Organizing with Health Care Workers in Bogota

PASO has partnered with Bogota municipal workers’ union Sindistritales to sign up scores of members over the past several months. The first fruits of this exciting new campaign are the result of the hard work of Sindistritales’ Health Care Committee and a strategy developed in collaboration with organizers from the Service Employees International Union – SEIU – hosted by PASO in Colombia earlier this year.

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Sindistritales is fighting for labor formalization in Bogota’s 22 public hospitals so that workers can gain the right to collective representation and patients can enjoy access to quality health care. The union has brought a lawsuit against six of the district’s hospitals for refusing to expand their directly-hired workforce as ordered by Colombia’s Constitutional Court. Simultaneously, however, Sindistritales recognizes the importance of organizing outsourced workers and raising awareness among hospital workers about the union’s strategies and new laws that prohibit subcontracting core and permanent employees.

PASO brought unionists from SEIU CIR (Committee of Interns and Residents), Local 1021 and Local 1199 and to Colombia who met with the Sindistritales Executive Board and Health Care Committee to develop a long-term organizing strategy. Since June PASO and Sindistritales have been conducting outreach with workers at several of Bogota’s hospitals, building committees, and signing up new members, many of whom are subcontracted workers.

The most important lesson that has been learned from the first few months of this campaign is that many workers are eager to join a union fighting for patient care and to curb subcontracting. Even more importantly a new generation of workers, subcontracted as a result of the privatization of health care services, is looking for new ways to organize. Strategies employed by SEIU in the United States labor movement have proven to be useful tools in taking on similar challenges and new organizing strategies in Colombia.

USO Moves Back into Rubiales Feilds

Union Sindical Obrera (USO) was forced to suspend its work in Puerto Gaitan, Meta in 2011 due to a wave of antiunion violence and repression, including the brutal murder of former USO member Milton Rivas. Community leaders from Puerto Gaitan, where Canadian multinational Pacific Rubiales Energy (PRE) extracts more than 210,000 barrels of oil daily from its largest concession alone, have also been murdered, received death threats, or been forcibly displaced.

In 2011, thousands of striking workers called on USO for representation. The union bargained with PRE winning significant wage increases and vast improvement in housing/food services for the region’s workers. Violence and threats, however, forced USO to leave Puerto Gaitan. Subsequently PRE formed a company union (UTEN) and refused to hire any worker not affiliated, blacklisting thousands who had previously joined USO. In addition, the Colombian military acted in concert with Pacific Rubiales’ private security forces to physically prevent USO from entering the region (on public roads). Even a delegation organized by Colombian Senator Alexander Lopez was turned back (VIDEO) by agents of the armed forces who indicated that they responded only to the orders of ‘the company’.

PASO has partnered with Canadian union UNIFOR to accompany USO’s campaign to return to Puerto Gaitan, where some 20,000 oil workers live in almost complete isolation. Over the past several months, with the support and cooperation of the international labor movement, the United States and Canadian Embassies, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and the Colombian government, PASO and USO have been able to travel in the region and speak to hundreds of workers, the vast majority of whom earn significantly less than industry standards and lack legally-established pension and healthcare coverage. USO is also working with local communities who are concerned about environmental damage, corruption, lack of social investment, and lack of employment for local residents.

Legal Repression Targets USO Leaders

Dario Cardenas, Vice President of the USO Meta Sub Directive (local union), was arrested in 2013 on dubious charges related to 2011 protests in Puerto Gaitan and remains behind bars. This case is part of a broader situation in which Colombian activists are being jailed to prevent their work in the defense of human and labor rights and repress protests.

PASO urges the international community, foreign embassies in Bogota, and the Colombian government to take measures to guarantee the life and physical integrity Mr. Cardenas, and assure that his constitutional rights are respected. In addition, we urge all authorities to ensure that USO leaders are able to exercise labor-related activities in an unmolested fashion in Puerto Gaitan as the union moves forward. Please contact us for more information or if you would like to get involved.

(Above) PASO also visited Schlumberger workers in Meta on strike for wage increases and local jobs. Workers have stopped all Colombian operations at the Texas-based multinational since Monday. Schlumberger employs some 700 workers in Colombia.

