Colombian trade unionist pleads for support

Tuesday 15 September 2015, 11pm

By David Gibney

Mandate communications officer

AT THE ICTU biennial delegate conference in early July, Colombian activist Witney Chávez thanked the Irish trade union movement for its solidarity and support.

But he underlined the need for that support to continue as his country fought against some of the most horrific crimes against human rights in the world.

Delegates gathered at the West County Hotel, Ennis, were told of how Colombia had become the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist with more than 2,500 activists murdered over the last 15 years.

ICTU Assistant General Secretary Peter Bunting recalled his recent visit to Colombia where a delegation of Irish and UK representatives – including Mandate’s John Douglas and Aileen Morrissey – were protected by armed guards.

“There are right-wing paramilitaries who collaborate with the military in putting down the trade union movement and anybody who seeks equality and fairness and justice.

Blood money

“We were taken to a women’s group called the Mothers of the Disappeared. The Colombian government introduced a bonus payment for the military – for every guerrilla they killed, they got extra holidays and extra money.

“The official military set up an unemployed agency to attract people to work in this place called Sowatra. When they got the workers up to an area, they shot them all dead, buried them in a mass grave and said they were guerrillas to collect the bonuses.”

He continued: “The paramilitaries in one area used to have a place called ‘chophouses’. And the idea of the chophouse was, they’d tell you to leave the fishing village and if you refused, they’d bring you in in the middle of the night and dismember you bit by bit, alive.

“And you’d be screaming horrendously, obviously, and your neighbours – in all shacks beside each other - would hear and so this whole thing was intimidation, torture and fear. You’re not allowed to stand up to the paramilitaries or the military or you might face the same fate.”

In his contribution, Mandate General Secretary John Douglas told delegates: “What we are witnessing in Colombia is the systematic extermination of the trade union movement. It’s as simple as that. And the systematic oppression of all opposition, including peasant farmers, NGOs to community groups.

“There is a regime in Colombia that is corrupt to its core which doesn’t value human rights, doesn’t value workers’ rights, and the people of Colombia need our support. There will be no peace in Colombia, until there’s justice first.”

Mr Douglas went on to explain how the people of Colombia can be supported.

“First of all, all trade unions should affiliate to the Justice for Colombia campaign. Individuals can look up the campaign and support it too. I met some of the bravest people I’ve ever met in Colombia – housewives, farm workers, peasant fishermen and women, priests, religious groups, all who are putting their lives on the line for justice in Colombia.

“What I witnessed first-hand was horrendous, I’ve never seen anything like it. But the resilience of the Colombian people – like a man I met in the jungle who a month earlier had to dig his 16-year-old son out of a ditch after he was executed while studying for his exams.  That’s what’s going on. And it’s going on largely unnoticed across the world – and we have to shine a light on that corruption and that dark space that is Colombia at the moment.” Witney Chávez thanked the trade union movement for giving him an opportunity to tell the story of the Colombian people.

He said: “In Colombia we have the violence of the neo-liberal model that you Irish people suffer from but we also suffer from the dark forces that accompany that model in Colombia.

“We have 20% of the population – that’s eight million people – living in absolute poverty and homeless. We have some of the highest levels of unemployment in the world. The Gini-coefficient index [a measure used to measure income distribution within a country] is 0.53% and the level of human development is 70 points which shows that we’re on a very low level of equality in terms of the international context.

“We have 22 million people that are available for work but only seven million have some sort of formal employment or access to negotiations and social security. About two million are unemployed which is about 10% of the population.

“The recommendations that the OECD have given to the government in order to join the international community will put even more people at risk. They say we should lower the minimum wage which already is only €200 per month, they’re recommending to hike up the rates on VAT and taxes on services – but not on earnings or on wealth – and to dismantle the pension scheme.

“We’re also opposed to the free trade agreements being signed with Colombia. Previous agreements were signed on the grounds that the Colombian government improves their labour rights but as Peter Bunting pointed out, trade unionists are being murdered with complete impunity. We’re very concerned that the same will happen with the EU-Colombia free trade agreement.

“The US is the biggest importer of our products and the EU is second. What we’re exporting is oil and coal and other natural resources. However, what we’re importing is maize and wheat and other agricultural goods which have put our peasant farmers out of jobs.”

Assassinations

Mr Chávez continued: “You know how the economic model affects us but in terms of the physical violence that is politically inflicted on our members and all of those infringements on our labour rights, the union movement has withstood thousands of assassinations, death threats, attacks and we’re the sector most targeted in Colombia.

“Just to give you an example of one year – in 2012 we had 20 of our members assassinated, we had seven survive assassination attempts, we had 431 members receive death threats and we had 626 registered human rights abuses against our members.

“In 2014, 14 of our members were murdered, 15 survived assassination attempts, 78 received death threats and 145 other registered types of abuses,” he added.

Mandate believes it is incredibly important that international pressure is kept on the Colombian government. Colombia want to be a respectable part of the international community so if the international trade union movement continues to shine a light into the corruption, murders and violence, then the people of Colombia may begin to see real change.

Go to www.justiceforcolombia.org for more information on how you can help.

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