Injured ex-GM workers have descended upon Detroit with a hunger strike in protest for being fired from a Colombian plant for acquiring on the job injuries, timing their appearance with an “Award for Corporate Excellence” nomination from the U.S. State Department. They’re led by Jorge Parra, who has sewn his lips shut in protest, vowing not to eat until GM agrees to enter mediation to settle their claims and negotiate a fair and reasonable settlement, though he can open his lips enough to mumble and make his voice heard. Meanwhile, an encampment outside the US Embassy in Colombia has been going on for over a year to draw attention to the workers’ situation.
Parra and his former coworkers charge that after being injured on the job, GM fired them with no compensation or offers of assistance, leaving them and their families to fend for themselves. This kind of corporate behavior is possible in a nation with limited protections for workers and a dangerous climate for labor organizing, which makes it difficult for workers to defend themselves and fight back against exploitative labor practices. Although GM has agreed to meet with the workers on several occasions, each time the mediations failed to yield an acceptable outcome; workers said they were insulted by the minimal compensation being offered, such as $6,000 to 12 workers, “not even enough to buy a hot dog stand,” as Parra put it.
Taking these complaints into the United States is a smart organizing move on multiple levels; one reason the protesters have chosen to target the U.S. government is because of its stake in the automaker, arguing that these kinds of labor practices shouldn’t be tolerated in a company with the U.S. government as a major stakeholder. In the face of a nomination for an award for “Corporate Excellence,” such labor practices seem especially appalling, as such awards are intended to recognize firms with outstanding practices, not those which abuse their workers.
Capturing the attention of the U.S. media is also a valuable public relations move, alerting the general U.S. public to the situation in Colombia and the plight of the workers there; additionally, it can add a measure of protection for protesters who could later be targeted by their own government for participating in activism and labor organizing. Parra and his cohorts are endangering themselves by speaking up for their benefits, those of coworkers, and those of their families, but they’re performing a vital service for public awareness and labor organizing.
They’re all members of Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of General Motors Colmotores (ASOTRECOL), which works to identify abuses and take action on them. In the case of Parra and others like him, ASOTRECOL wants General Motors to admit that their injuries are occupational and take responsibility for the financial burden of medical treatment. In addition, they want disability or pension packages for those injured on the job while working for GM, and compensation for economic damages. As ASOTRECOL’s cause has spread, it’s become a topic of conversation as well as solidarity fasts and protests worldwide, which may just force General Motors to the table again.
A good first step, and one hopes for swift justice for the ASOTRECOL workers, but along with that, GM needs to commit to preventing such injuries in the first place.
Photo credit: John Walsh, Jorge Parra, and Jessica Hayssen by Jessica Hayssen