On Tuesday [January 24], trade unionists and members of the Irish Colombia Solidarity group Grupo Raíces/Grúpa Fréamhacha, including members of éirígí, held a protest outside Leinster House to coincide with the visit to Ireland of Colombian Vice-President Angelino Garzón.
As the protesters displayed a banner with the words ‘Gilmore: Don’t back human rights abuse in Colombia – Demand a ceasefire and talks’ on the street outside, inside Leinster House Garzón held talks with members of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Apart from the obligatory ‘war on terror’... ‘evil FARC’... ‘give peace a chance’ etc. etc. etc. propaganda that the Colombian Government passes off for a considered update on the political situation in that country, the real motivation for this meeting is that Garzón is currently lobbying for the position as head of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Although there are no Irish votes in the election to determine who becomes director-general of the ILO, Garzón is keenly aware of the not inconsequential influence that Irish trade unions have at times been able to exercise with regard to Irish diplomacy vis-a-vis Colombia. Garzón’s real interest here is in trying to exert subtle influence on the perception of Colombia at an EU/European level.
The notion that a representative of the Colombian state might assume a position of such importance to debates on the condition of labour internationally would be laughable if the situation for trade unionists in Colombia wasn’t so critical. Humour however is not something that trade unionists in Colombia can afford – Colombia is the most dangerous country on the planet in which to be a trade unionist. Violence and death are an everyday reality for those who are involved in the struggle for workers’ rights in that country.
In the Colombia section of its 2009 ‘Freedom at Work’ global review the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) paints a grim picture of the conditions experienced by workers, trade unions and union activists in Colombia when it the states that“roughly 4,000 Colombian trade unionists have been murdered in the past 20 years, more than 2,000 of them since 1991.... 2008 saw a disturbing 25% rise in cases of anti-union violence due to increased paramilitary activity. A total of 49 trade unionists were assassinated in 2008 and 2009 has seen a similar labor homicide rate.”
With regard to the complicit role of big business, right-wing paramilitaries and the Colombian State and its legal system the ILRF report continues that “U.S. corporations such as Coca-Cola, Chiquita, Dole, Nestle and the Drummond mining company have been complicit in such egregious union rights violations. The International Rights Advocates (comprised of ILRF’s former lawyers now part of Conrad and Scherer law firm) have brought a number of lawsuits against these companies. The lawsuits charge that companies’ practices of hiring right-wing paramilitary groups to kill and intimidate union leaders is a violation of the Alien Torts Claims Act, a law meant to hold U.S. corporations accountable for human rights violations abroad...
“Workers are also intimidated through the use of death threats, attacks, disappearances, black lists, arrests, dismissals for organizing and widespread contract labor arrangements which limit collective bargaining rights. Only 1.2% of workers in Colombia are covered by a collective bargaining agreement and the rate has been declining over the years as workers see the danger in organizing. Paramilitary groups such as the AUC (United Self Defense Forces of Colombia), which is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, are responsible for the majority of the violence targeting trade unions. There is also a pervasive culture of impunity for crimes targeting unions. The ITUC estimates that over 99 percent of the cases were unpunished and/or not investigated and not a single person/organization to order a labor homicide has ever been convicted”.
The words of Tarciscio Mora, director of Colombia’s Confederation of Workers, might help explain the reality that trade unionists experience in the Colombia of 2012 for those who might be tempted to suggest that times have changed and that the new Santos’ administration of which Garzón is a senior member is qualitatively different from the previous administration of ex-President and right-wing paramilitary associate Álvaro Uribe Vélez.
Mora is categorical in his assertion that today in Colombia “trade unionists are still being killed” and therefore the candidature of Garzón for ILO director-general is inappropriate. Indeed the latest trade unionist to be murdered in Colombia died on Thursday January 19th. Mauricio Arrendondo of the USO petroleum workers’ trade union and his wife, Janeth Ordoñez Carlosama, were murdered at home by two gunmen. Their murders followed on from deaths threats issued against USO activists in December by right-wing paramilitary death squads.
In a statement released by the USO in the aftermath of the murders the union stated: “We blame this on Colombian State and Ecopetrol for their negligence and slow action in preventing aggression and attempts against our union. We are asking human rights organizations and trade unions both national and international to reject these crimes, and we ask the national government and Ecopetrol to answer for the security of USO members.”
Speaking at the protest éirígí spokesperson Daithí Mac an Mháistir said, “The fact of the matter is that the Colombian economic and political system is anathema to the rights of the overwhelming majority of Colombians. The wholesale, relentless and unimpeded slaughter of those who would seek to organise in defence of the rights of the Colombian working class bears testament to the nature of the Colombian state.
“For Angelino Garzón to be elected head of the ILO would be to profane the memory of the thousands of dead trade unionists whose blood has flowed in the streets of Colombia for no reason other than that of securing the continued accumulation of profits and power for that country’s oligarchy, of which Garzón is a member. On behalf of éirígí I would like to take this opportunity to extend solidarity to the workers and trade unionists of Colombia, and in particular to the families of Mauricio Arrendondo and Janeth Ordoñez Carlosama at this time of great sorrow for them.”