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Coal Spill Puts Spotlight on Colombia’s Labor and Environmental Struggles

12:40 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

A miner sits in front of the Cerrejón coal mine in Guajira, Colombia. Cerrejón is one of the major coal companies in the country who have come under fire for human rights and environmental violations. (Santiago la Rotta / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

The Alabama-based Drummond Company’s recent coal spill in Colombia has combined with its record of labor abuse to place the coal giant at the intersection of the country’s political struggles and environmental crises.

In 2007, Colombia issued a mandate for coal exporters requiring Drummond Company to update its loading facilities at a key port in Cienaga by installing closed conveyor belts, a cleaner system than the traditional barges and cranes used to load coal. But Drummond has continuously failed to retool its operations. After a wrecked barge spilled hundreds of tons of coal into the port waters in 2013, Colombia imposed a $3.6 million fine on the company—and now, in a rare regulatory confrontation from the usually business-oriented regime, the government has suspended its port license to induce Drummond’s compliance.

The move seems aimed at demonstrating President Juan Manuel Santos’s commitment to environmental protection—perhaps as part of a broader campaign to strengthen ecological protections for politically tumultuous, resource-rich areas. Colombia has for years courted energy companies to use its mineral resources, and Drummond, a major exporter to Europe, is an established foreign investor.

Though the coal spill reportedly did not result in major long-term environmental damage, it became a sensation when a watchdog photographer, local attorney Alejandro Arias, widely publicized images of a crane hauling up coal and water from the barge and dropping it into the sea. In an interview with Bloomberg, Arias stated, “I want people in Europe to know that they’re heating themselves with coal that has caused pollution [in Colombia] … Royalties paid by mining companies here don’t nearly cover the costs of all this.”

Drummond vehemently defended the environmental soundness of its operations in an official statement, blaming its compliance failure in part on construction delays tied to last year’s mineworker strike. But the unrest that led to that labor action arguably stems from the same situation environmentalists blame for the dumping: the notorious impunity of many multinationals in the Global South, particularly in the energy sectors, which exploit poor countries’ resources and workers to feed carbon-burning industries abroad.

Colombia ranks among the world’s deadliest places to be a trade unionist, with thousands of union members murdered and brutalized over the past two decades. In 2013, union slayings did decline somewhat while the number of strikes increased—potentially suggesting a less oppressive climate for labor in the future. Whatever this year’s body count, however, violence continues to stalk workers who dare to organize. Last week, United Steel Workers and the international labor group IndustriALL issued letters condemning Colombia for its repeated failure to address anti-union assaults, citing the recent murder of Ever Luis Marin Rolong, an electrician and local leader of the SINALTRACEBA union.

And Drummond’s union workers have remained defiant despite the risks. Though it was hardly the first labor clash Drummond has had to deal with, the strike that started last summer made waves in global energy markets because it lasted for months and forced a partial suspension of Drummond’s export contracts. In a dispute over wages and layoffs, workers struck for more than 50 days. Eventually, the Labor Ministry intervened, and workers voted to end the strike under pressure (though one of the largest unions, Sintramienergetica, remained opposed).

But Drummond reportedly has a more sinister history when it comes to worker repression. Human rights groups have long accused the company of complicity in vicious anti-union hostilities, citing evidence gathered from union sources and Wikileaks documents. A major civil lawsuit in the U.S. courts was denied last year, but volumes of potentially damning testimony remain part of the public record.

In one testimony issued in October 2011, a witness who worked with Drummond in the 1990s and early 2000s claimed to have aided Drummond in brutalizing unionists:

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Unions Under Siege in Guatemala

11:29 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Melvy Lizeth Camey Rojas, Secretary General of the SNTSG Santa Rosa Dept, shows the scars of the bullet wounds she suffered in an assassination attempt in August 2012 at her union office. (Photo from Public Services International)

Originally published at In These Times

Guatemala is beginning to emerge from a grim history of military dictatorship and civil strife, but its workers remain mired in the nation’s bloody legacy. Even today, as the country hobbles toward democracy and seeks justice for past atrocities, trade unionists are still a target of violence, with many killings hidden under a cloud of government impunity.

