COLOMBIAN trade union leader, Huber Ballesteros, was finally able to address the TUC Congress in Brighton on Wednesday.
Weeks before he was due to fly from Colombia to Britain in 2013 and speak from the platform at Brighton, the strife-torn South American country’s most celebrated trade unionist and best-known opposition figure was arrested in a raid on the headquarters of CUT, the Colombian TUC, on criminally fabricated charges of rebellion and financially assisting terrorism.
In a sustained demonstration of workers’ unity, trade unionists from around the world campaigned for his release, led by TUC and Irish unions and Justice for Colombia. Regular union and political delegations went to see him in prison and put continuous pressure on government ministers in Bogota and London, while exasperated diplomats were harried until visibly exasperated with the persistence of his supporters.
He was finally released in January this year after an agonising 42 months behind bars, during which the regime even denied him proper treatment for diabetes. So for a persecuted activist never convicted of an offence Brighton was unfinished business, and an opportunity to express gratitude for the UK and Irish labour movements’ international solidarity.
Given a very warm welcome, he addressed this year’s Congress saying: ‘I have arrived to this conference four years late. I have had to spend three and a half years in prison for doing what all trade union or community leaders should be doing.I was defending the rights of workers, of the most unprotected and impoverished workers in my country.
‘Regaining my freedom so that I could continue once more my activities in the Colombian Trades Union Congress, the CUT, and in the National Agricultural Workers’ Federation, FENSUAGRO, was a difficult journey. But in this journey Justice for Colombia, the TUC, and all of its member unions played a decisive role.’
Thanking them for their solidarity, he continued: ‘Having now regained my freedom, I have found a country full of hope because of the peace deal signed between the FARC insurgency and the Colombian government.
‘It is an agreement which, in spite of the many problems faced so far in the implementation, has significant value in offering the Colombian people a unique possibility to make changes to the political system and the economic model, in favour of the least favoured sectors of society.
‘The transformative potential of the agreements has seen the far right mobilise in opposition. They have promised to rip it up. These sectors have gained financially form fear and war, from land theft and from murder. Those who are not in favour of peace, social justice and reconciliation want war, they continue to kill peasant leaders, trade unionists and human rights defenders.
‘Since the signing of the peace deal on the 24th November last year, 149 social and political activists have been killed. They act irrationally in Parliament, disrupting the passing of laws connected to the peace agreement which are needed for its actual implementation in Colombian communities. The peace agreement is today the most valuable asset of the Colombian people.’
He added: ‘The Colombian trade union movement and especially the Colombian Trade Union Congress, the CUT, are committed to the implementation of the peace agreement and at the same time we will continue fighting to defend the rights of workers.
‘Issues that continue to be our main concerns are: subcontracting and precarious employment, the murder of trade union leaders and trade unionists from different organisations and sectors – both from production and service industries, low wages, the proposed reform to the pension system, the high rate of unemployment, the growth in the informal economy as a means of hiding unemployment – there are eight million people in this situation, the high levels of corruption in all levels of public administration, etc.
‘At the CUT, we have worked in the international arena, particularly in the ILO, to pressure for Colombia to be included in the list of 25 countries where the worst labour and human rights violations take place.’
Ballesteros concluded: ‘I would like to reiterate my gratitude for this opportunity to speak to you all, for the work carried out in the campaign for my freedom. Consider my freedom as your victory. Before you all I reaffirm my commitment to continue fighting to defend the rights of workers and for the unity of the trade union movement across the world.’
Continuing in the international debates, Amarjite Singh, CWU, spoke up for Rohingya people in Myanmar. Referring to Section Five of the TUC Annual Report, he said: ‘There have been murders and killings.
‘People have been fleeing to Bangladesh. It’s not the richest country. Aung San Suu Kyi needs to come out and condemn what is being done by the military. The TUC should be in the forefront in putting pressure on the government and the UN to stop people being murdered, repressed and displaced.’
Sally Hunt, for the TUC General Council, said: ‘The TUC has a long history of campaigning for workers’ rights in Burma. We have repeated again that the struggle for democracy is foremost. The recent events are nothing short of genocide. We will take up with international unions, but also our own government. We must stop arming the very people who are killing the Rohingya.’
Earlier, Unite assistant general secretary Tony Burke demanded that Boeing ‘ends its corporate bullying’ and the UK government stands up for manufacturing jobs after the company lodged claims of ‘price dumping’ with the US Department of Commerce, in a case concerning Bombardier’s C series airliners.
If Boeing claims are upheld Bombardier could face punitive fines and this would place at risk thousands of jobs at the company’s Belfast factory and could threaten the sites very existence. Boeing’s claims are a result of Bombardier having benefited from state investment from Canada and from Invest NI, Northern Ireland’s economic development agency, all of which was lawful and legitimate.
Unite is demanding that the UK government urgently clarifies the legality of the state funding that Bombardier raised. Bombardier is the largest private sector employer in Northern Ireland. Tony Burke said: ‘What is needed is to end this corporate bullying by Boeing that is putting thousands of good jobs at risk.
‘Boeing’s attempts to link this public investment to the allegation of unfair competition are unsustainable; indeed, in the case of the sale of planes to Delta airlines which has been raised, Boeing did not even make a bid.
‘Unite is demanding the prime minister and the government stand up for the workforce in Northern Ireland and our aerospace industry and to stand up for decent jobs. She needs to tell president Trump, she will not stand by and watch Boeing threaten thousands of jobs.’
Delegates went on to vote unanimously for motion 75 Solidarity with all progressive forces and the Kurdish population of Turkey, moved by Unite. It stated: ‘Congress is appalled at the continuing repression and massive human rights abuses taking place at the hands of the Turkish government. It’s clear that since President Erdogan failed to achieve an electoral majority in the June 2015 election, his government has embarked on a war against the Kurdish population, criminalisation of opposition groups, closing down the free press and intimidation and threats against anyone who challenges his rule. The failed coup attempt has been used as an excuse to radically speed up this process.
‘Congress is further appalled at the international actions of the Turkish government. ‘Its actions in Syria demonstrate clearly it’s more intent on fighting the progressive Kurdish-led administration in Rojava rather than defeating so called Islamic State.
‘Congress calls on the Turkish government to:
‘i. Immediately end the state of emergency, restore all democratic and press freedoms and restart the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
‘ii. Release all political prisoners, including the imprisoned HDP leaders and members of parliament and jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan.
‘iii. Withdraw its forces from Syria, and stop attacking Kurdish-led forces.
‘iv. Immediately cease support and backing of Jihadi groups.
‘Congress calls on the UK government to maximise pressure on the Turkish government to comply with the actions listed above and calls on all unions to affiliate and support the work of the Peace in Kurdistan and Freedom for Ocalan campaigns. Congress calls on the TUC to organise a solidarity delegation to Turkey including a visit to the Kurdish areas.’