The Political Economic Realities behind the ILO Applauding Colombian Labour Relations

By James J. Brittain, Acadia University

Barb Moore, Acadia University and CUPE

Jim Sacouman, Acadia University

This November, the International Labour Organization (ILO) released a report applauding the efforts of the Colombian state to curb violations and injustices against those connected to organized labour and asked the administration of Alvaro Uribe Velez to continue its support for justice and security of Colombian unionists (ILO, 2007a). In summation of its findings, the ILO hoped that the Colombian state would “continue taking all possible steps to provide effective protection for all trade union members, enabling them to exercise their trade unions rights freely and without fear” (ILO, 2007a: 63). In a separate press release the labour organization expressed how it saw the Uribe administration taking “encouraging steps” over the past few years in preventing atrocities against unionists (ILO, 2007b).

The ILO’s support is more than difficult to understand given a recent report published by the AFL-CIO Solidarity Centre showing that “more trade union members are killed ... each year than in the rest of the world combined” (Beck, 2006). To put this into perspective, we have provided a simple table of the years since President Uribe was elected to power to demonstrate how Colombia measures in relation to the entire rest of the world when concerning the assassination of trade-unionists. (See Table 1).

Table 1: Number of (Reported) Unionists Killed: A comparative view of Colombia in

relation to the World1

Year Colombia Rest of the World

2006 80 66

2005 77 45

2004 99 51

2003 178 39

2002 184 213

The plain fact is that more unionists continue to be killed in Colombia than in the entire rest of the world combined. While the ‘kill-count’ has gone down, why or how this relates to the current dynamics of organized labour and die continued repression realized against unionists in both the rural and urban sectors of the country is omitted by the ILO. While fewer unionists are being killed - though still more than the total in the rest of the world! – accounts of arbitrary disappearances, illegal searches and harassments have increased (Leech, 2005; Escuela Nacional Sinidical, 2004). When one compares die past administration to that of Uribe’s government it becomes excessively clear dial ILO figures promoting die current Colombian state as being supportive or protective of unionists is greatly skewed (See Table 2).

Table 2: A Comparative Analysis of the Pastrana Administration (Aug 7, 2000 - Aug 6, 2002) vs. the Uribe Administration (Aug 7, 2002 - Aug 25, 2004)2

Type of Violation Pastrana Admin. Uribe Admin. % Increase

Threats 357 681 91%

Arbitrary Disappearances 10 111 1110%

Illegal Searches 2 14 700%

Harassment 32 63 97%

Forced Displacements 73 98 34%

The ILO’s claim that labour rights and freedoms are improving in Colombia negates the reality lived by unionists on the ground. It is true that fewer murders are taking place. However, this is merely part of a systemic shift in the way that the state and the paramilitary have targeted organized labour.3 The vast majority of unionists murdered over the past few years have not been general rank-and-file members but rather the primary organizers, leaders, and heads of unions. Well over half of the unionists killed since Uribe’s arrival to power were specifically union leaders. Not only are these leaders targeted with threats, illegal searches and harassment, but also their family members are targeted in attempts to silence the union leaders. In in-depth interviews with two union leaders in November, 2006, it was found that their children were especially targeted and not only by threats. A Professor who is the President of a faculty union, told of how a para-military unit came seeking his three year old son in the son’s child care center. If it had not been for an astute child care worker’s success at hiding the child, that three year old would probably not be alive today. Another union leader and his family, who have now immigrated to Canada with the assistance of a national Canadian union’s sponsorship, had his home shot at on at least four different occasions plus his children were being harassed at school. With tears in his eyes, he told of how he could no longer allow his children to go to school even though his daughter loved school and was a very bright student. His worst fears were that his children would be denied education because of his union work.4

Current attacks are targeted at dismantling organized activity as opposed to indiscriminate assaults (Escuela Nacional Sinidical, 2004: 2). In alliance with the US state, the Colombian state strategy is to destabilize and even ‘disappear’ unions by eliminating the leadership. A new sphere of murderous transgressions has been systematically aimed at union organization via the leadership. The ILO’s report holds little weight in the eyes of workers on the ground in Colombia struggling for socioeconomic justice.

