New rights pact signed as Colombia hunger strike continues

BOGOTA, Colombia – The Obama administration’s Labor Department, the Colombian government and the International Labour Organization signed yet another agreement, on Aug. 6, pledging the Colombians to protect workers’ rights – even as a hunger strike by illegally fired ex-GM Colombian workers continued in front of the U.S. Embassy here.

Full details of the pact were not released, but ILO Chair Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry said it included a new “National Unity of Protection,” a Colombian institution that is dedicated to workers’ rights and to improving security for union activists. 

Some 29 unionists have been murdered so far in Colombia in the last year, bringing the 26-year toll to close to 3,000.  Another activist escaped an assassination attempt the weekend before the pact was signed. 

Doumbia-Henry said labor rights in Colombia have “significantly” improved, compared to prior years, but it’s still not good.  The ILO, which gets nations to sign non-binding international labor rights standards pacts, lacks enforcement power.

The labor rights situation is also not good for the 17 ex-GM workers, now on the hunger strike, who were illegally fired.  Three of the 17 joined the strike on Aug. 8.

The hunger strike started Aug. 1, though the tent at the U.S. embassy occupied by the workers was set up already a year ago.  General Motors “is firing us without just cause, harming us and our families,” one hunger striker told Radio Caracol.  He said they began the hunger strike “because our health has worsened day by day, we have lost our homes, we’re basically on the street and we have been forgotten by the government.”

“The association of workers and former workers of General Motors Colomotores takes the decision to begin a hunger strike, sewing our lips, until our rightful requests are heard by the company, the ambassador of the United States and the government,” a second hunger striker said.

U.S. Ambassador Michael McKinley represented the administration at the signing ceremony, along with Doumbia-Henry and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.  McKinley has yet to meet with the hunger strikers, and the embassy has largely stayed out of the debate over the FTA’s labor rights and implementation.  Santos called the new pact a “ratification” of his government’s “commitment” to protect unionists and human rights “increasingly effectively” during implementation of the FTA.

Photo: Public Citizen // CC 2.0


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.