Inside Story America

Will Colombia’s protesting workers be heard?

As former GM workers stitch their lips in protest, we ask if a trade deal with the US is behind worker exploitation.

At the beginning of this month a group of former General Motors (GM) workers stitched their lips shut and began a hunger strike in the Colombian capital, Bogota. They had already spent over a year outside the US embassy with no success in fighting against what they said was their unfair dismissal.

There is this high-level [GM] delegation taking place and they’ve met with the US embassy, and they’ve met with others but they haven’t met with the workers, which is completely unacceptable. How are they doing an assessment … they won’t even speak to them?”

-Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli from the Washington Office on Latin America

The protestors say GM has fired more than 200 employees after they reported on-the-job injuries, including herniated discs, carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis, at the company’s Colombian plant.

In addition, they say the US car company refused to provide any compensation to the workers and erased medical records to bolster its legal case.

The US car maker, which started operating in Colombia 50 years ago and now has more than 1,800 employees in the country, denies the allegations and says it has never put the health of any employee at risk, nor discharged anyone for health reasons.

The protest is focusing attention on worker’s rights in Colombia following the implementation of a long-delayed free trade agreement with the US earlier this year. One of the US’ prerequisites for passing the agreement was to enact a Labour Action Plan aimed at curtailing abuses of workers’ rights.

But some argue that such free trade agreements often result in worse conditions for workers. And critics say little has changed in a country regarded as the most dangerous in the world to be a member of a trade union.

In 2011, 29 trade unionists were murdered and 480 injured in violent attacks.

The government [wants] Colombia [to be used] as a market for foreign corporations, so workers who are injured are a cost, people who file compensation claims are a cost, unions are a cost because they push up wages … that’s what behind the continuing terror campaign.”

– David Bacon, an international labour journalist

When contacted by Al Jazeera, GM issued a statement saying: “GM emphasises a safety-first culture in all of our facilities around the world. As one of the first companies to adopt the Global Sullivan Principles, we also have been recognised for the quality of working conditions that exist in all of our operations. That’s why we are interested in learning more about the ongoing safety allegations of a few, former GM Colmotores employees. A team of GM representatives – all of whom have deep experience spanning labour, manufacturing and management issues – travelled to Colombia to better understand and address the situation.”

But Frank Hammer, a former GM employee and former representative of the US-based United Autoworkers Union (UAW) told Al Jazeera that the UAW supports the Colombian workers and was opposed to the free trade agreement and urged “the whole labour movement … to step up to the plate”.

On this episode of Inside Story Americas we ask: Are the rights of workers in Colombia adequately protected?

Joining the discussion with presenter Shihab Rattansi are guests: Austin Robles, from Witness for Peace International who has been working with the GM protestors in Colombia; David Bacon, a journalist who specialises in international labour issues; and Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli, a senior associate for the Andes region for the Washington Office on Latin America.

“GM has refused to negotiate any sort of resolution with the protesters which means that since they’re unable to find jobs elsewhere, they don’t have money to support their families and they’re going to starve to death.”

Austin Robles from Witness for Peace International


  • The agreement eliminates 80 per cent of tariffs on trade between the two countries with immediate effect and phases out the rest over the next decade.
  • Supporters say it will expand US product exports by more than $1bn and create thousands of new jobs in the US and Colombia.
  • Critics argue that Colombia’s poorest could be hurt by the deal. The country’s agriculture ministry says the FTA will eliminate 35 per cent of jobs in the sector and allow corporations to skirt environmental laws, which is of particular concern since the Amazon Rainforest makes up 1/3 of the country.
  • Also of concern is Colombia’s record of violence against unionised workers. Nearly 3,000 trade unionists have been killed in the last 25 years, but only six per cent of those accused have been prosecuted.

NOTE: The still image is courtesy of Asotrecol Asociacion.