Colombia Delegation – Day 2

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Our first meeting today was with the CUT and CTC which are 2 trade union confederations. Coupled with that, we spoke to representatives of a range of individual unions. We already knew that the trade unions face many challenges from paramilitary organisations, strict laws which lead to arbitrary arrests for 'rebellion' and increasing intimidation by and on behalf of employers. Hearing the various representatives talk in depth about the experience of them and their members brought it home to us.

Mothers of SoachaTarcisio Maro the CUT leader said that Colombia had a great wealth of natural resources including oil, coal, gold and rare minerals. From a population of 44 million, 20 million Colombians live in poverty and 8 million of those live in absolute poverty. Of the people in employment 60% work in the 'informal' sector which means they do not have permanent contracts. They might be street vendors or increasingly they may be one of a rapidly growing number of Colombians who are self employed sub-contractors or agency staff.

We are used to the concept of agency working or sub-contracting in the UK but in Colombia it goes much further and deeper. Even mainstream jobs such as teaching are sub-contracted. This means that their are fewer employment protections and it is very difficult for unions to organise within that workforce because people do not sustain employment or do not see the point of joining a union. It has gone so far now that in some cases it is trade unions that are the sub contracting body, getting paid by the employer and then paying their members. This makes it impossible to represent the workforce in the normal way and was a concept we were struggling to grasp.

The unions were concerned about a series of free trade agreements that have either been agreed or are being negotiated with Canada, the US and the EU. As part of the negotiations with the US the Obama administration insisted upon a Labour Action Plan that would see an improvement in employment rights and practices. Despite signing up to the plan the Government have not acted upon it. The unions want free trade agreements, but the ones being put in place they say will entrench inequality. A year after the Labour Action Plan being agreed, the latest human rights report still considers Colombia the most dangerous place for trade unionists in the world.

Many parallels were drawn with the economic situation in Europe and elsewhere. Privatisation has seen all of the main industries transferred to the private sector. The first law passed by the Santos government was the Law of Fiscal Sustainability which seemingly allows the Government to withhold any benefit, payment or funding if the money is not considered to be available for it. A typical impact of this is in relation to pensions where a person might have built up 30 years worth of pension rights which might be lost under the new law.

Underpinning everything else in relation to the operation of the trade unions is the violence and repression they experience. Every trade union leader that spoke could define the experience of their trade union in terms of the number of activists that had been assassinated. Teachers had suffered the most and just in the last 15 months, 44 members of the union had been killed. The agricultural workers' union has seen 1,000 members assassinated. 106 members of the oil workers union and 50 construction workers have lost their lives. There is talk of tackling the paramilitary groups behind all of this, but only recently a paramilitary group declared a 'paramilitary strike’ which effectively shut down a whole region. In the first few weeks of 2012, 6 trade unionists have been killed.

In addition to the killings there are many others who face death threats - threats which in Colombia carry a meaningful prospect of being carried out. A number of unions described how they have at times had to shut down their entire operation in a particular region. Other face imprisonment or even just dismissal for union activity. One of the most striking things was that the unions and the people involved do not give up in the face of everything. Assassinations and death threats are so commonplace that their is almost a banality to them that belies the very real tragedy.

The Santos government wants to repair the international reputation that had developed under the previous government. The unions were at pains to make clear that there was much more effort being put into the presentation given to the outside world than improvement to the day to day situation in Colombia.

In the afternoon we travelled out to Soacha which is a poor suburb south of Bogota. There we met the Mothers of Soacha who are a group of relatives of young men who have been murdered in what has become known as the false positives scandal. This relates to a scheme under the last government where soldiers were rewarded for the number of guerrilla fighters they killed. Under the false positives scandal young men were lured away from home with the promise of work, murdered and then made to look like they were guerrillas killed in action. When the scandal came to light a number of senior army officers resigned. Despite now knowing what happened to their sons the Mothers of Soacha still wait for justice to be done more than 4 years after the killings.

The delegation visited the home of one of the mothers to meet her and others from the group, cramming into her living room. One by one they told us what happened to their loved ones. They were all young men or even not much more than a child, at the age of 16. There was a common pattern of them disappearing and, as it later transpired, of them being taken to a region some distance away and within a day or two being murdered by members of the armed forces.

At first the police and other authorities would not listen to the desperate family members, suggesting that the young men might have any number of reasons for leaving home. After 6 or 8 months things changed when the bodies of the missing boys from the district were discovered. The families learned the grim reality they had only feared. Closure is still awaited as prosecutions of the soldiers involved is either grindingly slow or simply not moving at all.

Each and every story was heartbreaking. Not just in terms of the loss, but also for the bureaucratic indifference and obstruction that came with it. There was a single mother who lost her only son and stays with relatives rather than occupy the flat they once shared. A mother who lost her 16 year old son and now endures death threats in an effort to silence her. The woman who has lost both her partner and her cousin.

No one we met has seen the legal case conclude. The lawyers acting for the military have slowed the process, at times to a standstill. Attempts to get the government authorities to intervene have got nowhere. It was hard to relate to the experience of the trade unionists we spoke to in the morning, their lives so very different from our own. In the afternoon, listening to the Mothers' testimony, dignified but uncompromising, is something we will never forget.

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