Working at breakneck speed under antiquated conditions at the General Motors Commodores plant in Bogotá, Colombia, more than 200 workers have suffered debilitating injuries and illnesses. After being fired and left with no source of income, workers formed the Association of Injured Workers and Ex-workers of GM Colombia, known as Asotrecol.
On Aug. 1, 2011, the Asotrecol workers set up an encampment outside the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá. They chose that location because the U.S. government still owns 26 percent of GM. They want recognition of their injuries as work-related, and they want reintegration into the workforce for those who are able to work and pensions for those unable to work as well as paid health care. A key demand is recognition of Asotrecol as their union.
On Aug. 1 of this year, 13 injured workers began a hunger strike, sewing their lips shut. The strike was ended when GM corporate representatives agreed to travel to Colombia for mediation. The company, however, offered only a paltry compensation sum and refused to give workers their jobs back. “The insignificant funding they offered would have accomplished nothing but convert us into street food vendors,” Asotrecol stated.
Workers have sewn their lips shut again. The union’s president, Jorge Parra, is conducting his hunger strike in Detroit, hoping to get a meeting with GM corporate representatives.
This reporter, a 25-year Chrysler worker and United Auto Worker member, interviewed Parra on Sept. 7, near Detroit’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community center, called Affirmations. There, Parra had a warm exchange with LGBTQ activists, who are engaged in a rotating hunger strike to protest discrimination and bigotry in Michigan.
Martha Grevatt: How big is the workforce at Colmotores?
Jorge Parra: About 1,830 working two shifts.
MG: What was its peak?
JP: Three or four years ago there were 2,300 working three shifts.
MG: Aside from about 200 who were injured and fired, how were the reductions accomplished?
JP: The older workers are being fired. They make about 2 million pesos [$1,050] per month but newer workers make half that. For three years, they do not get a raise. Then it takes two years to reach top rate.
MG: How many cars are produced each day and how much do they cost in Colombia?
JP: One hundred and sixty per shift. The work process has one person doing what three or four workers in the U.S. would do. Cars cost from 18 million pesos to 45 million pesos [$10,000 to $24,000].
MG: Where are things now with your struggle?
JP: We hope with this trip to Detroit I’ll be able to talk directly with people in GM headquarters and try to find a solution that is just. My colleagues and their families are in a very desperate and critical situation. Three of them have lost their houses through mortgage foreclosure. One other is at risk of losing his home.
It’s hard for our families and for our kids. Those of us who felt the helplessness decided to enter a hunger strike and sew our mouths shut. This was the only way we thought we would be able to resist the violations committed against us, with the little that we still have. GM practically gave us one choice — to die on a hunger strike or to die waiting for our indifferent governments to do something for us. It is unjust for the U.S. to demand human rights when it is financing human rights abuses by way of its ownership of GM.
MG: How important is international solidarity?
JP: The international support has been an enormous aid to us in making our struggle visible. GM is a multinational [corporation] and a large part of it belongs to the U.S. public. The support we have found in unions and organizations and from people has been invaluable. By making public statements and taking stances, they are increasing our profile. I’m proud to be able to be here in the U.S. I’m here because our situation has become so public. I’m glad I can count on this continued support, as we keep demanding justice and our rights.
MG: Can you comment on the Free Trade Agreement?
JP: It is unjust to us that the U.S. ratified the FTA with Colombia. There is a very difficult situation for unions and workers in Colombia. Colombia is not complying with the Labor Action Plan prerequisites of the FTA. When [President] Obama came to Cartagena and approved the FTA, it was like a slap in the face to me.
MG: Is there anything else you would like to add?
JP: We continue to ask for the enormous help of U.S. people and unions. We ask that they send letters and emails; that they engage in acts of protest and marches; and that they talk to their politicians, so that together we can demand that GM do the right thing and reach a prompt solution. We’re coming to the end of our rope in Colombia.
We urgently need the collaboration of the people of the U.S. Our lives and our families depend on it.