Energy Sector Unions Move Towards Merger amid Violent Repression

PASO International is extremely concerned about a rise in direct attacks targeting members of Colombian unions SINTRAELECOL, SINTRACARBON and USO. This rise in violence comes as the unions continue to develop talks and actions towards a 3-way merger that would make this new industrial mining/energy sector union one of the largest in the country.

Recently, on June 18th 2014, a grenade was thrown at the SINTRAELECOL union headquarters in Caldas, Colombia. On this occasion the pin was left in and the grenade did not explode. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) points out that the handling of evidence in this case and past cases has been questioned, and such attacks have gone largely unpunished.

Earlier in March of this year, PASO and the International Labour Rights Forum reported a series of attacks against veteran union leader and human rights advocate Mr. Óscar Arturo Orozco, President of the Caldas Local of the Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Energía de Colombia– SINTRAELECOL (Electrical Workers Union of Colombia) and the regional labor council of Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Colombia (CUT). Mr. Orozco was speaking at a peaceful rally in the city of Manazles to demand the implementation of a collective bargaining agreement previously signed with the regional power generation company CHEC, a subsidiary of the large public utilities company Empresas Publicas de Medellín (EPM). As Mr. Orozco was about to address those in attendance, he was struck in the face with a tear gas canister fired by an ESMAD agent at point blank range, caving in his left eye socket and cheekbone. After several surgeries, doctors were able to reconstruct his face, but he is now blind in his left eye. Numerous death threats and two attempts on his life during a 12 month period were a precursor to this attack.

SINTRACARBON, which represents Colombian coal sector workers, reported an attack on its members gathered for a peaceful protest most recently on June 21st 2014 in Riohacha. On this occasion, a large group of the National Police riot squad (ESMAD), proceeded to verbally and physically assault former employees of Sepecol Ltd. It is reported by those present, that stunning shots, rubber bullets, and tear gas were used against unarmed workers and their families. The union is protesting the recent layoff/lockout of some 800 workers.

Union Sindical Obrera (USO) is Colombia’s largest and oldest petroleum workers union. The union has experienced intense repression from actors on behalf of corporate entities along with the state, and in the past 25 years over 100 of their leaders have been killed. Most recently on June 9th, the vice president of the Barrancabermeja USO local, Ivan Guerrero Sanchez, fell victim to an attempt on his life, when a motorcyclist attempted to throw a live grenade into his vehicle. Fortunately this attempt on his life, the second against a USO representative in the Barrancabermeja local this year, was unsuccessful, as the grenade blew up just outside of the vehicle.

These incidents collectively form part of an ongoing series of cynical attacks against SINTRAELECOL, SINTRACARBON and USO members, notably during a period of amalgamation, restructuring and strengthening of these organisations in accordance with strategies set forth by CUT and with the support of IndustriALL Global Union. IndustriALL represents 50 million workers in 140 countries in the mining, energy and manufacturing sectors and is a force in global solidarity taking up the fight for better working conditions and trade union rights around the world.

More Momentum for Buenaventura’s Community Mothers

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In-home childcare workers in the largest city on Colombia’s Pacific coast recently formed a Local Union and joined Sintracihobi, which represents tens of thousands of “community mothers” nationwide. Some 63,000 of these women take care of as many as 12 children, ages 1-5, in their homes five days a week providing an indispensable service for working families across the country. Until recently, these women were not considered workers, paid only for the food they cooked for the children in their care.

Over the past few years, many community mothers have unionized, taken action, and won public-sector contracts, representing one of the most tangible victories in the Colombian labor movement. Sintracihobi joined forces with PASO and a local coalition including port sector Union Portuaria to launch the Buenaventura Local in January. On Saturday an assembly was held in which 135 new members joined the Local, which is organizing to better position itself in upcoming contract negotiations.

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An eighty-four year old community mother who works in a rural sector near Buenaventura told PASO, “We have no pensions, so we have to continue to work. That is one of the most important parts of all of this, and why we have made the effort to come to this meeting; the union is trying to win pensions for community mothers”. Another woman in her 30s simply said “The only way we can get Bienestar, [the government entity that pays us,] to respect our [collective bargaining] agreement is to organize and take action. Otherwise it just ignores the contract”.

