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‘Colombian workers are afraid of joining trade unions’

CESAR LOZA and HECTOR VACA tell the Star about the challenges Colombian workers' face

COLOMBIAN workers are waging a struggle to organise in the face of hostility from bosses, as the country grapples with the election of a new right-wing president and a fragile and threatened peace agreement.

Oil workers’ leaders Cesar Loza and Hector Vaca, the general secretary and international secretary of the USO union, told me recently of the economic, social and political threats workers have to face down to build trade unions.

Loza said that Colombian trade unionists had to struggle in an environment of very low union membership, with outright criminalisation of union activity, subcontracting rates reaching 80 per cent and the shocking lack of workers’ rights.

“Many Colombian workers are very afraid of joining trade unions,” Vaca added. “There is a lot of stigmatisation towards trade unions by industrial capitalists.

“But in the oil sector we have managed to change this dynamic. We have built consciousness in the workers. As such, joining trade unions has a positive association that’s seen by workers.”

Vaca said that although trade union rates are generally only around 4.5 per cent, their efforts in the oil sector had led to a rise to between 20 and 25 per cent and he thinks workers will continue to affiliate with USO.

But he noted that it wasn’t just the bosses that workers had to face up to.

“We confront many threats not only from the business establishment but from the government and paramilitaries all around the country,” Vaca said.

“This is hard work but we know we have the support of the workers and the international community to advance in this objective.”

Loza said they hope the peace process — which was expected to seal the end to the 52-year conflict between the government and the guerillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced millions — will lead to major changes in Colombia and deep social transformations.

“However, despite the fact that there is less armed conflict in Colombian society, the enemies of peace continue attacking the peace process,” Vaca said.

“In the two years since, 282 social leaders have been murdered,” including community activists, trade unionists, environmental campaigners — with widespread impunity for their assassins.

With the recent election of Ivan Duque, the candidate of the right-wing Democratic Centre party led by infamous ex-president Alvaro Uribe, there is much concern over the future of the peace process.

“There is a very strong right-wing movement looking to break down the peace agreement, and to prevent it’s implementation,” said Loza.

“Combatants and members of the Farc are going to re-evaluate their positions if the government doesn’t fulfil its side of the agreement.

“This is also concern for social groups who have pushed the peace process forward because we fear there will be a right-wing retaliation against all those social groups which have worked in support of peace.”

This could mean yet more assassinations of social leaders.

The National Liberation Army (ELN), a remaining guerilla group, has attacked pipelines and energy infrastructure within the country, causing severe disruption to the part-privatised state oil company Ecopetrol.

“While these attacks affect the oil infrastructure, they also affect the environment, the water sources and the national economy and earnings, but of course they also effect workers,” Vaca says.

“Workers have died in some of these attacks. As a trade union we reject all acts of violence, including attacks on the oil infrastructure.

“But they also show that the government will not be able to defeat the guerillas, and the guerillas will not be able to take power.

“So the only form of resolution is through dialogue for the future wellbeing of the country.”

Vaca said that Duque wants to implement labour reforms, including lengthening shifts to 10 hours.

“He wants to eliminate [overtime] for workers and says that reducing [overtime pay] will make it more attractive for businesses to generate new business opportunities and work through that.

“This will lead to reduced salaries and restricted economy. He suggested a pension reform, increasing the retirement age — from 57 for women and 62 for men — up to 70 for both, and reduce pensions.”

Duque also wants to cut business taxes and raise taxes on workers and the middle class, Vaca added.

Although there are differences between the current Juan Manuel Santos government and Duque around the peace process, Loza says that in terms of political economy and society they are very much the same.

“Their policies are very aggressive [against] workers, for example they both promote anti-social reforms, tax reforms which involves less tax for multinationals, and more taxes on [the rest of] society.

“They both subscribe to a neoliberal model and under Duque they will continue privatising the very little that remains in the hands of the Colombian state.

“Duque continues to promote free-trade agreements that have a negative effect on national industry and rural, peasant agricultural communities. For example, Colombia imports 14 million tons of food a year, and will continue to do this.”

And Vaca noted that the United States’s congratulations to Duque “do not come for free.”

“Donald Trump is an enemy of peace. He promotes war, he promotes Israeli aggression against Palestine, he promotes the breaking of the peace process, and he has asked in one case for the extradition of Farc leaders on false claims of drugs trafficking — set-ups.

“Duque will promote privatisation, and the reduction of worker rights. This will obviously go down well with the US because a lot of their multinationals work in Colombia.

“And this is done to support the interests of those companies, especially in the mining and energy industries.

“Another important element to note around the alliance between Trump and Duque is that Colombia will be used as a US base to attack progressive governments in Latin America.”

Colombia has recently become a Nato “partner”, the first Latin American country to do so.

However, there are some rays of hope in Colombia politics, with Loza noting the eight million votes received by left-wing presidential candidate Gustavo Petro as an important sign that advances can be made in upcoming local elections, and at a national level in four years’ time.

“Petro’s success means there will be strong opposition to the government in the congress,” Vaca added. “It will also raise consciousness in the population for the needs for political and social change.”

Vaca stressed the importance of international solidarity in supporting the Colombian people in making such change, especially through trade union links.

He said that he believes that the support from unions including Unison and Unite, as well as organisations such as Justice For Colombia, have been vital in the face of the threat of Duque.

“While here,” Vaca added, “we have agreed with Unison to continue our co-operation which aims to reinforce trade unions in Colombia and to encourage trade union affiliation, especially among young people and women in the oil sector” — showing the practical results of such solidarity.

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