Why is the ILO praising the Uribe government for its ‘protection’ of labour? To answer this query one needs to understand the history of the United States government’s relations with Colombia and its historic attack against workers dating back to the Reagan administration. Once these political economic relations are highlighted it becomes ever clearer that the ILO serves nothing but the monopoly capitalist interests of the US corporate empire.

For many watching the current free-trade negotiations between the United States and the Colombian government, it is quite clear that the Bush administration is having an incredibly difficult sales job. The US government has failed in both the so-called ‘war on drugs,’ which is actually a counterinsurgency program to fight the growing power of radical social movements fighting for social justice, and in ensuring protective labour relations within Colombia. This has led the Bush administration to call in as many favours as possible. To understand the current fervour to have this free-trade agreement passed, we will examine the history of the US and Colombian neoliberal push against labour.

Under the Richard Nixon administration [1969-1974], the US state formally announced its ‘war on drugs’ in the late 1960s. Paving the way for the future anti-drugs policies of the Reagan, Clinton, and both Bush administrations, Nixon’s time in office began a conjoined foreign and domestic policy that sought to combat the usage of narcotics within sectors of US society.5 Interestingly, this policy was not proactively aimed at combating usage through treatment, understanding why sectors of society consume mind/mood-altering substances, or improvement of socioeconomic conditions. Rather the program entrenched a practice of targeting producer nations, a method that has continued up to the present period (Isacson, 2005: 19; Neild, 2005: 68; O’Shaughnessy and Branford, 2005: 21-22; Livingstone, 2003: 173; Leech, 2002: 41).

In the mid 1980s, during the important revolutionary struggles taking place within Central America, the United States stated that the FARC-EP was heavily involved in the narcotics trade in Colombia and was implicated in the exportation of drugs to northern regions of the hemisphere (Scott and Marshall, 1998: 96-103).6 Following these allegations, that would be found completely false a few years later7, the United States claimed that “the narcotics trade threatens the integrity” and “national security of die United States” and established the National Security Decision Directive Number 221: Narcotics and National Security (NSDD 221) on 8 April 19868 (White House, 1986: 2; see also Aviles, 2006: 48; Williams, 2005: 168; Scott, 2003: 39, 71, 87-88; Solaun, 2002: 5).9 Formalizing the NSDD 221 as a national security policy enabled the United States to aid and construct “foreign assistance planning efforts” (White House, 1986: 3; see also Jackson, 1994: 170; Crandall, 2005b: 168). What such a claim translated into, when concerning US foreign policy, was that state forces would now have the legal capacity to carry out direct actions, militaristic or otherwise, in regions external to their national jurisdiction, e.g. in Colombian territory (Aviles, 2006: 48; Weeks and Gunson, 1991: 43; Parenti, 2002: 79, 82). Peter Dale Scott (2003: 87) claimed that the declaration of NSDD 221 strategically defined the coca-industry “as a national security matter, allowing for the use of U.S. troops in Colombia in alliance with the CIA”.10

On the heels of the NSDD 221, and several incredibly expensive counterinsurgency efforts funded through the Ronald Regan [1981-1989] and George Herbert Walker Bush [1989-1993] Administrations, the United States, Colombia was the recipient of neoliberal policies that sought to open the country’s economy to greater trade and economic prosperity. The underlining argument was that with an increased (neo)liberalized economy a systemic decline in the coca-industry would be realized. The model in which this was adopted was through the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA).11 The ATPDEA was arranged with a timeline for its policies to take-root. Its date of completion was scheduled for 31 December 2006. A new bilateral free trade agreement is being arranged, with great opposition by organized labour and political opponents within the United States. In many ways the agreement transcends the original ATPDEA (Goodman, 2006; Noticias Aliadas, 2006).

Neoliberal trade pacts, however, have not led to a reduction in coca. The reason was based on the fact that the organized production of coca is a consequence of social and economic conditions (socioeconomic factors of exclusion, poverty, lack of state services, social programs, services, etc.). The alleviation of trade barriers, while addressing macroeconomic restrictions to domestic and international corporations, does not result in a decrease of socioeconomic problems realized by the majority population. In actuality, the organized state-imposed subscription to “preferred market access (no tariffs) for agricultural products” on the contrary benefited only a minority of persons, principally the owners of the means of production, via increased profits.

