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US/Colombia: Dead unionists no hurdle to free trade

Inter Press Service | 16 June 2006

U.S./COLOMBIA: Dead Unionists No Hurdle to Free Trade

Felipe Seligman and Juliana Lara Resende

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 16 (IPS) - The U.S. government is not only a step away from ratifying a new free trade agreement, but also from rewarding persistent and severe human rights abuses in Colombia, where each year more trade union leaders are murdered than in all other nations put together, a new report charges.

"Having a free trade agreement with a country that allows trade unionists to be murdered with impunity is outrageous," said Bob Perillo, author of the report by the AFL-CIO Solidarity Centre in Washington, titled "The Struggle for Worker Rights in Colombia".

According to the 84-page report released Thursday, only 376 of the more than 3,000 murders of Colombian trade unionists that occurred between 1986 and 2002 were investigated by the authorities. A total of five have resulted in guilty verdicts.

Although the Colombian government claims that it has successfully prosecuted 19 cases involving the murder of trade unionists since 1992, independent data indicate a prosecution rate of less than one percent.

As Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson put it on Wednesday, in an editorial calling the proposed trade agreement "ridiculous", "Kill a unionist in Colombia and you have about as much chance of doing time as you do of being hit by lightning."

Last year alone, 70 trade unionists were killed, while 260 received death threats, 56 were arbitrarily detained, seven survived attacks in which explosives or firearms were used, six were kidnapped, and three disappeared. In 2004, 99 trade unionists were murdered, mostly in connection with collective bargaining disputes or strikes.

"While it is not always possible to establish a motive for the attacks on union members, analyses of these violations demonstrate that most are directly linked to the victims’ participation in a labour dispute," the report says.

It then quotes Carlos Castaño, the notorious former head of the AUC paramilitary umbrella group: "We kill trade unionists because they interfere with people working."

The report says that many anti-union businesses have been accused of using the armed conflict as a cover for attacks on workers, and there are credible allegations that they have hired paramilitaries to intimidate or physically harm labour activists.

According to the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, adopted in 1998, freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining are unequivocal human rights.

However, in Colombia, "legal, political and administrative state procedures act as tripwires to impede union organising and offer little or no support or legal recourse in labour disputes. The law severely limits workers’ rights to bargain collectively and strike," says the AFL-CIO report.

In addition, more than half of the country’s workers earn less than the minimum wage, and 85 percent earn less than twice the minimum wage. In 2005, unemployment was estimated at 12 percent.

As a consequence, "almost 59 percent of the workforce laboured in the informal economy, where only about 45 percent of workers were affiliated with Social Security health plans and only 12.5 percent participated in pension programmes", the report says.

The ILO Declaration, which Colombia has ratified, also mandates that all forms of compulsory labour, including child labour, be effectively abolished, as well as discrimination in respect to employment and occupation.

But the Solidarity Centre report says that at least 2.5 million children were working in Colombia last year. Only 38 percent of these children attended school, and almost 15 percent of all Colombian children work outside the home. Additionally, according to a 2005 study by Colombia’s labour college, the Escuela Nacional Sindical, women earn an average of 30 percent less than their male counterparts.

The same study reported that last year there were 15 murders of women trade unionists, in addition to two attempted murders; 102 women were threatened with death; 10 were arbitrarily arrested; and there were 15 cases of harassment and persecution for union activity, seven displacements and one kidnapping.

A recent report by Human Rights Watch says that "Colombia presents the most serious human rights and humanitarian situation in the region". The group says the country has the world’s worst internal refugee crisis after Sudan.

Most affected are children and youth — a quarter of all irregular combatants in Colombia are under 18 years of age. About 80 percent of the children under arms belong to one of the two guerrilla groups — revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) — while the other 20 percent fight for paramilitaries.

On paper at least, the Colombian government has been trying to demobilise the paramilitary groups. Last year, it approved a controversial programme called the "Justice and Peace Law", which offers reduced sentences to those responsible for crimes if they participate in a demobilisation process.

However, "the law fails to include effective mechanisms to dismantle the country’s mafia-like armed groups, which are largely financed through drug trafficking. Its also fails to satisfy international standards on truth, justice, and reparation for victims," says Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2006.

The U.S. is historically an important trading partner. As the fourth largest economy in Latin America and one of the largest oil producers in the region, Colombia’s legal exports to the U.S. were 5.4 billion dollars, while imports totaled 3.3 billion dollars in 2002.

According to the Centre, "The new trade negotiations (with the U.S) resulted in an agreement that offers scant protection of basic human rights." The deal must still be approved by the U.S. Congress.

"That Colombia’s million-member union movement functions at all, given the steady reign of paramilitary terror and governmental indifference (if not complicity) to which it is subjected, is a testament to countless acts of daily heroism," Meyerson wrote this week.

"The movement is no fan of the proposed trade accord, which it fears will allow U.S. agribusiness to undercut Colombia’s non-drug-related agricultural economy while doing nothing about the nation’s abysmal standards of worker rights. For the average Colombian, the trade agreement would add insult to what is all too often deadly injury."

 source: IPS