It’s essential that British trade unionists continue to support their Colombian counterparts, Justice for Colombia’s Nick MacWilliam told an online meeting organised by UNISON Eastern’s international committee last night.
He recounted how the Latin American country has been torn apart by years of violence, as authoritarian neoliberal governments closed down democratic space so much that progressive movements were forced to turn to armed struggle.
After decades of war, the government and left-wing guerilla group Farc signed a peace accord in 2016 that was supposed to bring the violence to an end.
But MacWilliam explained that hasn’t been the case and the government isn’t holding up its end of the bargain, failing to support the transitional justice projects meant to reintegrate former guerillas.
He showed a short video about an international delegation, including UNISON’s Josie Bird and Margaret McKee, that explored the projects last year.
“That video says 197 Farc members have been killed since the peace deal. It’s now 259,” he reported.
“There are two sides to the peace process,” he said, “on the one hand you can see the efforts going into the peace process from former guerillas building these sustainable projects, but there is violence still going on.”
Trials for trade unions
As part of a broad, democratic alliance, trade unions have been on the receiving end of much violence from the Colombian state armed paramilitaries tacitly supported by successive right-wing governments.
MacWilliam revealed that 20 trade unionists had been killed in 2020, and three have already lost their lives this year – but at the same time members of the ruling party continue to stigmatise unions.
“Stigmatisation of trade unionists not only encourages violence but discourages people joining,” he said, pointing out that fewer than 1 in 20 Colombians are in trade unions, leaving them with some of the worst labour rights in the world.
“During the pandemic it’s got even worse in terms of the political establishment attacking trade unionists.
“Colombia one of the worst-hit by pandemic, the neoliberal health system means very few have access to the medical care they need.”
More than 5 million people have lost their jobs but “the government’s interest has been in propping up big business,” MacWilliam told the meeting.
The government’s Covid “support” package has included new laws making it easier to fire to people and a reduction in the minimum wage.
But there are green shoots of hope, he said, and the international solidarity can play a key role in supporting ordinary Colombians, he said, pointing to UNISON’s work with Unite and the US United Steel Workers in helping Colombian oil workers to unionise.
UNISON Eastern international committee chair Mark Trask reminded those present that Justice for Colombia can only keep up its work through branch affiliations and urged people to go back to their branches and affiliate.
You can keep up to date with developments in Colombia by visiting Justice for Colombia’s website.