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In Colombia, General Motors Workers Fight Surge In Firings Over Workplace Injuries

For eight years, fired General Motors workers have camped outside the United States Embassy in Bogota, Colombia. They are protesting wrongful termination due to injuries at GM’s Colombia manufacturing plant.

Colombia is the leading nation in the world in murders of labor leaders and union members.

After their fight in the Colombia judicial system produced little to no results, fired GM workers pressured the U.S. government to hold the corporation accountable.

“Assembling vehicles is hard work, and many U.S. auto workers will tell you that after a 30-year career they have pain that does not go away,” said Paige Shell-Spurling, an organizer with the Central America Solidarity Committee in Portland, Oregon.

Shell-Spurling said “those injuries are being developed in periods as short as six-to-eight years in some cases” in the GM plant in Bogota.

“It is disarming to see workers in their late 20s and early 30s walking with canes, permanently disabled, and eventually dismissed,” Shell-Spurling added.

In 2012, protests and assistance from the U.S. Embassy helped bring GM to the negotiating table. GM was urged to improve working conditions at the plant to mitigate worker injuries even though they did not reach an agreement.

The former employees now contend the practice of firing workers for getting hurt on the job is resurgent.

“In doing so, they are throwing away a lot of the improvements they made in terms of the program to deal with injured workers. It’s frustrating because what we had gained is no longer in place,” said Carlos Trujillo. “Now there is no pressure on GM to do anything about this situation.”

Trujillo worked at the GM Colmotores plant in Colombia for six years before he was fired in 2010 after a shoulder injury. His shifts were often 10 to 14 hours long, six days a week.

“Life hasn’t been easy for me,” Trujillo shared, explaining he divorced his wife and had to separate from his children due to security concerns related to his labor organizing efforts.

Trujillo added, “I lost a lot of my strength. It’s been difficult to find work because I appear in the system registered as an injured worker. Being able to join the formal labor force has been near impossible, and I’ve been blacklisted because of [my] protest activities.”

Unable to find new work and plagued with untreated injuries, Trujillo maintains his protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Bogota with other workers as part of ASOTRECOL (Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of General Motors Colmotores).

A GM spokesperson for South America justified the corporation’s firing of workers. “Over the past few years, the production volume of GM Colmotores has been decreasing due to the opening of the Colombian markets to foreign competition, the entry of new brands and the contraction of the market.”

“Because of those conditions and excess production capacity, GM Colmotores was forced to reduce its employee population to remain viable according to projects assigned to the plant, acting consistently with Colombian labor regulations,” the spokesperson insisted.

GM workers have engaged in various protests over the past few years to bring attention to their cause, including chaining themselves to the U.S. Embassy in November 2014.

A cellphone video was taken of that protest, where workers alleged U.S. Embassy officials attacked an injured worker.

The State Department declined to comment on the video or protests, referring Shadowproof’s request to GM, who did not address the video in their response.

The workers also engaged in hunger strikes in 2012, where several sewed their mouths shut in protest.

In May 2017, ASOTRECOL President Jorge Parra’s visa was revoked prior to a planned trip to the U.S. to speak to local labor union groups about his experiences with GM. The revocation occurred immediately following a 23-day hunger strike.

“Our presence here has clearly been disagreeable for the U.S. Embassy,” Parra said. “One day before I was set to travel to the U.S., a functionary from the U.S. Embassy walked across the street to the tent encampment, handed a letter to the first person they saw in the tent, and the letter said my visa had been revoked and if I wanted to travel to the U.S., I would have to reapply for a new visa.”

“They denied me the ability to strengthen ties to U.S. labor organizations, ties that would clearly serve to help our struggle,” Parra stated.

Parra was fired from the GM plant in September 2010 after struggling with a work-related back injury that required surgery.  He is currently undergoing the process of obtaining a new visa so he can speak in the U.S. in June 2019, ahead of GM’s annual shareholder meeting in Detroit, Michigan.

A U.S. spokesperson for GM denied the claims from the former workers.

“GM is committed to safety in everything we do. These claims have been reviewed internally by GM at the highest levels, as well as externally through two separate audits by an independent, third-party audit firm.”

The U.S. spokesperson maintained, “There is no issue here. Trial and appellate courts in Colombia have reviewed this matter and denied reinstatement of the workers. GM has offered retraining assistance to the impacted workers, but ASOTRECOL has rejected our offer.”

ASOTRECOL added the settlement offer from GM management was less than the cost of required surgeries, which injured workers were forced to undergo as a result of their employment.

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato is a Freelance Journalist based in Gainesville, Florida. His writing has appeared in The Intercept, The Hill, The Guardian, Denver Post, Truth-Out, and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @MSainat1