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Columbia: Workers struggle with life on the line

Journey to Colombia Follow as we join Bodil Signe Wedele, joiner and 3F member, as she goes on a journey to Colombia to meet up with native labour rights activists. Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries on Earth for to workers standing up for themselves. Bodyguards and bulletproof vests are part and parcel of day to day life – as your comrades are murdered while you keep on fighting.
Columbia. Ruby Castaño active member of the rural workers union
Af Lise Josefsen Herman, journalist, lise.hermann@gmail.com

This spring I tagged along as joiner and 3F member Bodil Signe Wedele journeyed to Colombia to learn about the conditions for local labour rights activists.

Colombia is one the worlds most dangerous countries to be a union activist”, says Alberto Vanegas, who is part of the leadership of CUT, the Colombian version of LO. The scene of the interview is the unions headquarters – a high rise in central Bogota. Windows are fortified.

His description is confirmed by the International Trade Union Confederation whose statistics year after year places Colombia as one of the worst countries to be a unionist. Alberto goes on to say that according the unions own journals, 3120 labour rights activist have been murdered in cold blood since 1985. In 2017 the death toll was 19.

Afraid to speak in public

At a café in Bogota we met up with Ruby Castaño who herself has had a taste of the brutal reality behind the statistics. The 56-year old woman has been an active member of the rural workers union in the federal state of Meta.

She speaks in a lowered voice while she scans the room. We talk about her past in Meta and the struggles she was involved with in her union Sintagram.

Can we talk in my car instead? You never know who might be listening…and what they might tell those who wish to do me harm. It is not for nothing that I have security guards", Ruby says in a serious tone that stands out from the small-talk from the adjacent tables.

Death threats are a part of life

Minutes later we are in her car. Her security guard is at the wheel and the windows are tinted. 

Any public space in Colombia is potentially dangerous when talking about certain subjects. Talking without knowing who is listening is very unsettling. If you are on the left or an active member of a union the risk increases tenfoldA”, Ruby Castaño says from the confines of the car with the tinted windows - now parked on a street somewhere in Bogota.

Ruby has had bodyguards around her since 2012 – and has received numerous threats upon her life. Many of her friends/comrades are dead. Murdered because they actively sought to fight for the rights of workers. 

For security reasons Ruby has had to leave Meta, her native region, to seek refuge in Bogota. She doesn’t live with her children or her parents to not run the risk of them getting hurt. In Colombia dedicating your life to fight for workers’ rights are an undertaking that involves sacrifice.

Bulletproof vests in the backseat

Meeting Ruby Castaño made a huge impression on Danish joiner Bodil.

Her story is incredibly rough. You could tell that she was genuinely affected by talking to us in the café. That made a great impression on me. You could tell how fearful she was. Just to be able to carry out her work as a unionist. Before I left for Colombia I knew about how unionists where systematically harassed and intimidated, but I did not really fathom the magnitude of it until I was in the backseat of a car with bulletproof vests on the seat right next to me”, says Bodil Signe Wedele, joiner and member of 3F BJMF.

At the CUT Alberto Vanegas talks about how worrying the lack of justice for the crimes committed against their union comrades are. According to him less than five percent of the cases leads to any convictions. 

It is highly disturbing. There is no safety for labour rights activists in Colombia”.

Bloodstained peace negotiations

In December 2016 the Colombian government signed a peace deal with guerilla movement FARC. This has led to an escalation of the attacks on union members. The territories conceded by FARC became sites of struggle for power. A large part of the negotiations was about assassinations of local leaders there among union actives. According to (ombudsmanden? Jeg er ikke sikker på hvem det er I denne forbindelse) 282 local leaders were murdered between 1st of January 2016 and 27th of February 2018.

We set out to defend workers’ rights, but ended up defending the human rights – the right to live and breath”, Alberto Vanegas from CUT says.

The precariousness of the situation has taken its toll on Ruby Castaño as well:

The uncertainty is all over this country. We are worried there are no guarantees for our safety and our lives”, says Ruby Castaño.

Motivation to fight

Behind the tinted windows in the car in Bogota, we ask Ruby how she manages to keep her spirit to fight. Even when several union leaders – some of which she had close relations with- have been murdered.

Many have died for this. I fight for them too. I hope I don’t end up as they did. It is about having principles. To never stop fighting. To not feel defeated. We are fighting for our dignity. For a different country”, Ruby Castaño tells us.

Bodil Signe Wedele recalls Rubys story about her murdered comrades/friends:

What can she do, but continue fighting? You can sense that the struggle keeps her afloat and gives meaning to the trials she has gone through”. Says Bodil Signe Wedele, who has now returned to Copenhagen and her activities in her union.

Our realities are so contrasted that it’s nearly impossible to compare my struggle to hers. I’m almost embarrassed by the conditions we have here in our union. On the other hand it also motivates me. It helps me to not take the rights we have for granted. When you meet someone for whom the right to organize becomes a matter of life and death, it motivates you to defend the rights we have achieved here in Denmark”, finishes Signe Bodil Wedele.