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Colombia: ILO to Investigate Alleged Rights Violations

by Yadira FerrerInter Press Service
February 4th, 2000

BOGOTA -- Colombia has come under the scrutiny of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which begins Feb 7 to investigate alleged violations of the freedom to organise and of the human rights of workers.

The complaints brought to the attention of the international labour body accuse 52 public enterprises and private companies of 192 cases of arrest, disappearance, torture, murder, impunity and violations of existing legislation.

The delegates of Colombia's trade unions who denounced the government at the 1998 ILO general conference in Geneva for failing to live up to international conventions on freedom of association received the support of representatives of 25 countries.

The state-run 'Empresas Varias' -- water and power companies -- of Medellin, for example, are accused of dismissing 209 workers during a 12-day strike declared illegal by the Labour Ministry.

The workers took their case to Colombia's Constitutional Court, which ordered their immediate reinstatement and the payment of the wages lost while the legal proceedings dragged on.

Other cases involve the cost in human life of the trade union struggle. Some 3,000 trade unionists have been killed in the past 13 years.

Wilson Borja, president of the National Federation of State Workers (Fenaltrase), told IPS that ''being a trade unionist in Colombia is not an easy task, due to the intolerance and lack of a 'culture of trade unionism' in numerous sectors of the economy and society.''

In Colombia, ''it is easier to organise a guerrilla force than a union,'' said Borja, who stressed that although freedom to organise is a globally recognised right, setting up a union ''is not well seen, and can even cost one's life.''

The Jose Alvear Restrepo Collective of Lawyers, which has won international recognition for its work defending human rights, has pointed out that while Colombia is in the grip of a civil war of huge proportions, the victims of the violence are mainly ''people who fight for their economic, social and political rights, like farmers who ask for a piece of land or trade unionists demanding decent wages and the right to organise.''

Jess Gonzlez, in charge of human rights issues in the 'Central Unitaria de Trabajadores' (CUT), Colombia's biggest union, told IPS that the visit by the ILO commission will be of ''great value in the search for actions leading to respect for life and labour freedoms in the country.''

Some 90 trade unionists, activists and peasant farmers have been killed since August in the western department of Valle del Cauca alone.

The latest victim was Orlando Crespo, vice-president of the 'Sindicato de Trabajadores' of Buga, the second largest city in the department, who was shot Aug 31 by alleged paramilitaries while taking food to a group of peasant farmers displaced by the violence.

The president of CUT, Luis Garzn, said Colombia was ''one of the countries with the greatest number of violations of trade union freedoms in the world, after Nigeria and Pakistan.''

But Labour Minister Gina Riao said the government was prepared to receive the ILO commission, adding that Colombia ''is complying with international conventions and its commitments to promoting and protecting the human rights of workers.''

Riao admitted the possibility of cases involving violations of the human rights of workers, but stressed that they formed no part of a ''state policy.''

If the commission verifies the reported violations of freedom to organise and other rights, the ILO could appoint a Commission of Inquiry in Colombia, similar to those operating in Sudan and Nigeria, which in turn could lead to trade sanctions, such as the loss of privileges like preferential duties.

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