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U.S. Unions Urge Colombia to Protect Workers' Rights--and Lives

The AFL-CIO and several individual unions, including the Machinists, the Steelworkers, Mine Workers and Food and Commercial Workers in recent days met with leadership of the new Colombian Labor Inspectorate and Department of Labor officials, to discuss how the inspectorate is working to promote and protect workers' rights in Colombia—and what it is doing to make sure workers who exercise their rights can do so without putting their lives on the line.

Colombia remains the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a trade unionist—a dismal record it has held for many years now, even after committing last year to a “Colombian Action Plan for Labor Rights,” designed “to protect internationally recognized labor rights, prevent violence against labor leaders, and prosecute the perpetrators of such violence.”

At the meeting, the U.S. labor representatives asked probing questions about how the Labor Inspectorate’s work plan will achieve meaningful reforms for workers—specifically, how it will rid the country of illegal labor “cooperatives,” which unscrupulous employers use to disguise true employer-employee relationships and so prevent workers from forming unions and engaging in collective bargaining.

U.S. labor representatives also probed the Colombian officials about what they are doing to address the recent rash of violence and threats aimed at Colombian labor leaders—including the May 24 murder of the brother of municipal workers union Vice President Adolfo Devia Paz, in an attack that may have targeted Devia, and the late April assassination of Daniel Aguire of SINALCORTEROS, a well-known leader in the sugar cane workers' struggle.

Some of the recent threats have been aimed at labor leaders like Jhon Jairo Castro Balanta and Jhonsson Torres Ortiz—both of whom traveled to the United States in June 2011 to lobby against holding a vote on the U.S.-Colombia FTA until the Colombian government had demonstrated sustained and substantial improvements in protecting workers’ safety and ensuring their freedom to exercise fundamental labor rights.

Unfortunately, the Colombian officials had no easy answers. But they did receive the message that, despite the U.S.-Colombia FTA entering into force, the U.S. labor movement remains in solidarity with Colombian workers. The AFL-CIO, along with its affiliates and allies, will continue to monitor the situation and pursue all possible avenues to ensure Colombian workers and human rights advocates can exercise their rights without putting themselves and their families in the line of fire. The Colombian government must stand up to those who benefit from the repression of workers.

Summarizing the meeting, AFL-CIO International Department Director Cathy Feingold, said:

Despite initial efforts by the Ministry of Labor to address egregious labor rights violations,ongoing violence against workers and union members threatens the ability of workers to exercise their rights. We will continue to work with our partners in Colombia to ensure that workers throughout the country can organize unions and improve their working conditions.

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