PASO is accompanying this campaign with the support of SEIU Local 1021 whose Organizing Committee Chair, Ramsés Téon Nichols, came to Buenaventura last summer. Activists from other SEIU locals have come since to participate in educational exchanges and strategic planning sessions with the community mothers. “It is inspiring to work with Colombian labor organizers,” says Téon Nichols “and the labor movement needs to take on the difficult challenge of building power internationally.”

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PASO Completes Successful Series of Educational Exchanges

During the past several weeks PASO has carried out a series of international educational exchanges led by US labor organizer Nela Hadzic of SEIU-CIR with over a dozen Colombian unions representing workers in the port, healthcare, childcare, cane cutting, service and public sectors. Over 400 labor activists from Bogota, Buenaventura and Cali shared their experiences, discussed organizational models and participated in these lively trainings and breakout sessions. At a session with Sindistritales, Bogota’s largest public sector healthcare union, participants focused on how SEIU’s organizing model might be used to strategically target and organize new members in Bogota’s five largest public hospitals.  

Similar trainings were held in Buenaventura with healthcare unions, port workers in Union Portuaria and transportation workers at SNTT. At a workshop with the ‘community mothers’, Buenaventura’s in-home childcare workers, participants noted the similarities between the local struggle and campaigns in the United States; in both places homecare workers have won the right to unionize and become recognized as public sector employees. Breakout sessions were held in which each group worked to craft a unified message to use in their outreach work. The meeting also included the swearing-in of this newly-established local’s first executive board, and 25 new members joined the union!

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Sintrahospiclinicas, a healthcare union in Cali, hosted PASO and members of several other unions at the Hospital Universitaria del Valle. A workshop was held under a large tent in the hospital’s lobby, set up by the union more than four months ago to draw support for their campaign to oppose privatization at the hospital. IMG_8312

The exchange was an inspiring learning experience for Nela. “The twelve days I spent in Colombia working with PASO were incredible. I was welcomed by dedicated, smart union activists wherever we went and saw first-hand their commitment to the union movement in the face of threats and resistance from employers and the media. I look forward to returning and continuing to build relationships with Colombian unionists”. This type of international solidarity provides important education and protection opportunities for Colombian trade unionists. Workshop participants in Cali showed PASO death threats they have received recently, including the President of local federation CUT Valle, Wilson Saenz, and members of Sintrahospiclinicas. Representatives of SINTRAEMCALI denounced an attempted fire-bombing of their office in Cali on April 16. PASO is working with Colombian and international authorities to address these situations.

Trade Unionists Under Threat: Óscar Arturo Orozco

Reprinted in partnership with International Labor Rights Forum.

March 3, 2014
Manizales, Colombia

Nearly three years after the launch of the U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan (negotiated by the Obama and Santos Administrations to address concerns about Colombia’s poor labor and human rights record), trade union leaders continue to be murdered, assaulted, fired, and threatened for exercising their fundamental right to organize.


According to the well-respected Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS), since the Action Plan was announced in 2011 over 75 Colombian trade unionists have been murdered and over 1000 have received death threats. Due to fear of violence and employer retaliation associated with organizing or joining a union, only four percent of Colombian workers are union members.


For over 20 years, Óscar Arturo Orozco, President of the Caldas local of the Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Energía de Colombia– SINTRAELECOL (Electrical Workers Union of Colombia) and the regional council of Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Colombia (CUT), has been on the frontlines of the Colombian labor movement’s struggle for decent work and respect for fundamental labor rights.


The veteran trade union leader has survived multiple attempts on his life (including three in only the past two years) for his work as a union organizer and human rights defender in Colombia.


The latest incident took place on January 10, 2014, when members of SINTRAELECOL conducted a peaceful rally in the city of Manizales, located in the Department of Caldas, demanding the implementation of a collective bargaining agreement they have negotiated with the regional power generation company CHEC, a subsidiary of the massive public utilities company Empresas Publicas de Medellín (EPM).


