WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
31 Jan 2013 | Commentary

Obama’s Second Term: Time to Take Affirmative Steps to Ensure Labor, Human Rights in Colombia

By Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli and Daniel Kovalik.*

Originally posted by Colombia Reports.

On Monday January 28, a week after U.S. President Barack Obama officially began his second term, 100 workers protested in front of Colombia‘s Ministry of Labor offices throughout Colombia.

In Cali, the Afro-Colombian protestors are urging President Barack Obama to implement the promises he made in April 2011 along with President Juan Manuel Santos in the U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan (LAP). Unfortunately, the LAP has served more as a fig leaf to assuage the concerns of labor unions and human rights groups about advancing a free trade agreement with the country containing the worst record on trade unionist murders. While the LAP has not succeeded in addressing these concerns, it did give the Obama Administration the cover it wanted to successfully push for Congressional passage of the U.S.-Colombia FTA in October 2011 – a feat that George W. Bush, who originally signed the FTA, was unable to accomplish. Then, in April 2012, President Obama gave the green light for the FTA to be put into force under the premature and erroneous assumption that Colombia had complied sufficiently with the provisions of the LAP.

In 2012, a total of 19 trade unionists were assassinated. While this is an improvement from prior years when this was much higher, Colombia still remains number one in the world for total number of trade unionists killed. Moreover, when taking into account the lesser absolute number of unionists killed in Colombia as compared to previous years, one should keep in mind the fact, as previously observed by Colombia’s Jesuit Father Javier Giraldo, that after years of killing unionists in the hundreds — for a total of well over 3,000 since 1986 — there are simply less unionists in Colombia to kill and killing tens of unionists a year now still elicits the requisite terror in the hearts and minds of Colombian workers to deter them from union activity.

Indeed, as the CUT just reported on January 21, 2013, after receiving new threats from paramilitaries, “the anti-union violence and the victimization of the workers is still growing.” Meanwhile, impunity in cases of the over 2,000 previously murdered trade unionists remains rampant and death threats against trade unions have gone up. So, for example, the union SINALTRAINAL received 37 death threats in 2012 with eighteen directed at the workers employed by Nestlé.  So far in 2013, they have received one new threat.

One trade union, FENSUAGRO, Colombia’s largest agricultural union and partner of USW, had at least five of its members killed last year, making FENSUAGRO, which has lost over 1,500 unionists to assassination since it was founded in the 1970’s, the most targeted union in Colombia. And, this stands to reason, for the violence in Colombia has always been keener in the countryside where the armed conflict is concentrated. With the passage of the FTA, the victimization of campesinos and agricultural workers has intensified as giant agribusinesses and mining interests collude with military and paramilitary forces to forcibly displace people from their land.

Indeed, since the passage of the FTA in 2011, mass displacements have increased by 83% according to the human rights group Consultancy with Human Rights and displacement (CODHES). This has added to the ranks of Colombia’s 5 million internally displaced persons – the largest such population in the world. Since President Juan Manuel Santos’ flagship land and victims law began to be implemented at least five displaced leaders were murdered with the cases being linked to advocacy on land rights issues.

According to CODHES, much of the new displacement, especially of Afro-Colombian and indigenous persons, is linked to actions undertaken by “both legal and illegal armies that clandestinely work to further the interest of extractive industries and their territorial consolidation.” The security situation for Afro-Colombian displaced leaders also remains dire. On November 13, 2012 the Black Eagles issued a death threat against the Association for Internally Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES) and a large group of Afro-Colombian community councils and women organizations that advocate for protecting the collective land rights of Afro-Colombians. Despite international NGOs calls for protection, the Colombian and United States authorities did not guarantee appropriate protection for those threatened, and on December 1, 2012, Miller Angulo of AFRODES Tumaco was killed. Since then, U.S. activists have launched a petition to Ambassador McKinley urging him to take a series of actions to prevent further deaths, including guaranteeing that the 22 leaders of AFRODES who solicited protection mechanisms back in July 2012 are granted protection.

Monday’s Afro-Colombian workers’ protest sheds light on the harsh realities faced by the workers in the priority sectors of the LAP and that persecution and violence against labor and Afro-Colombians remains rampant in Colombia. In the case of Port Workers, those advocating for direct contracts, a principal commitment of the LAP, are facing reprisals. Labor inspections took place in the port sector and sanctions were imposed thanks to the political pressure generated by the LAP leading up to the April 2012 Summit of the Americas. Since Obama gave the green light on the FTA, however, these positive steps have been completely undermined, and the Colombian government has been completely unresponsive. As a result, a total of 117 workers affiliated with the Port Workers Union (Unión Portuaria), the majority of whom are afrodescendant, have been fired, others were coerced into renouncing their union affiliations to stay employed and an estimated 1,200 workers continue to be employed by third parties rather than directly.

