Union leaders and peace activists in war-torn Colombia are under constant death threats as they attempt to organize workers under the oppressive regime. A delegation of unionists told a gathering at OPSEU head office Feb. 17 that the recent Canada-Colombia free trade agreement could further inflame the situation because multinational corporations always have army and paramilitary support to exploit the working people.
"An assessment on human rights must be done before free trade is enacted," said Yolanda Becerra Vega, leader of the Colombian women"s organization. She was one of the Colombian women nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work for peace in her country. Vega has received death threats from paramilitary groups because she assisted families whose members were killed by government-sanctioned paramilitary groups. "My life goes from home to office to the poor communities where we do our work, but I must always be accompanied by bodyguards or representatives of the international Peace Brigades for protection," she said through a Spanish interpreter, Yhony Munoz of Local 256. "There will be more death threats as a result of this tour, but it is our duty to come and tell the story."
Maria del Carmen Sanchez Burgos, head of the 14,000-member Colombian health care workers union, said privatization and threats have cut the membership of her union in half over the last 20 years. Private health care is now 90 per cent in Colombia, salaries have been lowered by government decree, and the army has taken over public health care facilities and turned them over to private companies. "The best leaders of our unions are either dead or in exile in Canada or other countries," Burgos said. Thirty-nine trade union leaders were killed in 2007, and 41 in 2008, an average of one per week. "My only hope that is if I get killed someone takes on the job," she said.
She invited Canadian union leaders to attend a national conference of Health care workers to show international solidarity against the wanton killing in Colombia.
OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas pledged the union"s continuing support for Colombian workers and noted that the OPSEU Solidarity Fund has donated a grant to support their work.