Even in the burgeoning flower industry, it is important to note that flower workers are mostly teenage women who are paid less than 60 cents an hour, unable to attend school, and denied the ability to receive a formal education (Friedemann-Sanchez, 2006).12 Rates of poverty, within both the urban and rural sectors of Colombia, have not declined over the past two decades but have consecutively increased (see Diaz-Callejas, 2005; UNDP, 2003).13 There has been an inequitable increase in imports in various sectors of the rural economy, which has left an increasing deficit that the Colombian economy cannot respond to. Leech (2002: 45) has demonstrated how the ATPDEA period has led to an increase in economic power for the United States at the expense of the Colombian economy.

The ironic result of the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act was that after such polices were implemented, coca activity increased dramatically, while the increasing devotion toward commercial production deflected attention from the rural sectors’ growing rates of impoverishment. Over the last decade, Colombia has been witness to a dual exploitation of the dual economy, a great deal of which is tied to narcodollars. Firstly, problems within the rural political economy have led to peasants increasingly colonizing new lands to grow coca out of necessity. Secondly, textile and commodity export factories, growing in the urban centres, have subsequently caused capitalists related to other sectors to drive down wages in order to sustain their surplus profits (Richani, 2005a; 2005b). This has led some to argue that as Colombia “saw its legal and illegal exports to the United States jump dramatically under the trade accord,” the ATPDEA assisted in the cleansing of monies generated through the coca-industry (Williams, 2005: 164; see also Richani, 2005a). As well, the imperial foreign policy of the United States deployed one of the largest counterinsurgency operations in the hemisphere through the guise of a war on drugs.14

The ILO has in fact highlighted its true intentions to satisfy the profit maximizing interests of capitalism at the expense of workers and to facilitate US imperialism in its assault on its backyard. In its recent report on Colombia, the ILO argues that what is more important is not that trade unionists and sectors of organized labour are and remain safe and have the right to protect themselves against repression but rather that a continuation of capitalist expansion remains uninterrupted. The ILO is clearly supporting United States/Colombia free-trade policies despite the atrocities.

The US and Colombian states are clearly involved in the systematic destruction of unions via coercion. What medium does organized labour have to protect itself? Certainly not the ILO. The ILO has united with the United States government to mislead the public with a false perception that workers’ rights are being and will be upheld. What is clearly transpiring is an attack against organized labour and the right to unite for social justice. The ILO truly exemplifies the old saying: ‘With friends like this, who needs enemies’.



1 - Source: CorporacĂ­on Colectivo de Abogados JosĂ© Alverar Restrepo. 2007. “Ten Unionists Killed This Year Already: President Alvaro Uribe Velez keeps distorting figures”, May 9. On-Line Accessed November 20, 2007; John, Mark. 2006. “Trade union members face growing violence”, June 7, On-Line 01 L04784344 RTRUKOC 0 UK-RlGHTS-LABOUR-ABUSES.xml&archived=False. Accessed June 7, 2006; Kovalik, Dan. 2003. “Unionists at Risk in Colombia” No date On-Line. mf.html. Accessed November, 20, 2007; UNI. 2003. “ICFTU Survey 2003: A strain of anti-union repression is spreading across the map of the world” June 10 On-Line http://www.union-network.Org/uniindep.nsf/0/91cc4a3b5cbee9aecl256d410034ce7d7OpenDocument. Accessed November 20, 2007;USLEAP. 2003. “More U.S. Military Aid for Colombia; 184 Trade Unionist Killed in 2002”, No date, On-Line Accessed November 20, 2007.

2 - Source: Escuela Nacional Sinidical, 2004

3 - The vast majority of unionists killed in Colombia are murdered at the hands of the state (via the army) and the paramilitary.

“... [S]ince August 2002, there is a higher responsibility of armed institutions and State Safety bodies in violations to human rights of union members. In 2004 the historic trend of silence is maintained in 276 cases registered, this means that in 70% of total cases we know nothing about the intellectual or material authors of the crimes. Of the 30% balance of violations (116 cases) on which we have real information on possible authors we must say that 53 violations have been committed under state responsibility (50.8%), 38 were committed by AUC (32.7%), 13 are the result of common criminals (11.2%), and 5 by the guerrilla (4.3%)” (Escuela Nacional Sinidical, 2004: 11).

In this case study well over four/fifths of union-targeted assassinations were carried out at the hands of the state/paramilitary forces.

