Though Colombian union leader José Brito did not attend Labor Initiatives in Promoting Solidarity’s event “‘Development and Corporate Violence: Labor Union Activism in Colombia” Nov. 10, many students gathered to learn more about the labor issues Colombia’s workers suffer from.
The event, which was open to members of the campus and local communities, was held in Williams Hall room 221 with the goal of raising awareness of current labor abuses. Funding for the event was provided by the Humanities and Sciences Educational Grant Initiative and by the politics and sociology departments.
Since Brito was called away last-minute for an important meeting with his labor union, Patricia Rodriguez, assistant professor of politics at the college, spoke in his place about his experiences and labor issues in Latin America.
Brito, a veteran of open-pit coal mining for 27 years, is currently working with his labor union Sintracarbón to asses the exposure of Colombian pit miners to cancer-causing substances and bone and muscle disorders.
Rodriguez said she became acquainted with the issues surrounding mine labor last summer while serving as part of a delegation to Colombia dedicated to investigating corporate abuse in the region.
“The multinational companies we examined worked in different fields, from mining to banana cultivation, but one thing they all had in common was unfair treatment of their workers,” she said.
Among the countries in the Western Hemisphere, Rodriguez said Colombia has the highest level of government and paramilitary violence. Among these human rights violations are forced displacement and the killings of advocates of reform, such as trade unionists, journalists and human rights activists.
Latin American labor expert Aviva Chomsky also spoke in a Skype video chat. Chomsky said in recent years, Colombia has drastically cut down on workers’ rights by bringing in third-party contractors and revoking both overtime payment and bans on night shifts.
“The political climate for labor unions can be harsh and even violent, and the unions consider themselves part of a movement for social change that goes out to all people in the region,” Chomsky said.
Coal companies also have a history of exploitation, and Colombian miners and minority citizens are often among the victims of corporate machinations, Chomsky said.
“The Cost of Power,” a short documentary film, detailed the effects of two open-pit mines operating in northern Colombia. A multinational European conglomerate owns Cerrejón and the Alabama-based mining company Drummond owns the second mine, which is located in Magdalena.
The documentary illustrates the forced displacement of several Afro-Colombian and other indigenous communities that existed before the mine was built. The company bulldozed over homes, schools and farms, causing massive property damage and the loss of many villagers’ livelihood.
Drummond was sued in the U.S. under the Alien Tort Claims Act for collaborating with paramilitary forces in the murders of three leaders of the Sintramienergética union. A recent court ruling, however, has exonerated Drummond of the charges because of a lack of sufficient evidence to connect the company with paramilitaries.
The company is also reported to have illegally dismissed numerous other union members who spoke out against company policy in recent months. Worker accounts revealed that miners are frequently exposed to health and safety risks while at work because of Drummond’s refusal to abide by basic safety guidelines.
Despite these setbacks to organized labor, the event encouraged members of the audience to spread awareness of the workers’ struggle. Colombia is one of the top recipients of U.S. monetary support and with enough public outcry, speakers said U.S. leaders could be convinced to pressure corporations for change.
Junior Robert Scully connected the evening’s program to his studies as a history major.
“It reminded me of corporate abuses in our nation’s own past and made me realize that things still aren’t quite as just as I thought they were,” he said.
Rodriguez said that while correcting labor abuses is necessary, the process would not be easy.
“To make these corporations engage in truly socially responsible practices requires ordinary people to work en masse, within our own country and trans-nationally,” she said.