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Concerns over violence in Colombia raised at ILC

17 June, 2021Violation of ILO Convention 87 on freedom of association in Colombia was on the agenda at ILO Committee on the Application of Standards during the International Labour Conference.

At the end of April, a broad alliance of Colombian workers and civil society organizations began demonstrating peacefully against a tax reform bill, regressive labour law and pensions reforms, only to be met by brutal repression.

The ILO supervisory system and Committee of Experts have repeatedly found that unions, “should be able to have recourse to protests, strikes, in particular when aimed at criticizing a government’s economic and social policies”. In Colombia, the State is responding with extraordinary levels of violence and using anti-riot police force against its population, targeting youth in particular.

Recently death threats targeting union leaders have again spread all over social media. These are not isolated incidents, but part of an escalation of violence towards union and social leaders, initiating from the Duque-Uribe administration.

In their 2021 report, the Committee of Experts notes the specific allegations by the CUT and CTC that:

(i) three years after the conclusion of the Peace Agreement, between 2016 and May 2020, there were 998 cases of violations against the life and safety of trade union leaders (including 119 murders)

(ii) between August 2019 and May 2020, there were another 141 documented acts of anti-union violence, including 18 murders and 101 death threats, with a trend for an increase in murders over the past four years

(iii) 44 per cent of the acts of anti-union violence are attributable to paramilitary groups, and 52 per cent are of unknown origin"

IndustriALL general secretary Valter Sanches addressed CAS in the name of International Transport Workers Federation, Education International and Public Services International, expressing grave concern about the extreme violence and the continuing homicide of union leaders and members as well as the lack of adequate protection schemes that the Colombian government is supposed to provide to leaders and members at risk.

In La Guajira, 226 permanent workers were fired by mining company Cerrejon, without any just transition measures. The company argues sustainability measures but the massive sacking comes as brutal retaliation for a successful 90-day strike. Unions are not consulted as social partners, with the consequence of workplaces seeing Covid cases rapidly increasing.

Trade union leaders from Union Sindical Obrera are blocked and refused entry to their workplaces at Ecopetrol, in violation of the current CBA. The company uses the Covid pandemic as an excuse to only allow scheduled workers to enter. Workers report that with no union leaders – who are also workers -in the workspace, their rights are violate.

Valter Sanches declared:

“In the light of the current escalation of state violence and brutal repression of legitimate civil protests against structural reforms, the global union federations align with the Committee of Experts’ recommendations, that the “Government of Colombia must take all necessary measures to ensure that all acts of anti-union violence, including homicides occurring, are investigated and that instigators and perpetrators are convicted.“