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Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.
- Martin Luther King, Jr.



Campaign of Violence Against Colombian Trade Unionists


Billy Mitchell


Political and media commentators in Northern Ireland have been focusing on Colombia for all the wrong reasons. Discussions about what three Irish republicans were doing in FARC-territory fades into insignificance when one considers the worsening situation for trade unionists in that country – a country that has been dubbed the one of the most dangerous places to be a trade union activist.

Some six hundred members of SINTRAEMCALI, a sister union of UNISON in Colombia, have been occupying the municipal buildings of Cali in protest at the government's decision to privatise electricity, water and the telecommunications company, EMCALI. In a interview facilitated by UNISON, Luis Hernandez, Vice President of SINTRAMCALI, said, “For the past seven years we have been engaged in a struggle against capitalismo salvaje [savage or wild capitalism] being introduced into enterprises that generate perhaps $500 million a year. The workers, because of the world view we have – particularly from the Philippines, Argentina and Chile – have developed a strategy of bringing the community out onto the streets to prevent the privatisation of the services we all rely on”.

According to UNISON "The situation is very dangerous, with arrest warrants and death threats being made against protesters". Trade unionists and others are daily putting their lives at risk in an endeavour to establish a just and equitable society.

Public service employees in Colombia are denied the basic right to collective bargaining and those employed in the public sectors of banking, oil, transport, healthcare and domiciliary services are denied the right to take strike action. Workers who dare to take strike action cam be officially sacked and their union assets liquidated.

Freelance journalist, Mónica del Pilar Uribe, claims that:- Teachers, nurses, workers in the courts and public construction, particularly members affiliated to the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), are routinely the target of violent assault. In conflict zones, health workers are accused of collaborating with guerrillas if they give them medical attention. Some medical staff have been assassinated alongside their patients in ambulances; others have been attacked in emergency and intensive-care wards.

A longstanding campaign of violence has been directed against trade union activists . During 2000 some 112 trade unionists feel victim to extra-judicial executioners, while last year over 140 union leaders and activists were murdered. Two members of SINTRAEMCALI, Carlos Elicier Prado and Henry Jimenez Rodriguez, were amongst those murdered last year. Jesús González of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores, Office of Human Rights, claims that almost half his members have been intimidated at one time or another and that five hundred members have had to flee the country.

Last October, a report issued by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) In its October 2001 report on the violation of trade union rights, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) criticised the Colombian authorities for their failure to protect trade unionists and for hindering international efforts at sending a commission of inquiry to investigate the dramatically deteriorating situation. The Colombian authorities prefer to prosecute workers rather than uphold their basic human rights.

“We’re convinced that trade unions have to join hands with social movements, not just aim to improve workers’ conditions,” says Luis Hernandez. “In fact, we now focus primarily on social issues. This is why we always have the support of the community.”

If local politicians, among others, want something to be concerned about events in Colombia let them show some concern at the campaign of violence and violations of human rights directed against trade unionists. A motion of support from the Assembly for an international commission of inquiry into workers’ rights violations in Colombia would be a start.

[Billy Mitchell is a Branch Officer of the Greater Belfast Community Sector Branch of UNISON]





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