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“We Are Prepared to Die”: Workers in Colombia at General Motors Plant Sew Their Mouths Shut to Protest Backbreaking Labor Conditions

Instead of providing medical care and changing the work patterns of injured employees, General Motors fires them.

Jorge Parra struggles to get the words out of his painfully swollen lips, stitched together with thick thread. “This is for all the workers,” he says with a muffled voice. “We are now prepared to die because this situation is critical. General Motors has given us no choice.”

Parra, 35, is one of a group of former General Motors employees who have sewn their mouths shut in a hunger strike protesting the treatment of workers at the company’s Colombian plant, Colmotores. They say GM has fired injured workers, refused to provide compensation and erased medical records. After spending a year protesting outside Bogota’s United States Embassy with no results, they decided to take drastic action.

“The sewing was extremely painful,” says Manuel Ospina, a 42-year-old father of five who says he’s been left permanently disabled by a spinal injury. “But the more pain we suffer here every day, the more hunger we feel, hopefully we can force people to take notice. If we can’t resolve this problem we will die trying.”

Parra and Ospina say more than 200 Colmotores employees have been injured while working at the automotive plant outside Colombia’s capital city of Bogota. Herniated discs, severe carpal tunnel syndrome, lumbar scoliosis and chronic tendonitis are among the list of complaints they claim many have suffered after years spent doing repetitive, physical work making GM’s car parts.

Instead of providing medical care and changing the work patterns of injured employees, GM fires them, according to the protesters, who last year set up the Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of Colmotores (Asotrecol) in an attempt to defend their rights.

GM, which has more than 1,800 Colombian employees, vehemently denies Asotrecol’s allegations. In a statement, the company said: “General Motors Colmotores is respectful of the law and has never put the health or the well-being of its employees at risk…No employee has been discharged for health reasons.” Of the ex-employees who have filed legal claims, 95% of the cases have been resolved in GM’s favor. Asotrecol blames the Colombian government and GM’s “corruption.”

The protesters say they are in no doubt as to why they were fired. Injuries suffered on the job gradually rendered them incapable of carrying out physical labor. “I fell down the stairs carrying a piece of machinery,” says Ospina, who worked for GM for 11 years before he was fired in 2008. “I received serious injuries to my spine which the company doctor said we would not report to the insurers so that I could keep my job. The pain got worse over time and left me unable to walk. GM refused to listen or give me different work and after I complained multiple times they fired me.”

It is almost impossible for a disabled person to find work in Colombia, says Ospina, who says he is now such a burden on his wife and five children that if the hunger strike kills him they will be better off. “We are all qualified engineers but we have been left with nothing, no way to make money, losing our houses, leaving our children and wives going hungry.”

Asotrecol and the international organizations supporting it claim the treatment allegedly meted out to Colmotores employees highlights the fact that appalling labor rights abuses continue unabated in Colombia. They say U.S. claims that the Andean nation has dramatically improved its record on workers’ rights – required for the recently ratified neoliberal trade agreement between the two countries to go ahead — are a farce.

The trade agreement stalled for years in US Congress due to concerns about labor rights in Colombia, for years the world’s most dangerous place to be a trade unionist. In April last year, the US and Colombia signed a Labor Action Plan that obliged Colombia to take “major, swift and concrete steps” to improve workers’ rights, before the liberalized trade agreement could be implemented. Despite fierce opposition from unions, human rights organizations, senators and analysts in both nations, who say these commitments have not been met, Barack Obama and his Colombian counterpart Juan Manuel Santos announced last April the treaty would go into effect on May 15.

The Labor Action Plan has been brushed aside by both countries’ governments and multinational companies like GM, according to Asotrecol. To draw attention to the US’s alleged failure to hold Colombia to its trade agreement obligations in the run-up to the treaty’s ratification, it set up camp outside Bogota’s US embassy on August 1 last year.

The protesters have maintained a permanent presence there ever since, but after failing to get any response decided to begin a hunger strike on the camp’s one-year anniversary. Four men sewed their mouths shut, and another three followed suit a week later. Another group of Asotrecol members will sew their mouths shut every seven days until the group’s demands for medical care and reintegration into the workplace are met, they say.

Before receiving six stitches in his lips, former assembly line worker Carlos Trujillo said the workers could not wait any longer for someone to listen. “They fired us without just cause, endangering us and our families,” he said. “We are taking this decision because our health has worsened each day, we’re losing our houses, we practically live in the street, and we’ve been forgotten by the government.”

According to Austin Robles, a Colombia representative for US NGO Witness For Peace, which is supporting Asotrecol, US government involvement in GM makes the case even more shocking. The US government bailed out GM to the tune of more than $50 billion when it filed for bankruptcy in 2009. “The US government promised that it would improve labor rights in Colombia, yet it is one of GM’s largest shareholders,” says Robles. “The U.S. government should recognize its two-sided stance on this case and pressure GM to stop ignoring these workers before they die of starvation. If the Colombian government is not going to solve the small claims of these 68 workers then it’s hard to believe they have the political will or capability to improve labor rights on a national level.”

Back at the camp, the Asotrecol members hope their increasingly dangerous health situation will force GM or the Colombian government to take action. Parra, who has not eaten for 13 days (he began striking August 1), says he is suffering serious stomach pains and is unable to sleep through the night. The men are being given a saline solution through an intravenous drip, but that can only keep them alive for a number of weeks.

“We are in a lot of pain, a lot of hunger, losing our physical energy but our minds are determined,” says Parra. “These problems are not isolated, they happen everywhere in our country. We are now all prepared to die to make someone do something about it.”