Seven men have now sewn their mouths shut in a hunger strike over the treatment of workers at a Colombian subsidiary of General Motors.
GM Colombia is failing to look after employees who have been injured at work, say the protesters, who have decided to take drastic action after camping for a year outside the United States embassy in Bogota.
Nine men are now refusing food, seven of them with their lips sewn up. They are receiving fluids by IV drip, said Jess Hunter-Bowman, a spokesman for Witness for Peace, an U.S. activist group supporting the protesters.
Asocetrol, the association created by workers and former workers at GM’s assembly plant outside Bogota, says GM fired employees who reported on-the-job injuries to the company’s physician and erased their statements from medical files. Colmotores, GM’s Colombian automotive factory, has refused to recognize the injuries as occupational, Asotrecol said in a statement.
Videos show thick string running from just above the workers’ lips to their chins, their mouths orange with disinfectant. “This isn’t some kind of week-long fast or something,” Hunter-Bowman told Colombia Reports. “They’re saying they’re going to die one way or another.”
Thirty-eight men are requesting pension or disability coverage from the company or compensation for the wages they lost after wrongful firing, he said. Most injuries came from the rote repetition of work on the assembly line, rather than being workplace accidents, he said.
Manuel Ospina, one of the first four men to sew his mouth shut, said he worked for Colmotores for six years without incident until he fell down stairs carrying a 70-pound piece of equipment. He was fired from Colmotores in 2008 after he repeatedly reported his worsening spinal chord injury to the plant doctor. Company representatives told him they were forced to make cutbacks because of their economic performance — but 2008 had been a year of record profits for GM Colombia, he told Colombia Reports with a muffled voice. “That’s how I knew they were really firing me because of my back.”
General Motors did not respond to requests for comment from Colombia Reports, but rejected the workers’ claims in an emailed response to the Wall Street Journal.
“GM Colmotores is respectful of the law and has never put the health or the well-being of its employees at risk,” the car maker said. “Furthermore, the company would like to reassure and reaffirm that no employee has been discharged for health reasons.”
The Bogota strike marks another labor problem in GM’s South American branches, according to the Wall Street Journal.
On Monday, Colombia signed a pact with the U.S. Labor Department and the International Labor Organization (ILO) to protect labor rights in Colombia. According to a June report by the International Trade Union Confederation, Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world for union members, with nearly 30 union workers killed in 2011.
GM Colmotores has already changed some of its labor practices due to the workers’ protest, Ospinas said: factory workers now get breaks and are allowed to rotate between different assembly line tasks to prevent wear-and-tear injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome. But after a fifth mediation session Monday between Asotrecol and GM representatives — overseen by the Colombian government and the International Labor Organization (ILO) — GM still will not acknowledge the workers’ injuries claims, Hunter-Bowman said.
As the second week of the hunger strike commences and more workers join in, negotiations between the two groups seem to have stalled. Depending on body mass, hunger strikers who take in fluids can generally expect to live 60 days, according to a report by Slate Magazine.
Ospino, who has five children and has been in and out of surgery since 2008, said he is prepared for what could happen if the strike continues. “I can’t get work anywhere,” he said. “If I die, my family will get a little money.”