With UNW President Todd Parsons, I recently spent ten days in Colombia as part of a trade union delegation organized by the PSAC Social Justice Fund and the BC-based NGO CoDevelopment Canada. The PSAC, along with our sister unions CUPE, CUPW and NUPGE, has been working with sisters and brothers in Colombia since 2004, in an initiative known as Defending Public Services: Canadian and Colombian Workers on the Front Lines.
It was an eye-opener.
Under the new President, Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia has been on a quest for international respectability. The death squads and paramilitaries who hunted down and murdered hundreds of trade unionists and indigenous activists only a few years ago have largely disappeared. But one needs to look beneath the fresh-painted facade.
The paramilitary thugs who once terrorized the countryside are now working as private security guards for the multinationals. The military and the police are anything but neutral: the killings continue. Only this past February a young mother of the Kiwe Nasa people was murdered, during the ongoing unofficial campaign by the authorities and the multinationals to push indigenous people off their ancestral lands and open those lands up for mining. In the same month, the president of the sugarcane workers’ union was killed outside his own house.
One of our most emotional experiences was meeting a group of Afro-Colombian women. Six of them told stories of losing family members in the not-so-distant past. One woman spoke of the military breaking into her house, and shooting five of the inhabitants in front of her. She was thrown out of the house, and heard a sixth shot. It was her nine-year-old son. This was a mere seven years ago.
We were told by Kiwe Nasa representatives that the military, who purportedly arrived in the community to defend the people from attacks, deliberately poisoned their freshwater fish stocks, and accused them of stealing their weapons. Moreover, illegal combatants have been sowing forests and farms with landmines, killing and maiming people, and driving large numbers of inhabitants off the land. A major road is being constructed to facilitate the massive export of oil and mineral resources, palm oil, timber, and other agricultural produce to the world markets via the port of Buenaventura: by no coincidence, this road is displacing several indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, adding to the millions of people already displaced in Colombia.
The people we met cited two Canadian mining companies, Pacific Rubiales Energy and Eco Oro Minerals, as among those multinationals disrespectful of indigenous peoples’ rights. However, massive public pressure has forced the Colombian government to bar Eco Oro from expanding its current mining operations in a national wilderness reserve in a northern part of the country. In retaliation, the company has threatened to sue the Colombian government, under the Canada-Colombia free trade agreement, signed by Stephen Harper in 2009 with the support of the then-Liberal opposition.
Everyone we talked to mentioned that agreement, in fact, which effectively opened up Colombia to uncontrolled Canadian mining interests. A year later, a Private Member’s Bill that sought to regulate the behaviour of our mining companies abroad was shot down, again with the help of the Liberals.
Colombian public sector workers have only recently been granted the right to bargain collectively, another attempt to give the government respectability without any serious changes. Yes, workers may bargain—but the government has to agree to bargain, and it prefers not to. In fact labour laws, and human rights laws too, all part of that facade of respectability, are routinely ignored.
Public sector unionizing is restricted by law to full-time workers. The government, giving with one hand and taking with the other, has privatized its operations, contracting out most of its operations to “cooperatives” of part-time, casual workers who have no collective bargaining rights. That’s supposed to be illegal now, but the law, put in place as a condition of the US-Colombia free trade agreement, is simply ignored. And there is, perhaps needless to say, no Rand formula in Colombia. It’s as though we were looking at a Conservative vision for our own public service a few years into the future.
Public and private sector workers alike join unions at their peril. We talked to a worker in the health sector who was promptly fired for doing so, and subsequently threatened. We also met with two separate groups of human rights lawyers, who live their lives behind bodyguards and in bullet-proof cars. They get text messages: “Your time is up.” They receive bullets in the mail. The old, bloody days of routine assassinations may be over, the military checkpoints all but gone, but Colombia remains a perilous place.
For me, as a Canadian and a trade unionist, it was sobering to learn first-hand of Canada’s implication in the oppression and misery of ordinary Colombians. Those memorable face-to-face meetings were an education in themselves. But I came back energized and inspired by the raw courage of our Colombian counterparts. If they can join together and stand up for themselves in the face of such unimaginable risk—what is stopping us?