4 - In November, 2006, Canadian trade unionists from CUPE, CUPW and PSAC visited Colombia on a “Frontlines Tour” where they heard first hand accounts from numerous Colombian union leaders who told of being threatened and harassed by Uribe supported police and paramilitary groups. Indeed, almost every unionist met admitted to being on death squad lists currently. Yet, in almost every case, these unionists keep bravely struggling to stay alive and keep committed to their unions, human rights and their union work.

5 - The almost four decade old ‘war on drugs’ implemented by the US state has been recognized as biased in relation to issues of class and race, hence why we have suggested that the US anti-narcotic policies disproportionately target a specific stratum of its domestic society (Gibbs and Leech, 2005; O’Shaughnessy and Branford, 2005: 20-22).

6 - It is important to note that during the same period the United States-based oil MNC, Occidental, found one of the largest untapped oil reserves in the continent located in north-eastern Colombia. This later became the 800 kilometre long Cafio Limon pipeline (Scott, 2003: 39, 72; see also Tamminen, 2006: 98). Between 1992 and 2000, this resource was instrumental in funding counterinsurgency efforts against the FARC-EP through the placement of a “war tax” (a fluctuating levy of $1-$1.50) on every barrel sold (Renner, 2002: 38). Ironically, due to Colombia’s increasing adoption of neoliberal policies this levy was removed in 2000 (Richani, 2005a: 116, 128).

7 - Peter Dale Scott (2003: 86-87) discovered that in 1984, US authorities falsified evidence related to narcotics production, processing, and trafficking by stating that the FARC-EP were involved in protecting such facilities. In addition, he argued that US or Colombian officials, or both, were very likely to have planted evidence in relation to this event in the purpose of linking the FARC-EP to the narcotic-industry (2003: 92n.l9).

8 - 1986 also represents the year that Colombia became a net exporter of oil (Renner, 2002: 36).

9 - Within a few years of the NSDD 221 being established the Canadian government, while not as militant in its resolve, established a national drug strategy that also put an emphasis on drug activity outside its borders, i.e., Latin America and specifically Colombia (Blanchette, 2000: 193-194). Canadian-based MNCs also sold a great deal of arms to Colombia in return for oil from the Colombian government (Regehr, 1975:10).

10 - A more contemporary terminology used to justify US militaristic intervention and aggression was noted by former SouthCom Commander, General James Hill, who stated that the coca-industry within Colombia, specifically in FARC-EP-extended territory, is “a weapon of mass destruction” due to number of deaths that it caused on US soil (Hill, 2003: 8; see also O’Shaughnessy and Branford, 2005: 61).

11 - “In 1991, the United States adopted the Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA), in part to help stem the flow of Andean drugs coming into the United States. The basic idea was that export expansion would complement coca eradication programs and help Andean countries moves from illegal and legitimate commercial exports. The act sharply increased trade between the United States and ... Colombia ... by eliminating duties and restrictions on a range of U.S.-based products. U.S. exports to ATPA countries rose 65 percent from 1991 to 1998, and ATPA country exports to the United States jumped 98 percent” (Williams, 2005: 164).

12 - Sarah Cox (2002) has documented that “about 70 percent, are women who earn just (US)58 cents an hour and work up to 60 hours a week, often without full overtime pay, before special occasions like Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day. The workers, by many accounts, suffer from a myriad of health problems linked to exposure to pesticide cocktails that are applied up to several times a week to guarantee elegant, pest-free blossoms”.

13 - It is rather ironic that a US economic model that precipitates the perpetuation of socioeconomic inequality can be thought of as a Drug Eradication Act. It is under such conditions that numerous people chose to produce illicit crop production whereby one can work at their own pace, subsist on a piece of land (be it theirs or not), and take their chances each day, whereas women who work in the flower industry or patriarchal maquilas are under constant threat of abuse and poor wages.

14 - While some may argue this point by citing the conflicts within El Salvador or Nicaragua it must be known that the counterinsurgency funding being conjointly implemented through the Colombian state and the US against the FARC-EP far exceeds the capital devoted during the 1970s and 1980s. Through the 2000s alone, the Colombian state was spending roughly $7.3 million a day, while the United States provided an additional $1.65 million every 24 hours. This equalled almost $9 million dollars a day to fight the FARC-EP (Murillo, 2005; Latin American Press, 2004).