In 2011 and 2012, there were a string of murders of members of the banana workers union, SITRABI. Overall, 64 trade unionists have been murdered in Guatemala since 2007 and hundreds have been systematically terrorized. And the vast majority of such crimes are never prosecuted, let alone punished. Activists believe that unionists are targetedbecause they represent workers’ interests, which puts them this puts them at odds with powerful corporate and state institutions.

Following negotiations with the International Labour Organization and International Trade Union Confederation, the Guatemalan government reached an agreement earlier this year to cooperate with ILO monitors to address anti-union violence and strengthen labor protections. But the bloodshed has not let up.

In a new report, Public Services International, a global labor federation representing public-sector workers, recounts vicious attacks on fellow unionists:

In March 2013, three members of PSI affiliate unions were murdered just days after an ILO mission visited Guatemala to assess the situation of freedom of association. On March 8, 2013, Carlos Hernandez, executive member of the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de Salud de Guatemala (SNTSG) and leader in several peasant organizations, was shot dead by two men carrying 9mm firearms on motorcycles. Santa Alvarado, also a member of the SNTSG, was kidnapped on March 21 after finishing work in the kitchens at the national hospital in Totonicapán. She was later found strangled. Kira Zulueta Enriquez Mena, General Secretary of the Sindicato de Trabajadores Municipales de Nueva Concepción in the department of Escuintla, was assassinated on March 22 at the library where she worked.

While the culprits may be hidden, unionists say these are not singular incidents of criminality. Labor advocates see the killings as a byproduct of deep government corruption linked to both drug trafficking and the business world. The unions’ position as workers’ representatives, they say, makes them a threat to corrupt enterprises and officials, leaving them exposed to killings by hired criminals.

Speaking to In These Times through an interpreter, Luis Antonio Alpirez Guzmán, secretary of dispute resolution with the health worker’ union SNTSG, which has reported several members assassinated in recent years, says local activists believe government officials “are not ordering the assassinations, but they are not doing anything to avoid them. And they are not taking proper action to investigate these assassinations. Therefore the government is considered an accomplice.”

Local and international labor groups are some of the few civil society voices mobilizing todemand action amidst the official silence. Last week, an international delegation of labor activists traveled to Guatemala to demand full investigations of recent murders of trade unionists and pressure the Guatemalan government to prosecute the crimes. The delegation was coordinated by PSI and included representatives from affiliate unions in Europe, Latin America and the United States. PSI General Secretary Rosa Pavanelli says via email that a “historical anti-union feeling” is “present in some sectors of the government as well. As such, a climate of impunity and fear exists.”

The PSI delegation has called on Guatemala’s wealthy trade partners to suspend commercial ties in response to the human rights crisis. In particular, they want European governments to suspend a key program that facilitates trade between the two regions, the European Union Central American Association Agreement (EU-CAAA), which gives trade preferences to Guatemalan businesses.

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Labor Action and Inaction in Colombia Free Trade Deal

11:02 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from In these Times

Rally for human rights in Colombia (image: mar is sea Y via flickr/Creative Commons)

As the media swarmed over the scandal surrounding the Secret Service’s alleged carousing with prostitutes in Colombia, another questionable financial transaction slipped quietly through the backdoor of hemispheric diplomacy.

While officials convened at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena earlier this month, the White House put the finishing touches on another free trade agreement, aimed at liberalizing markets in Colombia and the U.S. The deal has faced vocal resistance from labor and human rights groups in both countries, who argue that the agreement would effectively condone violence against activists and economic oppression. But for the governments looking to build economic ties, the fears raised by civil society groups were just background noise. The Obama administration tried to put the lid on the opposition by tacking on labor policies to address anti-labor violence and other abuses.