Meanwhile, the port town of Buenaventura, the site of the largest port development in Colombia – development directly spurred on by the FTA – the general population is suffering massive violence at the hands of military and paramilitary forces. Afro-Colombian women have become the targets of gruesome sadistic killings that usually combine sexual violence with displays of torture and terror. As Father Giraldo explained in a letter to U.S. Ambassador McKinley, there is a permanent genocide that is being carried out in Buenaventura, where the neighborhoods and the Community Councils around the port are being invaded by paramilitaries supported or tolerated by the armed forces. They cut people in pieces with horrifying cruelty throwing the body parts in to the sea, if any of them dare to resist the megaproject for the new port. This included the expulsion of people living in the poorest areas and it includes the expropriation of the plots of garbage dumps where these people, in the midst of their misery, have over decades tried to survive.

In the sugar sector, another priority sector of the LAP, the La Cabaña and Maria Luisa plantations fired 110 sugarcane cutters at the start of 2013. These firings are thought to be a reprisal against worker affiliated with the trade union Sintrainagro, a union that fused with Sinalcorteros this past year. Workers have also been subjected to threatening phone calls and other forms of harassment. This situation prompted protests by sugar workers in front of the offices of Asocaña in Cali on January 16 and to further demonstrations on January 24.  Most likely as reprisal for these protests, Juan Carlos Muñoz, organizer activist of Sintrainagro Cabanas, was murdered on January 28, 2013, on his way to work.

In another priority sector of the LAP, the palm oil sector, which Colombia often lauds as an example of compliance with the LAP because the Ministry of Labor has imposed sanctions on some of the palm oil companies, the situation is just as dire. The companies have not only refused to pay these fines and are strongly appealing them, but they have not stopped their subcontracting practices. Anti-union persecution and intimidation of those who are trying to formalize the workforce is rampant. More than 200 activists have been barred from working in these plantations.

Senator Alexander López Maya of the Senate Comision on the Labor Action Plan held a Senate hearing in Villavicencio, Meta on November 30, 2012 that explored the working conditions of more than 20,000 workers in the municipalities of Puerto Gaitán, Meta, and San Carlos de Guaroa, employed in the oil (another LAP priority sector) and palm oil industries. The Senator confirmed that subcontracting is widespread in both sectors with more than 5,000 workers in the palm oil industry of San Carlos de Guaroa and more the 8,000 workers in the oil industry of Campo Rubiales face severe obstacles to formalization of their contracts. He noted in a letter to the U.S. Congressional Monitoring Group on Labor Rights that, as a result, there exists “dozens of claims of under-the-table negotiations, low salaries without social benefits, deplorable working conditions, and grave health abuses, all of which seriously affect the physical integrity of the workers.”   He further notes that “the most severe cases are found in the palm oil industry, in which the Ministry of Labor is practically non-existent and labor organization is negated by labor sub-contracting.”

Shortly after this Senate hearing in Meta, Afro-Colombian oil worker Milton Parra Rivas was brutally gunned down in Puerto Gaitán.

In short, we believe, in complete agreement with Colombia’s largest trade union confederation, the CUT, that workers’ rights in Colombia are not improving, and that, indeed, these rights are suffering steps backwards because of Colombia’s failure to take robust political and other steps to stop the continued violence against unionists and workers. Compliance with the promises made in the LAP is not at the top of Colombia’s agenda.Of course, given that the U.S. and Colombian agreement on the LAP served more a political, not a labor rights, purpose to justify passing an unjust trade agreement in the FTA, it is not surprising that now that Colombia has its FTA, it is now reneging on its commitments to labor rights.

If the Obama Administration is truly interested in protecting workers rights and stemming the systemic violence against workers in Colombia, the President must take bold steps to guarantee full and effective implementation of the LAP. Prevention of further trade unionist deaths, justice for prior murders and direct contracts in the LAP’s priority sectors should be the first areas where the U.S. and Colombia should demonstrate real compliance. Further, for the U.S. to put a dent in the systemic violence that takes place in Colombia, the U.S. must concretely support the peace effort in Colombia where land reform is being negotiated, guarantee that there is no repetition of crimes committed by the armed forces nor collusion with paramilitary groups, and ensure that justice is carried out for such cases as per the human rights conditions linked to receipt of military aid under U.S. law.

*Gimena Sanchez is Senior Associate, Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), and Daniel Kovalik is a labor and human rights attorney who was described by the Christian Science Monitor as “one of the most prominent defenders of Colombian workers in the United States.”