Reprinted in partnership with International Labor Rights Forum.
March 3, 2014
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.”