Workers' Rights and Violence against Labor Union Leaders in Colombia

Latin America and the Caribbean

In the middle of ongoing discussions about the Free Trade Agreement between the United States and Colombia, the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing yesterday, February 12, 2009, on one of the pressing issues regarding the FTA: the rising violence against union labor leaders in Colombia. Although the topic of yesterday’s hearing was not specifically about the FTA, the issue was brought up on several occasions by Committee members. The majority of the witnesses who testified agreed that the issue of violence against union labor leaders must be addressed before the FTA is ratified by the U.S. Congress. Below are highlights from the witnesses’ testimonies at the hearing. The full statements from each witness and opening statement from Rep. George Miller (CA) are available on the Committee on Education and Labor’s website. Despite the great emphasis the current administration is placing on security, after a few years of declining murder rates, violence against labor unions showed a steep increase in 2008 of 25%, going from 39 murders in 2007 to 49 in 2008. -Jose Luciano Sanin Vazquez, from the Escuela Nacional Sindical in Medellin, Colombia The murder rate of unionists in Colombia is five times that of the rest of the countries of the world, including those countries with dictatorships that have banned union activity. -Mr. Jose Luciano Sanin Vazquez It is a systematic pattern that in all of these criminal acts, the public prosecutor is content to determine the responsibility of the material authors, leaving out the intellectual authors, who are the most important, given that they are the ones who sponsor, order the executions, put up the money, and always remain in impunity. Thus, these crimes will not stop, since the true perpetrators are not prosecuted. Dr. José Nirio Sánchez, former 2nd criminal judge of the specialized circuit of the Republic of Colombia who served the Colombian government for 35 years. Additionally, Robert Andrews (D-NJ -01) highlighted that out of the 2,695 union member murders, only 1,032 cases are under prosecution and only 73 cases have been resolved by the Prosecutor Generals Office in Colombia since 2001. What kind of message would Washington be sending by committing to a FTA with a country that has such a dismal record? When asked about the FTA and human rights provisions by Mr. David Wu (D- OR-01), Maria McFarland, from Human Rights Watch, stated that “getting Colombia to do anything about the anti-union violence and impunity has been like pulling teeth and it’s only been with the possibility of non-ratification of the FTA on the table that they have established this special prosecutor unit that is starting to make a little bit of progress”.