US trade union federation AFL-CIO last Saturday condemned the Bush administration for seeking a free trade deal with Colombia, the most dangerous country in the world for trade union members.
The AFL-CIO said there should be no trade deal with Colombia ‘until the violence stops’.
The AFL-CIO said: ‘Over the past 22 years, more than 2,500 union members have been murdered and another 6,500 have been threatened, attacked, kidnapped, tortured or harassed in the South American state.
‘Despite a promise by Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe to crack down on violence, not one of the killers of trade unionists has been arrested.
‘Yet the Bush administration is rushing to pass a trade deal with Colombia before the November elections.’
There should be no trade deal with Colombia until the violence stops, says Luciano Sanín, director general of Colombia’s Escuela National Sindical or National Labour College.
Speaking last Wednesday at a forum sponsored by the Global Policy Network (GPN), a programme of the Economic Policy Institute, Sanín said the violence will continue as long as it benefits the multinational corporations and their powerful political allies.
Giving big business and Uribe a trade deal in this atmosphere of violence will only embolden them and cause more harm to workers, he added.
The Escuela Sindical is recognised as having the most reliable statistics on trade union violence in Colombia.
Earlier this month, an AFL-CIO delegation of union leaders travelled to Colombia where they met with Uribe and told him the US union movement cannot support the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement until real progress is made to protect the lives and rights of trade union members.
AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Emerita Linda Chavez-Thompson, Communications Workers of America (CWA) President Larry Cohen and United Steelworkers (USW) counsel Dan Kovalik found Colombia’s unionists still operate in a climate of fear in the country, where 40 trade unionists were murdered in 2007.
In meetings with Colombia’s trade unionists, they also ascertained the government has systematically undermined union members’ rights while exerting little effort to address the murders of Colombian trade unionists, despite some new government initiatives.
Chavez-Thompson said: ‘Despite the Colombian and United States governments’ assertions to the contrary, there has been too little real progress in ending the brutality that trade unionists face in Colombia.
‘In 2008 alone, five trade unionists have been murdered – almost one per week.’
Colombian workers are not murdered at random, says Sanin.
They are killed in a deliberate effort to destroy unions.
Violence is directed against new unions in the process of forming and against existing unions to stop them from gaining benefits for workers.
Sanín added: ‘The government needs to make a greater effort to investigate the murders.
‘The current policy has done little to help the situation.
‘This is a genocide being perpetrated on the trade union movement.’
He cited the example of the union representing African palm workers.
In the 1990s, there were 3,000 members in the union.
Today, there are 500 in an industry that employs 8,000.
In the past decade, 27 leaders of that union have been killed.
Conditions in the industry are so bad, Sanín said, that 4,500 non-union workers are out on strike demanding a contract.
In the 2,554 murder cases since 1986, only 82 cases, about three per cent, have been solved.
However, in almost all of these cases, the perpetrator of the crime, not the intellectual author, is punished, meaning that those responsible for the decision to commit the murders are still free.
In several cases, paramilitaries have also baselessly claimed that they killed unionists not for their trade union activity but because they were guerrillas.
In such cases, the victims’ family, under the law, cannot be compensated for their deaths.
The violence benefits multinationals especially, Sanín says, because it allows them to operate without interference from a union.
He pointed out that more than 700 members of the union representing banana workers have been killed by paramilitary groups.
Chiquita Brands International, a leading banana company, was forced to pay fines to the US Justice Department for paying as much as $15 million to Colombian thugs to ‘protect’ their plantations.
Although stopping the violence is important, Sanín says opposition to the US Colombia trade agreement should also focus on the almost total suppression of the rights to organise and bargain collectively.
In a country of 18 million workers, only 800,000 are in unions and those in the public sector have nearly no rights to collective bargaining.
According to 2005-2006 Labour Ministry statistics only 99,336 workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements, less than one per cent of the economically active population.
Sanín says only union workers with an agreement can manage to live above the poverty line.
Tony Avirgan of the Global Policy Network (GPN) said the US-Colombia deal is a ‘bad idea’.
It is not a step forward.
These trade agreements are much more about giving rights to multinational corporations.
They should be called ‘corporate rights agreements’.