‘In Colombia Being A Trade Unionist Means Risking One’s Life’

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MYRIAM Luz Triana is the National Finance Secretary and head of women’s affairs at the Colombian General Workers’ Confederation, the CGT.

She tells the ITUC international trade union federation how, in spite of the anti-union violence, including many murders, the CGT manages to assist the least advantaged workers, such as young people and informal economy workers.

She says: ‘In Colombia, being a trade unionist means risking one’s life.

‘In any given year, up to 100 trade union activists can be killed in Colombia.

‘They often include CGT members. Some of them had received death threats before being killed. In most cases, they were shot dead on their way to work.

‘We try to protect the members most at risk by moving them from one town to another.

‘Around a dozen trade union leaders, including myself, have to be protected by armed guards when we go from one place to another.

‘It’s a great loss of freedom, but we keep up the fight because there has to be justice one day. The workers can change things through national and international solidarity.’

Myriam continues: ‘In most cases, we don’t know who killed them, or why they were killed, other than for being trade unionists.

‘In at least 12 cases, we know for sure that the paramilitaries were involved.

‘There is total impunity. The State doesn’t generally emerge as the guilty party but, although we cannot prove it, we know that it is indirectly involved.

‘In some cases, the murderers are guerrilleros, opponents of the State; opponents who do not share the same principles as trade unionists.

‘We file a complaint every time a trade unionist is murdered.

‘An investigation is opened and they promise to quickly find the guilty party, but the investigation never gives results.

‘The trade unionists that were murdered had families to support.

‘The government, companies and the general public may hold a minute of silence for them but they do nothing to help their families.

‘The CGT provides them with support: we find out about their children’s situation and try to help them to keep on studying; we provide help finding alternative accommodation if they have to leave their homes, and so on.

‘Behind every murder, there is a family in crisis.

‘Having said that, some families want nothing more to do with the unions: they say that their loved one was killed for being a trade unionist, and that we are also, therefore, partly to blame. They are afraid to meet up with us.’

Myriam continued to speak about the types of anti-union practices that are deployed in Colombia.

She says: ‘Although slightly fewer trade unionists are being murdered than in the past, different methods are now being used to eradicate trade unions.

‘In November 2006, for example, when the 4000 employees of a state TV channel tried to enter the workplace, they were stopped at the entrance by soldiers and police officers.

‘Three quarters of the employees were union members.

‘The workers were told that the company was no longer viable and was to be closed down.

‘Soon after, the TV station was privatised, its name was changed, and the only employees taken back on were those belonging to the group of 1000 people who were not union members.

‘Another example of such methods was seen at the Olympica supermarket.

‘The employers notified the 2000 unionised workers they must renounce their trade union membership and the collective agreement in writing.

‘We presume that this measure was taken because Olympica was set to be bought up by the multinational Carrefour, which we allege made its purchase conditional on the absence of a trade union.

‘The dispute has not yet been settled.

‘The trade union leaders have been offered large sums of money to end the union struggle, but only a small minority of them took the money.’

About the size of the union, Myriam had the following to say.

‘The CGT declares 700,000 members to the ITUC.

‘Only 35 per cent of them are women and the percentage of young people is even lower.

‘We set up a section for organising young people within the CGT in the year 2000.

‘We have adapted our rules so that young people can join the Confederation directly, without going through a federation.

‘In this way, they can benefit from the services offered by the CGT, such as a reduction in the cost of matriculating for university.

‘The CGT has agreements with three Colombian universities and our members receive a 5 to 10 per cent reduction in the matriculation fees.

We also carry out activities targeting young people, such as community-based social action days about health and preventing early pregnancies.

‘Many girls fall pregnant at the age of 14 or 15 in Colombia, so we organise awareness raising campaigns on the subject.

‘It is our young members who talk to these young people, because they understand each other better, they speak the same language.

‘When we come into contact with young unmarried girls who are pregnant or already have children, we offer to support them in the dialogue between them and their families, because these early pregnancies often create conflicts. We also offer them occupational training (information technology, etc), because they usually stop going to school.

Myriam concluded by talking about the relations between the CGT and workers in the ‘informal’ economy.

‘One of our main activities is to help casualised workers get better access to social security when they become members of the CGT.

‘Our members contact them in the street, distribute campaign material, etc. The first thing they have to do is to raise informal economy workers’ awareness of their right to social security, as most of them are not aware that social security exists or that they have a right to it.

‘The CGT then assists them in the process of registering for social security. helping them to contact the administration, filling in the forms. The union contributes a small amount to their social security fund, and they pay the rest.

‘The informal economy workers joining the CGT, like its other members, also have access to our legal services if they have a problem. We provide support, for example, to street vendors moved on by the police; offer help with sorting out identity papers; and provide legal advice on disputes that are not work-related.

‘We also offer them a variety of training opportunities, as is the case with the street mechanics or the women rural workers, who learn to work the land better and obtain better quality produce.

‘Thanks to the CGT, informal economy workers can also form cooperatives providing very useful services, such as taking care of funeral arrangements for people who have lost a loved one.’