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'We Are Prepared to Die': Workers in Colombia at General Motors Plant Sew Their Mouths Shut to Protest Backbreaking Labor Conditions

Instead of providing medical care and changing the work patterns of injured employees, General Motors fires them.

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The Labor Action Plan has been brushed aside by both countries’ governments and multinational companies like GM, according to Asotrecol. To draw attention to the US’s alleged failure to hold Colombia to its trade agreement obligations in the run-up to the treaty’s ratification, it set up camp outside Bogota’s US embassy on August 1 last year.

The protesters have maintained a permanent presence there ever since, but after failing to get any response decided to begin a hunger strike on the camp’s one-year anniversary. Four men sewed their mouths shut, and another three followed suit a week later. Another group of Asotrecol members will sew their mouths shut every seven days until the group’s demands for medical care and reintegration into the workplace are met, they say.

Before receiving six stitches in his lips, former assembly line worker Carlos Trujillo said the workers could not wait any longer for someone to listen. “They fired us without just cause, endangering us and our families,” he said. “We are taking this decision because our health has worsened each day, we’re losing our houses, we practically live in the street, and we’ve been forgotten by the government.”

According to Austin Robles, a Colombia representative for US NGO Witness For Peace, which is supporting Asotrecol, US government involvement in GM makes the case even more shocking. The US government bailed out GM to the tune of more than $50 billion when it filed for bankruptcy in 2009. “The US government promised that it would improve labor rights in Colombia, yet it is one of GM’s largest shareholders,” says Robles. “The U.S. government should recognize its two-sided stance on this case and pressure GM to stop ignoring these workers before they die of starvation. If the Colombian government is not going to solve the small claims of these 68 workers then it's hard to believe they have the political will or capability to improve labor rights on a national level.”

Back at the camp, the Asotrecol members hope their increasingly dangerous health situation will force GM or the Colombian government to take action. Parra, who has not eaten for 13 days (he began striking August 1), says he is suffering serious stomach pains and is unable to sleep through the night. The men are being given a saline solution through an intravenous drip, but that can only keep them alive for a number of weeks.

“We are in a lot of pain, a lot of hunger, losing our physical energy but our minds are determined,” says Parra. “These problems are not isolated, they happen everywhere in our country. We are now all prepared to die to make someone do something about it.”

 

Miriam Wells is a British freelance journalist based in Medellín.