Around 7:00pm, just as the rally was ending, demonstrators were violently attacked and beaten by the Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios (ESMAD), a special unit of the Colombian police that is supposed to “maintain order” at public events and demonstrations, but is often accused of persecuting students, trade unionists, and other groups of the political opposition.


Just as he grabbed a megaphone to address the demonstrators, Óscar was struck in the left side of his face by tear gas canister fired by an ESMAD agent at point blank range, caving in his left eye socket and cheekbone. After several surgeries, doctors were able to reconstruct his face, but he is now blind in his left eye. At one point during our interview, he leans in to show me the scars from his facial reconstruction surgery, clearly visible even over our patchy Skype connection.


Óscar’s wounds are a visceral reminder that, despite the decline in murders of trade unionists over the course of the past decade, Colombia remains a very dangerous country for union leaders and human rights advocates. Prior to this latest incident, his life has been threatened with disturbing regularity:


•On May 28, 2012, he received a death threat delivered in a letter to the CUT offices stating: “This is the last warning; get out of Caldas.”


•On August 4, 2012, the vehicle carrying Oscar and a colleague to a meeting with a group of fishermen in Arauca, Caldas was shot 5 times by a gunman on a motorcycle. They escaped uninjured thanks in part to the actions of their government-provided security guards. However, inexplicably, his security detail was discontinued shortly after this assassination attempt. To add insult to injury, criminal charges have been brought by a Colombian prosecutor alleging that Oscar and his companion actually staged the August 2012 attack on their own lives.


•On April 9, 2013, he received an email from an unrecognized account stating: “We have agents collecting information about you – we already know where your daughters attend school and where your wife goes.”


•On November 13, 2013, while driving home at night, his front driver side window was hit by bullets and he suffered cuts to the neck and the left hand, narrowly avoiding being shot.


•On November 16, 2013, he received a threatening email in which he was ordered to “sign the convention now, do not hold these big workers assemblies any more, the order has been given, you were saved on Wednesday night from the attempt on your life; the next time will be worse.”


When asked about the impact of the Action Plan, he described the Colombian government’s strategy as a “double discourse,” making cosmetic changes to laws and regulations, but often failing to enforce them in a manner that truly empowers workers to form unions and claim their rights.


Since he cannot rely on the government for protection, Óscar’s union is working with PASO International, an NGO that protects at-risk union organizers in Colombia by providing accompaniment in the field with the support of international labor organizations.


He worries about the toll the threats and violence are on his wife and two daughters: “It’s been very hard on them and I worry for their safety since they have already been threatened.”


Union allies have offered to relocate Óscar to a different region in Colombia, or to help him leave the country entirely, but he remains defiant: “I was born and raised in Caldas, these are my people, and I won’t be exiled.”

Childcare Workers in Buenaventura Form a Union

Labor organizing in this violence-torn port on the Pacific coast of Colombia is a daunting task, but poverty and precarious working conditions have left many workers with no other choice. A group of Buenaventura’s in-home child care workers, known as ‘community mothers’, have contemplated creating a union since the 90’s. Earlier this month it became a reality.

Madres Comunitarias Organize A Union from PASO International on Vimeo.

These community mothers, in coalition with a local port workers’ union and regional officials from CUT, Colombia’s largest labor federation, reached out to PASO and a national union that represents childcare workers, SINTRACIHOBI, for support. An assembly was held on January 24 in which the local union was officially launched.

Jhon Jairo Castro of the local longshore union helped organize and facilitate the assembly. For Castro, cooperation between unions in Buenaventura is essential. “We are here to help get this started, and will continue to lend our support to help this union grow, and grow democratically”, he stated.

SINTRACIHOBI, which represents tens of thousands of community mothers nationwide, gained momentum in their campaign for direct contracts during a national strike in 2013.

Several weeks after the Buenaventura local formed, SINTRACIHOBI won direct contracts for 63,000 community mothers across the country, culminating a drawn-out confrontation between unions and the Colombian government’s Welfare Family Institute (ICBF).

