Today marks one year that The Association of Sick and Fired Workers of General Motors Colombia (ASOTRECOL) members have been camped outside the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá, Colombia in an act of protest.
ASOTRECOL is an association of Colmotores, or General Motors Colombia, employees who assert they were injured while performing their duties at the company’s Bogotá factory.
For Manuel Ospina, this included injuries to his vertebrae from work on G.M.’s assembly line where he helped build suspension pieces. The work involved repetitive heavy lifting. After nearly eleven years of service to G.M., and unsuccessful back surgery, he now walks with a cane. Manuel was dismissed from his position at G.M. after his injuries were noted by a work-place physician, and began to impede his performance.
Manuel is just one of over 200 workers who ASOTRECOL says have suffered from work place injuries. And according to the association, 100 official complaints have been filed against G.M. involving work place injuries suffered by their employees. Workers report ailments such as carpal tunnel, tendinitis of the elbow and rotator cuff syndrome. Factory jobs that call for lifting excessively heavy weight, have resulted in herniated discs, bulging discs and lumbar damage that can be felt as shooting pain down the back of the injured person’s legs. At ASOTRECOL’s camp outside the U.S. embassy, workers in their mid-thirties and early forties walk slowly, and like Manuel, with the support of a cane.
The workers were most often diagnosed through a process involving their company health plan, and by doctors who reported to G.M. In Manuel´s case, the attending physician credited his back injuries to having helped his wife clean their house, specifically making the bed. He was then dismissed from G.M. and remains unemployed. Ferne Rodriguez explains, ¨Once we discovered what diagnoses were being included in our medical records, the company changed our medical records, even erasing some. Many of us now have no medical records on the books.¨
In fact, the majority of workers who form ASOTRECOL were dismissed for their occupational injuries. Some were simply fired while others were pressured into agreements with the company that have left them with little to no compensation and no job. After suffering injuries, and witnessing the dismissal of coworkers, Jorge Parra decided to organize ASOTRECOL and attempt to negotiate with the company for protection of workers and for compensation. Two months later, Jorge was fired.
For years General Motors Colombia carried out illegal dismissals of injured and disabled workers, using falsified documents, threats and corrupt labor inspectors to maintain this practice. The company’s actions violate a series of labor laws and practices in Colombia, but the workers have yet to receive adequate compensation or see justice in their cases.
The symbolism of ASOTRECOL’s choice for camp is not lost on anyone following U.S. policy toward Colombia. ¨It was a U.S. company that violated our rights, and that was while the U.S., developing its Labor Action Plan, was trying to get Colombia to respect labor rights, ¨ explains Manuel. After years of pushing for a Free Trade Agreement with the United States, the U.S. responded to the Colombian government with a Labor Action Plan. The plan, initiated in April 2011, was intended to advance labor laws, protect union members vulnerable to violence, and ultimately provide greater worker protection in Colombia. The plan’s implementation was considered a precondition to approval of the FTA. In April 2012, President Obama declared the plan a success and on May 15 the FTA went into effect — nearly ten months after ASOTRECOL first set up camp outside the U.S. Embassy.
Important legal changes have been made in Colombia as a result of the Labor Action Plan. These include passage of decree 2025 of 2011 to effectively do away with ¨labor cooperatives¨ (a contracting mechanism which had contributed significantly to eroding labor conditions for workers throughout Colombia), increased fines for companies using cooperatives, and a negotiated decree to grant collective bargaining rights in the public sector. ASOTRECOL representatives applaud these gains but have not benefited from them — and neither have thousands of workers throughout Colombia.
Because laws do not equal action in Colombia, the country has a ways to go before workers will benefit from changes instigated by the Labor Action Plan. But action by the country’s Ministry of Health and Social Protection, Ministry of Labor and Human Rights Ombudsman’s office in specific cases, such as those of ASOTRECOL, would represent a critical first step toward improving labor conditions throughout the country, and unlocking the impunity that characterizes labor cases in Colombia. To be even more effective, these entities should be proactive in carrying out their responsibilities to protect works, and not wait until employees turn to protest.
And the U.S. still has an important role to play, particularly by pressuring for action, not just laws. The FTA is signed, but Colombia is still one of the largest U.S. aid recipients in the world. Conditioning U.S. assistance on tangible labor advances, including action in cases currently lingering in court, would be a step celebrated by ASOTRECOL and labor unions across Colombia. In the case of ASOTRECOL, the U.S. government has a legitimate role to play in pressuring General Motors to meet their legal obligations and provide compensation to current and former employees suffering from work place injuries.
For Manuel, Jorge, Ferne and all members of ASOTRECOL, true labor advances in Colombia would come in the form of monetary compensation, reintegration into GM or occupation re-training, medical care, and thereby justice in their cases.
Kicked to the Curb a video about ASOTRECOL
(Photo Credits: Annalise Udall Romoser)