A traditional quote from the Colombian left-wing says: “here, it is easier to create a guerrilla group than a labor union”. Overstated, but close to reality. The South American country is one of the most dangerous places to be an organized worker: between 1991 and 2006, 2.245 Colombian union workers were killed and 3.400 threatened, also 138 went missing.
Currently, the scenery remains the same. Only during the second semester of 2016, according to the largest Colombian databank of Human Rights, union leaders from Medellín, Segovia and Cali were threatened; the president of the public workers union of Argelia was unjustly detained by the Police; three union leaders were murdered in different cities of the country and one more was kidnapped.
The massive and selective homicides perpetrated by far-right death squads and State agents, with direct complicity of national and foreign capitalists, jointly with the neoliberal legal reform on contracting, has dramatically transformed the rate of unionization of the country: in the 80's, the rate had remained near to 16%, but a recent study emphasizes that only 4,6% of workers are currently organized, one of the lowest within the continent`s average and an embarrassing number for Colombian “democracy”.
Also read: We greet the workers on their day (FARC-EP Communiqué)
Some cases are particularly severe. Sinaltrainal -the main union of food industry that grouped workers from transnationals like Nestle, Coca-Cola and Kraft- has been victim of systematic persecution by paramilitares linked with economic groups. Since 1986 at least 26 Sinaltrainal leaders were killed in different cities of the country. The members of Fensuagro, the biggest peasant union in the country, have been subject of permanent stigmatization as alleged FARC-EP collaborators. Currently, Fensuagro’s vice-president, Huber Ballesteros, has completed more than two years in prison, accused of being an ally of the guerrilla. Even though international referents of the union movement as the British UNISON or the World Federation of Trade Unions have advocated for Huber's freedom, Colombian justice remains impassive.
Linked with the violent persecution of unions, in Colombia a tangle of legal impairments to hinder the workers organization exists. Between 2002 and 2007, 491 new trade unions were denied their legal registration requests. Also, the right to strike has been so restricted that this democratic right is currently inexistent.
Outsourcing and subcontracting have exponentially pauperized the working conditions of Colombians. Legal forms of contracting such as the “Associated Work Cooperatives” or the current “Temporary Services Firm” and “Simplified Stock Societies” are just euphemisms for covering up an unfair reality: more than the 50% of Colombian workers don’t have a direct and formal contract. In these conditions, having a union and fighting for better conditions is a utopia for the majority of the workers.
Nonetheless, the Colombian trade union movement keeps in first line of the popular struggle, fighting the struggles for social justice, democracy and peace. Thus, every single union member is a hero and small strikes are acts of enormous courage.
International workers solidarity is urgent. Now more than ever, workers of the world: unite!