Colombia: GM and hunger strikers agree to mediation

A group of former employees of GM Colmotores, the Colombian subsidiary of the Detroit-based General Motors Company (GM), announced on the morning of Aug. 24 that they had agreed to enter into mediation to resolve a dispute with the company. As part of the agreement, they were ending a liquids-only hunger strike that 12 workers started on Aug. 1 to pressure Colmotores to reinstate them and compensate them for injuries. They said that until the dispute was settled, they would continue an encampment in front of the US embassy in Bogotá which they have maintained for more than a year.

According to the former employees’ organization, the Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of Colmotores (Asotrecol), some 200 of the company’s workers have disabilities caused by injuries on the job, repetitive stress injuries or work-related illnesses. Asotrecol says the company simply fires injured workers instead of compensating them and moving them to jobs they can handle. Colomotores management has repeatedly denied Asotrecol’s claims, but apparently it decided to accept mediation rather than face the negative publicity being generated in the US by the three-week hunger strike and by photographs of seven fasters who sewed their lips shut. The workers’ supporters in the US include the nonprofit organization Witness for Peace and the main US labor confederation, the AFL-CIO.

The US Labor Department issued a statement on Aug. 24 welcoming the accord and highlighting its own role, along with the US embassy in Bogotá and the US Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, in brokering the deal. The statement failed to mention that the US government itself is a party to the dispute, since it is General Motors’ largest shareholder as a result of a major bailout in 2009. “To us it seems unjust and a double standard,” Asotrecol president Jorge Parra told reporters, “for the government of [US president Barack] Obama to demand respect for labor rights in Colombia and the same time allow the abuses that have happened to us.” (AFP, Aug. 24, via Univision; AFL-CIO Now blog, Aug. 24; US Labor Department press release, Aug. 24)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Aug. 26.