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Colombian union leaders in danger

Multiple death threats to labor union leaders and their families mark the implementation of the Free Trade Agreement between the United States and Colombia today.  John Jairo Castro of the Port Workers’ Union, Wilson Ferrer, President of the CUT labor federation in Santander, Johnnson Torres Ortis of the sugar cane cutters’ union SINALCORTEROS, and Rene Morales Silva of the African palm oil workers’ union SINTRAINAGRO have all received death threats.
These threats come in an upsurge of anti-union violence which is marked by the April 27 assassination of Daniel Aguirre, the Secretary General of SINALCORTEROS. Mr. Aguirre was the first union leader killed since Obama announced the implementation of the free trade agreement (FTA) at the Summit of the Americas.
The FTA is being implemented without having meaningfully complied with the Labor Action Plan, an agreement signed by Presidents Obama and Santos in 2011 that was intended to make the FTA’s passage contingent on improving the grave state of labor and human rights in Colombia. The US Department of Labor has provided $2 million to the Labor Action Plan, but labor conditions for Colombian workers remain dire.
The unionists that were threatened work in sectors prioritized by the Labor Action Plan. In fact, trade unionists have received over 500 death threats resulting in 29 assassinations (seven in this year alone) since the Labor Action Plan went into effect. This is a tragic reminder that exercising labor rights, including the right to be directly contracted, can mean risking your life in Colombia.
Currently only 4 million of Colombia’s 18 million workers are estimated to have formal labor contracts, and more than half of those are temporary. Only 3.5% of the labor force is able to unionize due to violence and third party contracting which denies workers their basic rights. Colombian workers are demanding that these conditions change, and death threats and assassinations are the response that they have received for their fight to preserve their lives and their rights.
The freedom to organize without fear of reprisal is fundamental to the creation of a fair working environment, and a fair and humane trade agreement cannot exist in a climate where union leaders are under threat and extrajudicial killings are conducted with widespread impunity.
—Witness for Peace


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