BOGOTA – A small group of former workers for General Motors Co. in Colombia on Wednesday began their second week of a hunger strike, during which they have sewn shut their mouths as they continue to protest in front of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota.
The hunger strike by the former workers at GM’s Colombian unit Colmotores marks the latest labor problems to hit GM’s South American branches. In Brazil, GM agreed not to cut 1,840 jobs at a factory there following union protests and government threats that the job cuts could lead to the reinstatement of taxes cut earlier in the year. GM had planned to shut down passenger-car production at the plant as demand for the models produced there fell.”
In Colombia, the GM protests are being led by Asotrecol, the association of workers and former workers of GM’s assembly plant in Bogota. The former workers claim they were fired from GM more than a year ago because of serious on-the-job injuries sustained while lifting heavy objects, doing repetitive movements on the assembly line and doing other work.
In an emailed statement, the car maker rejected those claims.
“GM Colmotores is respectful of the law and has never put the health or the well-being of its employees at risk,” it said. “Furthermore, the company would like to reassure and reaffirm that no employee has been discharged for health reasons.”
GM says that of the ex-employees who filed legal claims, 95% of the cases have been resolved in GM’s favor. “In the only two cases where the decision was in favor of the plaintiff, the company has fully complied with the provisions of the relevant authorities,” GM said.
The half-dozen or so workers who stitched thick string through their upper and lower lips said they chose the grounds next to the U.S. Embassy to stage the hunger strike because of a labor action plan agreed to between Colombia and the U.S. last year under the countries’ free trade agreement, which took effect May 15.
They and other unions in Colombia say the labor plan, which was supposed to improve labor standards in Colombia, has been virtually ignored by both governments and multinational companies, including GM.
Colombia for years has been one of the most dangerous countries in the world for labor unions, with several dozen union activists murdered each year on average, although the number of killings has declined in recent years.
Workers in Colombia are also paid less than in most of Latin America’s other major economies. Colombia’s monthly minimum wage is about $300, a nearly 6% increase from 2011.
The former GM workers began their protests at the embassy about a year ago, but didn’t get much notoriety until they began sewing their mouths shut last week.
A statement from the U.S. Embassy on Wednesday said, “The U.S. Embassy has been following the General Motors-Asotrecol case closely. During this time, mission and congressional representatives have actively engaged with both parties and the Colombian government. We will continue to monitor the situation closely with particular concern for the health of those on a hunger strike.”
GM began operating in Colombia more than 50 years ago, and currently has more than 1,800 employees.