Now officials have tacked onto the deal a Labor Action Plan, which, at least on paper, promotes fairer labor practices and stronger protections for workers and unions. The White House has certified Colombia’s compliance with the plan—a condition of sealing the trade agreement, which is set to go into effect in May. Human rights and labor activists are not impressed, pointing to dozens of recent murders of trade unionists and other union-busting actions, along with ingrained weaknesses in Colombia’s political system that foster corporate and government impunity. Read the rest of this entry →

It’s NAFTA x3 as Free Trade Deals Sweep Through Congress

1:38 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from

One day in September, Isidro Rivera Barrera, a contract worker and labor organizer who was campaigning at an Ecopetrol refining facility in Barrancabermeja, Colombia, was reportedly gunned down outside his home. His death was met with the usual silence—just business as usual in a country with one of the world’s worst human rights records for attacks on trade unionists. But now, the hushed suffering of Colombian workers reverberates in the U.S. Capitol, which has just passed a deal to bring even more business-as-usual to Colombia.

Congress last week approved three long-pending trade deals with Panama, South Korea and Colombia. The rationale behind each of them is dubious; there’s little evidence that the agreements will lift up the U.S. economy and plenty that they could lead to massive job loss in key sectors. But free trade deals have always been less about creating jobs than exporting neoliberal ideology to the Global South, thereby accelerating poor nations’ cascade toward low labor standards, environmental exploitation and deregulation. Read the rest of this entry →

Labor Day Showdown: Can Advocates Stop ‘NAFTA of the Pacific’?

4:27 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from

This Labor Day, the Pacific Rim will wash into the Midwest’s flagship city, and activists will confront the tides of global commerce with a demand for global economic justice.

At trade talks in Chicago, the Obama administration will work with other officials to develop a trade agreement that will incorporate Vietnam, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, New Zealand, Australia, Chile and Peru. Labor, environmental and human rights groups will gather in the city to warn that the structure, and guiding ideology, of the emerging trade deal could expand a model of free-marketeering that has displaced masses of workers across the globe and granted multinationals unprecedented powers to flout national and international laws.

The provisions of the Trans-Pacific Free Trade Agreement or Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are still under wraps. But the general outline seems to mimic the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and similar pacts that have brought political and economic turmoil to rich and poor countries alike. The new negotiations are also taking place amid political friction over pending trade deals with South Korea and Colombia, which have run into opposition over concerns about labor abuses abroad and offshoring of U.S. jobs. Yet the White House continues to push free trade as a path toward the country’s economic revitalization.

So on Monday, activists with Stand Up! Chicago and other groups hope to get ahead of political deal-making by demanding that any new trade deal give greater priority to environmental, labor, and health concerns. The ongoing trade talks offer a tiny opening for advocates to put forward ideas for making trade less hostile to ordinary people. In a way, they’re taking the Obama administration on its own word, because the TPP has been billed as a “21st century” trade pact that will presumably improve on previous trade agreements.

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Embattled Colombian Unionists Rally Against ‘Free Trade’

9:31 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(photo via L.A. Progressive)

Cross-posted from In these Times

Gathering with fellow unionists in Washington, D.C., Jose Hugo Yanini speaks firmly about labor rights in Colombia. But a few weeks ago, the industrial janitor and shop steward feared that he soon might never utter another word.

Yanini, who is campaigning with SEIU and other groups against the pending U.S.-Colombia trade agreement, is a typical target in his home country. Last month, on his way home from collective bargaining talks, labor activists report, he got the anonymous phone message that every Colombian union activist dreads: “Tell that man that he should be careful with his tongue or we will cut it out.”

So far, the case hasn’t been fully investigated and the public doesn’t know who was behind the menacing call. But people do know Yanini’s boss: the multinational company Sodexo, a major provider of food and custodial services in the U.S. and other countries, and a notorious union-buster at home and abroad.

What brought Yanini and other Colombian unionists to Washington is a simple demand that the U.S. simply not continue to do business with a country where speaking out for labor rights can be a death sentence.

The Colombia Free Trade Agreement has been pending for years in Congress along with other trade deals, stalled by political stalemate as well as intense opposition by unions and human rights advocates. It would strip away tariffs and, like the North American Free Trade Agreement, subject both countries to a series of byzantine bilateral trade rules ostensibly designed to maximize profit. In reality, as with NAFTA, the deal is designed to maximize exploitation and minimize corporate and government accountability.

