Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world to be a union activist. According to the Solidarity Center of the AFL-CIO, roughly 4,000 Colombian trade unionists have been murdered in the past 20 years, more than 2,000 of them since 1991. The ITUC reports that despite the current government’s strong emphasis on security and a fall in the murder of trade unionists over the last few years, 2008 saw a disturbing 25% rise in cases of anti-union violence due to increased paramilitary activity. A total of 49 trade unionists were assassinated in 2008 and 2009 has seen a similar labor homicide rate. Despite continued violence, the Bush Administration negotiated a Free Trade Agreement with Colombia that has yet to be ratified by Congress.
U.S. corporations such as Coca-Cola, Chiquita, Dole, Nestle and the Drummond mining company have been complicit in such egregious union rights violations. The International Rights Advocates (comprised of ILRF’s former lawyers now part of Conrad and Scherer law firm) have brought a number of lawsuits against these companies. The lawsuits charge that companies’ practices of hiring right-wing paramilitary groups to kill and intimidate union leaders is a violation of the Alien Torts Claims Act, a law meant to hold U.S. corporations accountable for human rights violations abroad. View the cases here.
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Workers are also intimidated through the use of death threats, attacks, disappearances, black lists, arrests, dismissals for organizing and widespread contract labor arrangements which limit collective bargaining rights. Only 1.2% of workers in Colombia are covered by a collective bargaining agreement and the rate has been declining over the years as workers see the danger in organizing. Paramilitary groups such as the AUC (United Self Defense Forces of Colombia), which is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, are responsible for the majority of the violence targeting trade unions. There is also a pervasive culture of impunity for crimes targeting unions. The ITUC estimates that over 99 percent of the cases were unpunished and/or not investigated and not a single person/organization to order a labor homicide has ever been convicted.
Many corporations such as Coca-Cola have also used more subtle methods to undermine unions by overwhelming forcing workers into contract labor schemes through employment agencies and labor “cooperatives”. According to a 2008 report of the International Labor Organization, at a Bogota Coca-Cola bottling plant "outsourcing involves 81 percent of the workers." Such overuse of subcontracting has severely undermined workers’ rights to equal pay, social benefits and the right to organize. A new law passed in July 2008 on workers’ cooperatives has not resolved the situation, in the view of the ILO.
Drummond Coal company has also been notoriously unresponsive to workers concerns about health and safety and bargaining rights. 3 workers employed by partially owned Drummond contractors died in 2009. 4000 workers went on strike in 2009 to protest the company's refusal to negotiate a CBA and the poor and precarious working conditions pervasive in Drummond owned mines.
According to the ITUC, labor law and policy still exclude more than two thirds of workers from social and worker protection measures, by denying basic workers’ rights to over 12 million people. The laws and practices of the Colombian State do not favor the creation of stable, permanent jobs, leaving nearly 70% of workers in a precarious employment situations.