“It has not been easy… but we have finally become recognized as public sector workers” said Leonila Murillo, president of the Buenaventura local and community mother for 25 years. According to Murillo, community mothers – previously subcontracted out by ICBF – often worked for more than 12 hours a day and received no pensions.

For Murillo, the mother of 6, making ends meet has never been easy. “The only way we can get respect at work, and demand that public policy be enforced, is to demand our rights as a group, to come together in the union”.

IndustriALL Responds to State Sanctioned Attacks Against Members

Reprinted and translated with permission of the author Carlos Bustos Patiño, IndustriAll Coordinator in Colombia. IndustriALL Global Union represents 50 million workers in 140 countries in the mining, energy and manufacturing sectors and is a new force in global solidarity, the fight for better working conditions, and trade union rights around the world.

January 15 was a special day for IndustriALL, as it carried out actions in solidarity with Sintraelecol, Union Sindical Obrero, and the Colombian trade union movement. In visits to Colombian embassies around the world we demanded that this country’s government provide an explanation for what has happened to workers repressed for participating in protests, a legitimate right in a country that presents itself as democracy.

Facts reported:
On January 10 Oscar Orozco narrowly escaped being murdered by Colombian riot police squadron ESMAD during a protest held by Sintraelecol. The action was organized in response to the repeated violation of a collective bargaining agreement at the hydroelectric company CHEC–EPM. Orozco, president of the regional council of the CUT Labor Federation, lost his left eye and had reconstructive surgery to rebuild his face. He has survived three attempts on his life and is currently being criminally processed for an alleged self-orchestrated attempted murder.

Meanwhile Campo Elias Ortiz, an IndustriALL and USO activist has been detained along with Darío Cárdenas, Hector Sanchez and Jose Naranjo Dilio, also from the USO. They are being prosecuted for participating in protests against Pacific Rubiales Energy, a company that has egregiously violated the right to freedom of association. This is suspicious timing as the four incarcerated activists have recently acted as witnesses in an investigation into this multinational conducted by the Prosecutor General ‘s Office.

Prominent CUT leader, Huber Ballesteros currently sits in prison awaiting trial for taking part in the 2013 agricultural protests. Ever Marin, a labor leader in the beverage industry and Sinaltraceba member, was killed on January 4 of this year in Barranquilla. He is this first this year to join the macabre list of Colombian unionists murdered since 1986, which exceeds 3,000 deaths to date .

In response to these acts of violence (among many others) against the trade union movement IndustriALL General Secretary Jyrky Raina recently visited the Colombian plenipotentiary ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland to deliver a document denouncing acts of violence in Colombia. Jorge Almeida, Regional Secretary for Latin America and the Caribbean, visited the Colombian embassy in Montevideo, Uruguay to deliver a similar statement. IndustriALL, with 50 million members worldwide, expresses our solidarity with Colombian workers. We demand an end this to the massacre of the Colombian trade union movement and are mobilized in solidarity.

USO Workers Behind Bars

Three oil workers and prominent labor activists at Union Sindical Obrero (USO) have been imprisoned in Bogota, controversially accused of aggravated kidnapping (among other crimes), an offense that could lead to a jail sentence of up to 45 years.

Read a letter from global union Workers Uniting to President Santos concerning this situation HERE.

The imprisoned workers, Hector Sanchez, Campo Elias Ortiz and Jose Dilio Naranjo, are critics of the largest oil company in Colombia, Pacific Rubiales, and key witnesses in a lawsuit in which this Canadian multinational is on trial for environmental crimes and the violation of freedom of association (for various forms of anti-union repression). PASO was present in court Friday when Mr. Sanchez, Mr. Ortiz and Mr. Naranjo were denied bail. They are currently detained and awaiting trial.

In this video Campo Elias Ortiz is interviewed by the Canadian news media:

The accusations are based on events that occurred several years ago in Puerto Gaitan, Meta, where almost half the country’s oil is extracted, during a massive strike involving thousands of oil workers. A public prosecutor from the National Prosecutor General’s Office, Luisa Fajardo, alleges that the three trade unionists, along with 297 other “unidentifiable individuals”, held a large group of workers hostage during these mobilizations. Testimony, however, indicates that people came and went freely from the area in which striking workers were located, and that the vicinity was in fact surrounded by a ring of National Police officers.

