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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 →

Unrest in Indonesia’s Mines: Local Chaos and Global Injustice

8:42 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Grasberg Mine (Wikimedia Commons)

 

Cross-posted from In These Times

Buried in Indonesia’s rich soil is a minefield of brutality, literally. Last year, the Grasberg mine of the Freeport McMoran Copper & Gold, one of the largest such operations in the world, shut down after thousands of workers launched a strike to demand higher wages. Work recently resumed, but the suffering continues while officials and multinationals maneuver to manage Southeast Asia’s resource curse.

In the midst of the massive strike, the company cited “sabotage and security concerns” and the blockade of a critical pipeline, and there were reports of internal conflicts among employees. But the worst impact of the chaos fell on the workers who were mysteriously gunned down. The exact source of the attacks is unclear, but they could be tied into a long-running struggle for control over local mineral assets between the police and military.

Mine workers weren’t the only ones being targeted. While strikers and police clashed in October, leading to the deaths of two unionists, indigenous activists in Jayapura, West Papua, were reportedly struck with batons and bullets at a pro-independence rally.

The unrest surrounding Grasberg exposed both the vulnerability of organized labor and the brute power of the industry. From its Phoenix headquarters, Freeport’s global empire stretches across various political hotspots: Indonesia, Peru, and Democratic Republic of Congo. Read the rest of this entry →

Banana Republic Legacy Thrives in Today’s Latin America

6:25 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Photo: STITCH via Labor Is Not a Commodity (laborrightsblog.typepad.com)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

The term “banana republic” has become a cliche to describe economic imperialism throughout history, but the legacy of colonialism persists in Latin America today. The tradition of predatory capitalism echoed in the recent death of Miguel Angel González Ramírez, a member of the Izabal banana workers’ union SITRABI in Guatemala.

According to the International Trade Union Confederation, the unionist was “shot several times whilst carrying his young child in his arms.” This seems to be another casualty in a labor battle between labor and corporateers who would rather see workers shed blood than be paid fair wages.

The ITUC has demanded an official investigation, noting that in the past year several unionists have been killed or targeted with threats. Last October, SITRABI member Pablino Yaque Cervantes was shot by an unidentified attacker, according to U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project (US LEAP).

Manuela Chávez of the ITUC’s Department of Human and Trade Union Rights told In these Times, “Freedom of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively have been endangered by a very high anti-union repression for years,” adding that the threats to unionists are aggravated by government inaction. Read the rest of this entry →