Published on
Al Jazeera

Colombian Trade Unions Fight On

Rhodri Davies

Colombian authorites have failed to end violence against trade unions [GALLO/GETTY]

BOGOTA - For Luis Mayusa Prada, death was unceremonious.

While walking to his clothes shop at 8 am on August 8 this year in
the heavily militarised Colombian town of Saravena, two men shot him 17

As the men fled on a motorcycle, they left behind a widow and five fatherless children.

Prada became the third member of his family to be assassinated.

Yet the murder of this 43-year-old was not an act of retribution
over a business disagreement or over a family dispute. Prada was killed
- by men believed to be a right-wing paramilitary - for being a trade
union leader.

Deadly profession

Like most of his family, Prada had previously received death threats and moved around the country for decades.

And the case highlights the danger of trade unionist membership in Colombia.

At least 27 trade unionists have been killed this year
and almost 3,000 union members are said to have been killed in the past
22 years.

In 97 per cent of cases, no-one has been convicted over the killings.

Carmen Mayusa, Prada's sister, told Al Jazeera: "I'm scared. There's
a link between the paramilitaries and the government - a permission to
do all of this."

As a nurse and leader of the National Association of Hospital and
Clinic Workers (ANTHOC), threats to her own life first forced her to
flee her home in the department of Meta in central Colombia with her
husband and three children in 1988.

In 2006 she was imprisoned in Bogota, the capital, for 25 days on charges of "rebellion".

Mayusa said that police arrested her and planted a uniform of the
rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) in her home.

Although acquitted in court, she has been prevented from working for
over two years due to an appeal against the ruling by the general
attorney's office.

But despite this and continued threats against her and her family, Mayusa still has "total involvement" in her union.

'Terrorism' claims

In recent years members of the
government, including Francisco Santos, the Colombian vice-president,
have publicly denounced trade union members and linked them to

But Mayusa says: "I don't have any links to Farc or armed groups.

"We have been against the government because they have been privatising the hospitals.

"We have been killed for criticising government policy and the
people in the position to do something - president [Alvaro] Uribe and
his government - don't say anything."

Deaths, insecurity and the stigma now associated with trade unionism
in Colombia have reduced their members from more than three million 15
years ago to less than 800,000 today.

Their membership has also been hit by extensive privatisation
of Colombian firms by the goverment, and the growing number of foreign
companies accessing Colombia's natural resources, some of whom oppose
trade union membership for their workers.

Foreign direct investment in Colombia increased nearly five-fold to
33 per cent of national earnings from 1990 up to 2006, and increased by
another 30 per cent gross last year.

Free trade controversy

Uribe's government is also advocating a free trade agreement (FTA) with the US.

The FTA would immediately eliminate duties on 80 per cent of US
consumer and industrial products, with all duties being removed within
10 years.

Requirements to work with local staff and firms would be removed and
protection for patents would be increased, negating opportunities for
the local manufacture of cheap goods.

The FTA was first negotiated two years ago, but the Democrats put
the pact on hold when they took control of the US congress in November

The party wants the deal to contain tougher labour standards and has its own concerns about the treatment of trade unions.

Losing out

Cesar Ferrari, professor of economics at the University of Javeriana in
Bogota, told Al Jazeera, it was doubtful that the signing of the FTA
will be of benefit to workers in the country as it would be hard to see
what products could compete against heavily subsidised US goods.


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"The consumer will benefit because prices will decrease. But the producers, usually small poor farmers, will lose out," he said.

"And that is a very hard situation for a countryside where there is a lot of unrest."

Ferrari said that the pact instead is effectively providing US
support to Colombia's war on drugs in return for political influence
and preferential access to the Andean country's market.

The US was "going through Latin American countries one-by-one, making them their own market," Ferrari said.

US aid

Colombia has received about $5.5 billion in aid since 2000 from the US.

Critics say the US assistance augments military operations which
often hurt civilians, but the Colombian government says it merely
provides funds for its anti-narcotic operations against cocaine
producers, who are responsible for 90 per cent of the world's

The US maintains its position as Colombia's primary trading partner
by a considerable margin and provides the South American country with
26.8 per cent of its imports and receives 35.8 per cent of its exports.

Renan Vega Cantor, a professor of history and economics at the
University of Pedagojica, warns that the agreement's conditions will
help to further crush the development of trade unions and
publicly-owned companies.

"International trade and commerce are demanding better conditions
for themselves, meaning that the chances workers have to form trade
unions are going to be restricted even more," he said.

Trade 'handicap'

But Angela Maria Orozco, a former
Colombian minister of trade who now runs a consultancy on international
trade, says that not having a free trade agreement with the US is a
handicap in a competitive market.

She also said the role of multinational
firms in Colombia was very positive, especially in bringing better
working practices and finance where it would otherwise be lacking.

In the short-term Orozco sees only a
change occurring for consumers but in the long-term if investment and
Colombian competitiveness improve then "a lot of things might get

"US-Colombian trade is complimentary,
not competitive, so I don't think we will be replaced by anything,
except some parts of the agricultural sector," she said.

However, she cautions that the
government needs to provide regulations for firms so that they cannot
simply "come and abuse" the market.

"This is where the government has a
huge responsibility. But [regulations] are still new ideas in Latin
America. We are not yet the European Union or US."

Multi-national malpractice

However, concerns remain after a series of high-profile companies were linked to paramilitary groups.

In 2007, Chiquita Brands International, a fruit firm, paid out $25
million in fines to the US government for making payments of more than
$1.7 million, primarily to the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia
(AUC), a right-wing paramilitary group, and the Farc rebel
fighters, amongst others.

The Sinaltrainal union has also filed lawsuits against Nestle and
Coca-Cola, accusing the companies of being responsible for the deaths
of union members.

Additionally, the once semi-secret connections between the
paramilitaries, big business and the political establishment have been
exposed in evidence given by former fighters in court cases.

"There are tight relations between the government, paramilitaries and corporations," Cantor says.

"The industrialists, commerce, landowners and TNCs [Transnational Corportations] were all behind the paramilitary groups."

He also says that the policies of the government towards the
unions are an attempt to remove any opposition to pro-free-market goals
that benefit Colombia's elite.

Plight of poor

Colombia's economy has grown 5.6 per cent in the past five years but the benefits have not been felt by all.

The UN says 18 per cent of the country's 44 million population live
on less than $2 a day, while in 2006 the richest 10 per cent of
Colombia's population lived on nearly 47 per cent of the country's

And this has not gone unnoticed by many Colombians.

As Mayusa says: "For us there has been no benefits for the poor even though there could be.

"They are still suffering, still hungry, without jobs and medical
facilities. And even worse they are being killed while the economy


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