Earlier this year, the Obama administration touted the Labor Action Plan, a joint agreement to enhance labor laws and regulatory mechanisms. Though the plan contains provisions that look good on paper—such as legal reforms to bar certain labor abuses and anti-union activities—advocates fear that it’s just window dressing for a deal designed to enrich the companies that keep workers impoverished and silenced.

According to U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project (US LEAP), the LAP does meet some of the demands of labor unions by promising stonger enforcement of labor law and preventing employers from undermining organized labor by exploiting contract and cooperative systems. But in an April statement, the group concluded:

(1) does not require an actual reduction in violence against trade unionists or advances on impunity, (2) is limited only to labor issues and does not address a wide range of other concerns, including human rights violations, militarization, impact on agriculture, internal displacement and the rights of Afro-Colombians, and (3) provides no way to ensure compliance once the Colombia FTA is implemented. Consequently, prominent labor and human rights groups have joined leading Colombian trade union organizations in denouncing the agreement as woefully inadequate as a sufficient condition for approval of the FTA.

Colombian activists came to D.C. to give a ground-level perspective of the gap between the LAP’s official language and the reality that workers face everyday.

Carlos Olaya, director of research with the union SINALTRAINAL, is skeptical that the labor accord would alleviate obstacles to effective labor organizing.

Even organized workers have “no real access to collective bargaining rights,” he said, recalling that in his union, negotiations with various companies fell apart and left workers “stuck in limbo.” The fundamental limitation of the LAP, he said, is that:

it’s not changing the business culture, which is one of indirect contracting and not hiring workers in a way that allows them to access their rights. And there’s an ongoing anti-union culture…. it does not address those kinds of root problems, and so workers are continuing to lack access to their labor and human rights.

Beyond labor issues, Colombia suffers from a whole range of crises: a monstrous drug war, ongoing factional conflicts, and deep marginalization of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. All of these problems are interlocked in a climate of impunity and corruption, which is symbolized by Colombia’s distinction as labor murder capital of the world.

In 2010 alone, according to US LEAP, 51 trade unionists were murdered—a considerable increase since 2007, when the Colombian Congress initially approved the pact. Between 2006 and 2010, a staggering 239 trade unionists were killed in Colombia, compared with 265 unionists killed in all other countries combined. The vast majority of cases documented over a quarter century have not resulted in convictions. In light of the vast inequities plaguing the Western hemisphere, perhaps it’s not so ironic that the country’s chaos and oppression has paralleled relatively solid economic growth and plenty of aid from the U.S.

The standard Washington prescription for this social malaise would be more unfettered foreign trade in the name of economic uplift and social stability. But Yanini, whose outspokenness may have nearly cost him a body part, has a different take.

“I work at Sodexo. Sodexo is a very large multinational company that has very high earnings every year. And yet we as workers there have not benefited from anything because they have not wanted to give us any benefits,” he said, adding that the company refused to accommodate health problems, including tendonitis, that limited his ability to work. “They fired seven of my colleagues that wanted to join our union,” he recalled, “just because they wanted to join a union.”

Repudiating the all-boats-rise rhetoric, he said, “that’s a good example of how even large companies that have lots of money are not sharing that wealth with us as workers.”

Though the Labor Action Plan seems to reflect essential labor rights principles, it’s embedded in a trade liberalization regime that undermines human rights and democracy. So the activists who oppose the Colombia FTA won’t be satisfied with labor provisions that focus only on the workplace, without addressing other potential consequences for civil society, for agriculture communities and marginalized groups. By design, that kind of U.S.-Colombia trade “partnership” would simply reward injustice with foreign investment.

“The key issue here,” Olaya said, “is that there’s a large imbalance in that relationship between the US and Colombia. In many ways, both with the FTA and otherwise, the U.S. has a lot of power to impose itself in Colombia.”

For the unionists struggling for survival, an imbalanced trade deal would further compound the power imbalance in Colombia’s labor system, where the price a worker pays for raising his voice is meted out in blood.