June 2011 COLOMBIA - Oscar FIGUEROA
Assisatinations of union leaders continue in Colombia
Oscar Figueroa, Simtraemcali union representative to the International Labour Office has returned from Geneva, where he met with leaders of the Union Freedoms Committee, the administrative council of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and union leaders from around the world.
Can you tell the reasons why you left Colombia in 2006 ?
« I was working with the company Emcali in Cali, which supplies basic services like water, electricity, telecommunications, and sanitation to the community. In 1998 the government decided to privatise it. The union was opposed to this because of concerns that privatisation would mean job losses, and especially that Emcali would stop investing in the city’s social services. In fact, a part of the company’s profits is invested in poor parts of town – in schools, hospitals and roads. They cracked down on us in 2004. The management fired 51 union members, six of them union leaders. They accused us of associating with guerrilla groups (the FARC and the ELN) and mounted a legal process against us. I myself was arrested, sentenced and detained for three months before being acquitted in an appeal.
After the election of Juan Manuel Santos to the Presidency of the Republic in 2006, did things change ?
Meanwhile, paramilitary groups were dissolved and a number of their leaders put in prison...
« It’s true that through the National Demobilisation Plan, a number of groups disarmed. Numerous paramilitaries benefitted from being put to use. Certain leaders were extradited to the US under the pretext of negotiations with American courts: their sentences would be reduced if they agreed to help with dismantling cocaine trafficking networks. Despite the official protests of the Colombian Supreme Court, these leaders will not be pursued for crimes committed in the country. Others were imprisoned in Colombia where they enjoyed privileged conditions that allowed them to continue to lead their new, reformed paramilitary groups under the name of ‘Black Eagles’. There would be 22,000 paramilitaries today.
Regarding respect for worker’s rights, Colombia signed conventions 87 and 98 of the ILO. Have legal activities been conducted to ensure that they are respected ?
« The Colombian legal system has spoken out but the Colombian nation doesn’t respect its signature. The State Council said that the 2004 firings were illegal and the judges ordered the reintegration of the union members.
In a context like this where union activists are exposed to the threat of death, how does one explain how the union movement keeps its power and motivation, in Cali and elsewhere ?
« We want to live in a country where the life of all Colombians will be respected, where the right to health, education, and housing will be recognised and acted upon. Killings are a huge loss, irreparable for this country. That needs to stop. We want to create a country where our children can flourish, where they will no longer be victims of a conflict that doesn’t concern them, where they will not be tempted whilst they are young to join an armed group of which they know neither the origin, nor the objectives ».