M. Speaker, I was in Colombia at the end of August with a delegation organized by the Washington Office on Latin America.
In Medellin, we met with the National Labor School, or ENS, to discuss the current labor situation in Colombia. Their reports on threatened and murdered unionists are internationally recognized, and because of this, ENS faces constant threats and efforts to discredit them.
While not at the levels of the early 2000s, violence against Colombia’s workers continues. It is persistent and frequent. It is a reality that cannot be denied; and it is meant to silence people. At least 40 trade unionists have been murdered since President Santos took office last year.
One benchmark in the Colombia Labor Action Plan is for the Attorney General’s Office to meet with ENS and determine how to address the more than 2900 cases of murdered unionists, of which 90 percent remain in impunity. The first meeting happened in May. But there’s been no second meeting. In Bogotá, I met with Deputy Attorney General Juan Carlos Forero. I asked him when the next meeting would happen, and he said “imminently.” Five weeks later, still no meeting.
Last week, Human Rights Watch sent a study to Colombian Attorney General Viviane Morales. It says “virtually no progress” has been made in getting convictions for killings of labor activists that have occurred in just the past 4½ years. So, virtually no progress on recent murders of labor activists; and little progress on past cases.
Mr. Speaker, I met with port workers, campesinos, workers on palm oil plantations, and petroleum and factory workers. Their reality is filled with risk, threats and even death. They are not valued as human beings, Colombian citizens or productive members of society.
In Cartagena, port workers went on strike in March. Their working conditions are inhumane and they are forced to work under various sub-contracting schemes. These contracts deny them basic benefits and keep them in constant uncertainty about whether they will be working next week or even the next day. They just want the right to negotiate their contracts directly with their employers, the Port Associations.
The port workers ended their strike after just a few days because the Santos government promised to facilitate talks between the workers and the Port Associations. But nothing happened; nothing changed.
In fact, some things are worse. As part of the LAP, the most common sub-contracting scheme, the so-called cooperatives, was abolished. Except nothing was done to facilitate direct contracting between workers and their employers.
So a new scheme has popped up, called “simplified joint stock companies,” or S.A.S. Good-bye cooperatives, hello SAS. Meet the new boss; worse than the old boss.
The government has done little to help. When I asked Vice President Garzón about the port workers, he promised to meet again with their union leader. Mr. Speaker, it’s not the workers he needs to meet with and convince to negotiate; it’s the presidents of the Port Associations.
Oil workers from Meta showed me photos and documents describing poor living and working conditions, unfair contracts, and how the Canadian-Venezuelan oil company, Pacific Rubiáles, acts like a sovereign government on Colombian soil: destroying public roads, firing workers for organizing and calling in security forces to tear gas striking workers. I’m sure it’s not the whole picture, but once again, striking workers returned to work because the government promised to open talks with the company. Again, all the workers are asking for is the right to negotiate directly with the company about their contracts and their living and working conditions. And once again, the Colombian government let the workers down.
In September, the strike was renewed, more explosive on all sides than the last one, because nothing had changed since July. Bruno Moro, the U.N. delegate in Colombia, called on everyone to come to the table and resolve the crisis, describing the conflict as the result of no one creating conditions for dialogue.
The workers have again returned to work because of agreements by the government to open talks with the company. This time, I hope the government keeps its word.
Mr. Speaker, nothing I saw in Colombia indicated things have changed for the better on the ground for Colombia’s workers. Before we take up the FTA, we must demand concrete improvements in labor rights and security for Colombia’s workers. Whatever we’re doing now, it isn’t working; it isn’t making a difference; and it simply isn’t enough.