Hunger strike in Colombia: GM workers sew lips shut outside U.S. Embassy

By on August 15, 2012

No one comes to work expecting or intending to be hurt. Being injured on the job creates both physical and economic hardship. Even if one qualifies for compensation, income is cut and there can be a long waiting period before the checks begin to arrive. In the worst cases, the worker cannot return to his or her job and cannot find work elsewhere.

For hundreds of thousands of autoworkers around the world, whose dangerous work leads to both immediate and cumulative injuries, it’s our worst nightmare.

The situation is particularly acute for more than 100 injured GM workers in Colombia. They aren’t just suffering from carpal tunnel, spinal column injuries, tendinitis of the elbows and shoulders and other debilitating, job-related conditions. Once these workers became incapacitated, GM fired them for “just cause,” leaving them with no source of income and no medical care.

On Aug. 1, members of the Association of Injured Workers and Ex-workers of Colmotores (GM’s Colombian subsidiary), known as Asotrecol, began a hunger strike outside the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá. Four members sewed their lips shut.

On Aug. 6, after GM representatives quit a mediation session arranged by the International Labor Organization, three more workers took the same courageous and dramatic action as their four comrades. On Aug. 15, if the situation is not resolved, a third group will follow suit.

These workers are exceptionally brave, because their country is the most dangerous place in the world to be a workers’ advocate. More trade unionists are killed in Colombia each year than any other country.

“We have spent more than a year dying slowly each day,” explained one of the injured workers.

“It’s practically the same whether we die of hunger or die waiting for them to solve this problem,” added Asotrecol President Jorge Parra, who, like many of the workers, now walks with a cane. (Asotrecol YouTube channel)

On Aug. 1, workers marked one year since the fired injured have maintained an encampment outside the embassy. The U.S. Embassy was chosen because the U.S. federal government bailed out GM and has an ownership stake in the company since the 2009 bankruptcy process.

The encampment is demanding that GM recognize the injuries as work-related, that workers who can work in some capacity be rehired to jobs they can do with their limitations, that those unable to work be given a pension, and that Asotrecol be recognized as a union of injured workers.

“General Motors Chevrolet Colombia is breaking the labor rights of its workers to make more profit,” Asotrecol charges on its YouTube channel.

Support for the hunger strikers is growing. Close to 2,000 sympathizers have signed a petition to GM CEO Dan Akerson and have been calling Akerson and Peter McKinley, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia.

On Aug. 10, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka issued a statement of support, saying, “The U.S. and Colombian governments must bring GM Colmotores into dialogue with Asotrecol to help facilitate a swift and fair response to the workers’ grievances. … Furthermore, the Colombian Ministry of Labor must thoroughly examine General Motors’ occupational health and safety practices and the use of a collective pact in Colombia for compliance with national law and the labor provisions of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement.”

The situation is now urgent, with some hunger strikers showing signs of weakness and dehydration. Supporters, including many UAW members, are planning a protest outside GM world headquarters in downtown Detroit on Aug. 15 and urging demonstrations outside other GM plants and dealerships where possible.

Calls and emails must continue to Akerson (Daniel.akerson@gm.com, 313-566-5000) and McKinley (AmbassadorB@state.gov, 571-275-2000) to ask them to pressure Colmotores to address the workers’ concerns. To sign the petition go to tinyurl.com/7udptdc.

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