WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
12 Apr 2012 | Commentary | News

Obama’s Opportunity to Publicly Express Support for Trade Unions in Colombia

On February 16, 2012, Efraín Amezquita, co-founder and president of SINTRAMASIVO, a bus operators’ union in Cali, Colombia, was assassinated while waiting at a bus station owned by the company that employed him. Initial reports wrote the murder off as an attempted robbery and failed to mention months of aggressive union-busting activities by his employer.  Now, however, a video of the assassination has surfaced that shows no signs of an attempted robbery and leaves disturbing questions about the motivations for the murder.

Mr. Amezquita and his colleagues founded SINTRAMASIVO on December 4, 2010, in order to defend their basic labor rights and exercise their right to association. Their demands are simple: better wages, bathroom breaks, and jackets because the air conditioning on the busses is so strong. Nevertheless, managers of the company have made it painfully clear to the members of SINTRAMASIVO that unionization will not be tolerated.

Beginning in late 2011, the company increased its efforts to undermine SINTRAMASIVO by using an assortment of bullying tactics. Between November 2011 and February 16, 2012, SINTRAMASIVO’s membership dropped by 20 members—from 110 to 90. In the days after Mr. Amezquita was assassinated on February 16, more than thirty members left the union, meaning that SINTRAMASIVO’s membership has dropped by nearly half in only five months.

SINTRAMASIVO’s experience is not unique. High levels of violence and threats against trade unionists contribute to the staggeringly low rate of unionization in Colombia. Impunity for murders and threats against labor organizers emboldens perpetrators. Virulent anti-union sentiment results in violence directed against trade unionists and labor activists.

The Summit of the Americas offers President Obama a unique opportunity to express publicly that violence against trade unions is unacceptable and that effective protections and respect for trade unions is a prerequisite to implementing the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia.

Photo by the Governor’s Office of Valle del Cauca