical care, and no prospects for future employment anywhere. Some were fired two or three years ago, and still have received nothing from the company.
They are members of a new union of workers and former workers who were injured in the Colombia plant. They also seek recognition for their union, the Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of General Motors Colombia, called ASOTRECOL (https://web.archive.org/web/20120922221918/http://www.asotrecol.com/. Due to heavy work and hazardous working conditions, injuries are common in the plant. Their labor contract provides for workers injured on the job to receive compensation, but instead they are routinely fired—on the grounds that they can’t do the work because of their injury! As is common in Colombia, the government created the official union in the plant and told the workers to join it. Corruption is rampant, as it is elsewhere. Two years ago in a similar protest, the president of the oil workers union went on hunger strike for three months.
The workers seek back pay, medical care, and re-training for another position at the plant. To date, all they have received are threats and harassment. Last week someone threw gasoline on their tent, and the embassy turned off their electricity for four days.
The agreement for mediation came on the eve of demonstrations planned for Aug. 24th in New York, Detroit (GM headquarters), Bogota, São Paulo, and Hanover. The demonstrations were organized by labor unions, students, and other activists.
At the supporters’ picket at the Colombian consulate in the heart of New York today, we called on the Colombian government to aid the workers’ struggle. When we confronted the Consul, however, she would only say, “We’ll look into it.”
The flyer we distributed to passers-by read, in part:
“By ignoring ASOTRECOL’s demands for justice, General Motors and the U.S. and Colombian governments perpetuate the violent conditions that make Colombia the most dangerous country in the world for labor organizers. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) documented 29 trade unions murders, 10 attempted murders, and 342 death threats in 2011. Private security firms have harassed and surveilled ASOTRECOL. Will Colombia’s protesting workers be heard?”