Colombia: The Most Dangerous Place in the World to be a Trade Unionist

As citizens of the UK, we are regularly reminded of how fortunate we are to be afforded the freedoms and protections granted by the rule of law.

As citizens of the UK, we are regularly reminded of how fortunate we are to be afforded the freedoms and protections granted by the rule of law.

Lawyers at my firm regularly act on behalf of working people whose rights under those laws may have been breached and while it is not a perfect system, in general we have recourse available to challenge most civil injustices.

Last month, my colleague Bryan Nott witnessed the other side of the coin. On a visit to Colombia led by a delegation from TUC Global and the pressure group Justice for Colombia, Bryan learned how the freedoms and protections which are now under threat in this country, can represent the difference between life and death for Colombian trade unionists.

Keeping a daily diary of his visit, Bryan saw first-hand the kinds of injustices that occur when unionisation is virtually forbidden. Colombia is in fact the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist: 3000 activists have been assassinated since 1992.

In addition to the threat from a hit-man's bullet Colombian trade unionists face arbitrary arrest, torture, false imprisonment, 'disappearance', forced eviction or summary dismissal. Bryan explains: "President Santos, who came into power in 2010, would have the world believe that Colombian society is on the mend. Making the right noises internationally may spare the blushes of Colombia's western allies but in talking to ordinary Colombians a very different picture emerges. One testimony after another recorded the experience of ordinary Colombians - a municipal worker who had been declared a 'military target' along with his wife and 10 month old daughter. A mother, whose young son had been abducted, shot and dressed in military uniform so that a bounty could be claimed by the soldiers behind the crime."

Of great concern to me is the fact that there are parallels which can be drawn between Colombian problems, and those we experience nearer home. Over there laws are implemented which erode the rights of workers. It should serve as a salutary warning to employees worldwide - not least here in Britain. The Colombian government passed a Law of Fiscal Responsibility last year which allows the government to override any financial obligation (e.g. payment of pensions) if it considers funds are not available to meet it. Remind you of anything?

Unions are also kept down by widespread use of agency or self-employed workers and anyone who dares join a union can be dismissed and replaced. 60% of the Colombian workforce does not have a permanent contract of employment. Drummond Coal, a North American Company, has sought to avoid responsibility for workplace deaths by relying on the fact that the deceased were not actually employed by them.

The Justice for Colombia delegation proves that it is vital for the international community to maintain pressure on the Santos government. Does international pressure work? Midway through the delegation's visit Liliany Obando, a political prisoner for whom Justice for Colombia has long campaigned, was released from prison after four years without conviction.

This was a compelling demonstration of the importance of international solidarity. However, much more needs to be done to protect the rights of workers and those who fight for them.

For more details of the campaign for peace visit


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