Bogota, Colombia — In neat, black hand-written letters is a homemade sign, posted outside the United States embassy, which reads: ASOTRECOL — protesting General Motors 373 days since August 1, 2011. It has counted each day the Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of General Motors Colombia (ASOTRECOL) has called this quiet street corner, seated just outside the main embassy entrance, home. For over a year, ex-GM workers have lived in this tiny, two-room hut, constructed of tents and plastic tarps. Plastic signs and banners plaster the walls, surrounding them on all sides.
Many of those who had originally arrived to protest poor factory conditions, uncompensated on-the-job injuries, medical record falsification, and illegal firings have long since gone home. Down from 68, ex-GM worker Manuel Ospina Contreras is one of the few who have remained: “None of us thought we would be out here longer than a week,” he explains, “but here we are, still waiting to be heard.”
He mumbles as he speaks, his lips barely parting wide enough to allow the words to escape; they are swollen from three small stitches that have sewn them shut. On August 1, marking a year of protesting, he and four others took drastic measures, refusing to eat until General Motors agreed to negotiate with them or respond to their requests for compensation, medical care, and job retraining at the factory. Each week without results, four more protestors would join them. The gesture is symbolic, explains Ospina: “If we can’t resolve this problem, we will die trying.”
Ospina is 42 years old and a father of five, a family he supported for 11 years working at the plant. He walks with a cane, a reminder of an accident he had while carrying a piece of machinery at work. In 2008, after the accident, he was fired: “The company doctor said we would not report [the accident] to the insurers so that I could keep my job. The pain got worse over time and left me unable to walk. GMrefused to listen to give me different work and after I complained multiple times they fired me.”
Ospina says he is not alone. He and Asotrecol estimate that more than 200 Colmotores employees, after reporting work-related injuries, have been illegally fired from the plant. Herniated discs, severe carpal tunnel syndrome, lumbar scoliosis, chronic tendonitis, knee and spinal problems are among reported illnesses; they are results of excessive repetition and long hours in production line assembly. In the factory lying just outside the city limits, workers assemble around 150 cars daily, he explains, “and they do it by hand.”
The tent is mostly quiet, almost peaceful, and the men sit patiently, sipping juices and saline solutions through straws. A few employees exit the embassy, peering curiously inside the tent. One snaps a picture with a cellphone camera, and continues on without a word.
Day after day, the men continue waiting. They are waiting not only for negotiations to begin with the Colombian branch, but more so, they are waiting for the U.S. government to take responsibility: in 2009 the United States bailed GM out of bankruptcy with over $50 billion, an investment by which it became one of GM’s largest shareholders. This past April, the United States and Colombia enacted a long-deferred, controversial free trade agreement between the two countries after stating that the requirements of the Labor Action Plan had been met. The plan required “major, swift, and concrete steps” to improve labor conditions throughout the country, and was criticized by both U.S. and Colombian union leaders. Today, the majority of the GM workforce in Colombia, the most dangerous country in the world to unionize, work under conditions and wages unilaterally set by the company, considered to be a violation of labor union rights.
According to a recent AFL-CIO report, “approximately 3,000 Colombian trade unionists have been murdered since 1986 — with the vast majority of cases still unsolved and the vast majority of perpetrators still unpunished.”
“I know there are many others,” says Ospina, referring to some 1,800 workers that GM employs in the country, “who have been fired after the company’s doctors realize they are too injured to work. And there are many who are still working, awaiting the day they are fired, and left with nothing.”
Note: Asotrecol announced that on August 23, it reached an agreement to implement mediation under the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service of the United States (FMCS). General Motors Corporation offered to help resolve Asotrecol demands with the assistance of FMCS as mediator.
See the union’s website for updated information on negotiations.
Please take the time to sign the Pledge of Resistance, confirming your commitment to fast if negotiations fall apart.