On hunger strike in Colombia

November 29, 2012

November 28 was a national day of action to support the struggle of 12 former workers at the General Motors Colmotores plant in Colombia. These workers have sewn their lips shut--again--to protest the company they say wrongfully fired them for getting hurt on the job. Actions in the U.S. took place at GM's corporate headquarters in Detroit and outside an awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., to honor auto company's "corporate excellence."

The protests against GM Colmotores began in August 2011 with 68 workers camped outside of the U.S. embassy in Bogotá. For over a year, they have had to watch their families starve while GM refuses to take any meaningful steps to address their demands. The workers launched a hunger strike on August 1 of this year and reinstated it again on November 20. They are focusing on spreading awareness in the U.S., especially among GM workers.

Jorge Parra, president of ASOTRECOL (Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of General Motors Colmotores), wrote this article about his injuries and his visits in the U.S.

I WAS fired by General Motors' Colombian subsidiary after becoming injured on the job.

I entered the Colmotores plant healthy in 2004, as GM's medical records demonstrate, but left eight years later with herniated discs, carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands, and tendinitis in my shoulders and elbows. I organized an association called ASOTRECOL to protect the human rights of GM workers and ex-workers and to denounce the abuses committed by GM.

On August 1, 2011, the group launched a tent encampment at the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá. A year later, we began a hunger strike on August 1. It was suspended on August 22nd, 2012, when GM agreed to mediation. When mediation ended with GM offering little more than $30,000 per worker--not enough to even cover surgeries that the injured men needed--I went to Detroit to seek direct negotiations with GM in their headquarters.

While here, I have had the opportunity to meet with U.S. workers and hear their stories. Talking to union members in the United States has given me the opportunity to see and understand their struggles and the conditions they are dealing with now.

A GM worker on hunger strike in Colombia
A GM worker on hunger strike in Colombia

I have talked mostly with autoworkers from the Midwest, who have shared with me their horror stories: how the two-tier wage system gives companies an incentive to continually hire low-wage workers and create tension between workers; how supervisors forced their workers to continue working in nearly 100-degree heat; and how unions are becoming weaker and unable to guarantee workers' rights.

I WAS surprised to hear that these practices were happening here, though I am familiar with similar conditions in auto plants across the world. In conversations with workers, it seems to me that multinationals are testing out new systems of worker repression in developing countries and now they are transferring those systems to the "developed world."

GM implemented a two-tier system in Colombia before it did in Detroit. Now workers are only considered for wage increases after three years on the job, but few make it that far. It is easier for GM to dispose of its workers after they have forfeited their health and before they start to cost the company more money. The majority of workers are now between 18 and 22 years old. I was a skilled trades welder before I worked for GM, but I am now physically unable to return to my trade. This practice must not be allowed to continue in Colombia or the United States.

I underwent three surgeries and now walk with a cane due to the injuries I sustained at GM. When I first started feeling pain in my lower back and legs, which were indications of a herniated disc, I went to GM's medical center. They gave me injections of Oxycotin and Diclofenac and sent me back to work. I received three to four injections a week, with a total of 70 to 80 injections during my time there.

Though I haven't heard this practice happening in Michigan, workers have told me about unsafe conditions that could lead to similar injuries. On a Detroit plant floor, a supervisor forced his workers to continue their labor despite the 98-degree temperature. Another person told me how tier-two workers didn't receive all the safety training they needed to handle dangerous equipment. If conditions are not safe, workers are the ones who suffer the consequences and, like me, will bear the physical burdens for the rest of their lives. What happened to me in Colombia should not happen to workers in the United States.

The GM plant in Bogotá used to have a strong union that fought for workers' rights. Out of 1,800 workers in the plant, over 1,000 were union affiliates in 2003. But then the company began firing its workers and taking advantage of new laws passed by an anti-union president. The once-militant union now has less than 50 members and holds little power to protect its members. Now fear dominates the plant, a tool used by management to suppress its workers. We have an expression, "comer el burro" ("eating the donkey"), to describe those who are afraid they will be fired if they reveal their injuries.

Workers in the United States have received great protections from their unions, especially the United Auto Workers. However, workers in Michigan told me that the unions are under attack, especially by legislators who want to make union dues optional and weaken organized labor. Just as laws were used to cripple us in Colombia, it seems to be happening here as well.

Justice must not be optional in Colombia or the United States. If the laws that get passed don't hold companies accountable, then the companies will continue to violate workers' rights. As a consequence, workers in the United States will live under the constant threat of having their jobs outsourced to cheap labor where unions are disallowed.

If GM and others are held responsible for human rights abuses, we gain job security collectively and physical security individually. Stopping the abuses in Colombia is a must, especially if we want to protect workers in the United States.

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