According to USO’s lawyers, the state has also accused these workers of conspiracy to commit a crime, blocking roads, and threats, although no direct witnesses, video footage or testimony corroborates any of these allegations. According to international unions and other organizations that have been following this process, the accusations are false and designed to cripple the union.

Hector Sanchez, one of those arrested, lives in a wooden house he built with his own hands in a rural part of Puerto Gaitan where he was helping to construct a water supply system when he was arrested Wednesday and flown to the capital. As well as a union activist, he is the president of his local Community Action Board, where he has organized legal strategies to stop environmental degradation at the hands of Pacific Rubiales. A natural leader, he has dedicated his life to the non-violent struggle against the exploitation of the community that shaped him, a community torn first by war, now by corruption, displacement, and misery at the hands of large-scale oil extraction and agribusiness interests such as African palm plantations.

Oil sector workers in Puerto Gaitan, are hired through monthly contracts in which they work for 21 consecutive days, often for extended hours with no extra pay. While Pacific Rubiales employs around 10,000 workers in Colombia, all but 600 are subcontracted by intermediaries, a practice that is now supposed to be illegal. Decree 2025 in 2012 was intended to ban third party hiring practices for core, permanent employees, a concession which paved the way for the signing of the Free Trade Agreement between the US and Colombia. Thus far, the Colombian government has been unable or unwilling to enforce this regulation. A number of African palm plantations have been levied for third-party hiring practices, but although owners have exhausted all legal measures to appeal the fines, over a year has passed and fines have not been collected by the government.

The arrests are the latest development in a long campaign of violence and intimidation to which workers have been subjected in the region since they affiliated with USO in 2011. A year ago USO activist Milton Rivas was murdered in Puerto Gaitan. Paramilitary groups that refused to demobilize continue to operate in the municipality, as described in detail in a report issued by the Colombian Ombudsman’s office, cited by Verdad Abierta.

The workers imprisoned Wednesday had repeatedly received death threats, but their detention seems to point to a new strategy to silence trade unionists in Colombia. Last month the vice president of Meta’s USO Local, Dario Cardenas Pachon, was arrested, accused of similar crimes, and remains behind bars. Huber Ballesteros, agricultural leader and national board member at Colombian foremost labor federation CUT, was arrested during national anti-free trade mobilizations in August (sign petition for Huber’s freedom HERE). David Ravelo, another prestigious political and labor figure, has now been imprisoned for more than three years, despite grave irregularities in the due process of his trial (more information HERE).

The San Francisco Central Labor Council and the Vancouver and District Labor Council have denounced the situation of ongoing violence and other anti-union chicanery in Puerto Gaitan.

PASO will provide international observation in these legal procedures, help guarantee respect for due process, and enforce the rule of law in Colombia. We also provide important protection for USO workers, as they work to expand their membership and build community coalitions in the region, by means of advocacy and physical accompaniment. The work ahead is challenging, but these objectives will be a crucial component of the broader campaign to hold Pacific Rubiales accountable to labor and environmental standards.

Colombia, in Search of Peace, Democracy and Justice

PASO recently accompanied leaders in the labor and social justice movements working for a new era of peace, democracy and social justice in Colombia.

We observed as many thousands of women marched for peace, social justice and equality. As the movement in support of a negotiated solution to the 50-year civil war grows, people took to the streets not only to express a desire for peace, but to recognize the toll this violence has taken on women in the country and to demand an equal role in the the peace process. PASO is aware of no incidents of violence having occurred in the context of the march.

Women's March

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We also accompanied a coalition of labor, community, indigenous and student groups who are working to put the vision of an ‘oil policy that is just, sovereign and respectful of the environment’ into action. Significant attention was focused on the continued human right violations committed against workers who are affiliated with a union, and communities who are resisting multinationals’ attempts to extract natural resources on their lands.

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PASO has also been working with health care unions and students who are pushing back on attempts to further privatize the public healthcare system in the country.

The Fight Against Healthcare Privatization in Bogotá from PASO International on Vimeo.