May 1 is the traditional day of celebration for workers' rights and this year it is providing an opportunity for many thousands around the world to voice their frustration at government policies they say are harming them.

"What Colombia has done is change the rhetoric … they don't attack trade unions, accuse them of being terrorists anymore. They say wonderful things about them. However, what they say and what is actually happening on the ground is completely contradictory."

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

Workers in Europe are being particularly hard hit following crippling budget cuts by governments claiming it is the only way out of the continent's economic troubles.

But this year, the anger has also spread to the US. The Occupy Wall Street movement and other groups called for a national general strike, which would be the first the country has seen since the 1940s.

Latin America is seeing huge numbers on the streets, and not all in protest. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, the president, announced a new law extending workers' rights as he tries to reinforce his support among his base.

And nowhere in the region is the issue more pertinent than in Colombia, where a recent free trade deal signed with the US has raised serious concerns about the country's record on anti-union violence.

"We do see massive numbers of people going out into the streets and demanding a different kind of model, one that isn't premised on the democracy of corporations."

- Adrienne Pine, an anthropology professor at the American University

Speaking to Al Jazeera Angelino Garzon, the Colombian vice-president who is a former union leader and a candidate for director of the International Labour Organisation, brushed off concerns over the repression of trade unionists and workers.

"In this country there is no institutional violence against workers. We protect workers and we protect people who own companies. We protect unions and all the workers and the institutions of democracy, and we give people the right to get into the unions and organise collectively," Garzon said.

"When the president presented my candidacy he was trying to send a message to the international community, that we're taking a stand in Colombia trying to respect human rights and industry."

So, are labour interests losing out to corporate needs in the Western Hemisphere? How relevant are labour organisations today?

Joining Shihab Rattansi on Inside Story Americas to discuss this are: Adrienne Pine, an anthropology professor at the American University; Cathy Feingold from AFL-CIO, the umbrella group for US unions; and Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli from the Washington Office on Latin America.

"In a moment where a lot of countries are pivoting toward austerity and cutting back on social programmes, Brazil has been spending, creating jobs, supporting unions ...."

Cathy Feingold from AFL-CIO


  • Colombia is reportedly the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist
  • Nearly 3,000 unionists have been killed there since 1986
  • Only five per cent of union-related killings in the country have ever led to a conviction
  • In 2010 there were 51 murders of unionists, in 2011 there were 30 killings - none were successfully prosecuted
  • At least four union members have already been killed this year, and if the assassination rate continues, Colombia will retain the title of most dangerous country for unionists

Source: Al Jazeera