Lips Sewed Shut, Colombia GM Workers Will Not Be Silent
by John Walsh
Mon, 08/06/2012 - 1:36pm
UPDATE August 8 : Today three more workers, Rafael Angel
Jimenez, Wilson Fabio Blandon, and Ferney Rodriguez,
will sew their lips closed, as the original four GM
workers reach the seventh day of their hunger strike.
On August 6 the Colombian Ministry of Labor convened a
mediation session between the disabled GM workers'
association and GM Colombia, "Colmotores." The mediator
was a commission recently established pursuant to
agreements Colombia has made with the International
Labor Organization, consisting of a Colombian jurist and
an Argentinian ILO official; this commission has
achieved some success in three other conflicts. But the
Colmotores representative walked out of the mediation,
and no continuation is scheduled--unless General Motors
receives more pressure.
Last week four disabled former General Motors workers in
Bogota, Colombia, sewed their lips closed to begin a
hunger strike that they say they will continue until GM
responds to their demand for other jobs, or until they
Each week without resolution, four more hunger-striking
members of the association of injured GM workers will
sew their lips shut.
For the last year, GM has ignored the group's peaceful
protests as they occupy the sidewalk in front of the
U.S. embassy. "It's practically the same," said worker
Jorge Parra "whether we die of hunger or die waiting for
them to solve this problem."
For workers at GM's Bogota assembly plant, getting hurt
on the job has meant losing your job. And many of them
did get hurt on the obsolescent production line that
essentially handcrafted different models of vehicles.
Injuries were rife from repetitive motions, lifting
excessive weights, the contorted postures necessary, and
the sped-up pace of the assembly line.
By controlling workers' medical treatment and records
the company knew who got hurt and how to make it appear
their injuries didn't occur inside the plant. With a
combination of pressure tactics against individual
workers and corrupt labor inspections by the Colombian
government, those individuals were soon unemployed,
coerced or deceived into "voluntarily" giving up their
rights under Colombian law and left without
compensation, retraining, or medical benefits.
This racket was imperiled when the disabled workers
began organizing in an association to defend their
rights, and in retaliation, GM Colombia fired the
association's president, Jorge Parra--a panelist at this
year's Labor Notes Conference.
Having been kicked to the curb, Parra and his companeros
decided to occupy the curb, and not any spot at random.
They chose the curb across the street from the United
States embassy, calling attention to the fact that they
were victimized by a corporation not only headquartered
in the U.S. but still owned to a significant degree by
On August 1, the disabled workers of ASOTRECOL, the
Association of Sick and Injured Workers and Ex-Workers
of General Motors Colmotores, reached the one-year mark
in their continuous peaceful occupation.
These fired workers have endured much, sleeping out in
the cold and rain in Bogota. Some have metal rods in
their spines from the surgeries they've had to repair
injuries from the GM plant.
The hunger strike is their final attempt to get General
Motors to respond to their requests for compensation,
medical care, and retraining for jobs at GM or
elsewhere. They are asking the U.S. government and
General Motors to comply with safety and labor standards
supposedly guaranteed by Colombian laws and the "labor
action plan" negotiated by the two governments in
conjunction with the signing of a trade deal last year.
Four of the disabled workers had their mouths sewn shut
with black thread August 1 and began an indefinite
hunger strike. Four more plan to join them August 8.
The association announced it will attend a mediation at
the Ministry of Labor today and urged North American
supporters to keep up the pressure by signing their
petition and sending messages to government and
Colombia has long been the most dangerous country in the
world to be a union member. A recent AFL-CIO report
says, "Approximately 3,000 Colombian trade unionists
have been murdered since 1986--with the vast majority of
cases still unsolved and the vast majority of
perpetrators (both those who ordered the killings and
those who carried them out) still unpunished."
In June, the International Trade Union Confederation
reported that of the 76 murders of unionists worldwide
in 2011, 29 happened in Colombia.
Workers say they fear for their lives and the lives of
their children because of their actions. They say they
experienced labor abuses, falsified papers, bribed
officials, and corruption at the hands of General
John Walsh is a member of the Teamsters Graphic
Communications Conference in Portland, Oregon, and hosts
a labor radio show on KBOO.
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