|Massive protests continue to take place across Colombia following the staging of a National Strike on 21 November.
The protests are in opposition to the government's planned labour and pension reforms, as well as to demand full implementation of the 2016 peace agreement and demand an end to violence against social activists.
Many videos on social media have shown shocking levels of police brutality against protesters as authorities seek to suppress unprecedented levels of public discontent.
The Paro Nacional (National Strike) is organised and backed by trade unions, students, human rights organisations, indigenous groups, opposition political parties and social movements.
Colombians marched on November 27 in protest at the government’s proposed pension and labour reforms, which trade unions and social organisations say will further squeeze workers in what is already one of the world’s weakest country for labour rights.
Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in a mass show of opposition towards President Iván Duque’s economic plans, as well as to show support for the peace process and demand an end to the shocking levels of violence against social activists, trade unionists and FARC former guerrillas.
Other strike demands include greater investment in the national education system, which has seen ongoing strikes for over two years due to chronic underinvestment, poor conditions and increased privatisation in public schools and universities. The FECODE teacher union, the largest trade union in Colombia, has staged multiple strikes, including a 37-day stoppage that shut schools across the country in 2017.
The Paro National (National Strike) has been convoked by groups and organisations from across Colombian society, including trade unions, students, opposition political parties and human rights organisations. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) is also supporting the strike.
In a joint-statement, the ITUC and the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA-CSA) said:
‘The Colombian trade union movement, together with social and student movements, is mobilised for 21 November, a massive day across the country, against labour reform, pension reform, against economic policies which submit to financial capital and in support of peace. This harmful agenda imposed by Iván Duque’s government, together with the Colombian oligarchy, is part of the conditions that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have imposed to continue supporting neoliberal policies which have deepened poverty, exclusion and the right to sovereign development to the country.’
President Duque has been criticised over apparent attempts to stigmatise protesters as intending to commit violence. In a national television address, he said ‘some see the right to protest as an opportunity for agitation based on lies that only seek to generate division between Colombians. We will not allow that some return us to old, senseless confrontations.’ Despite the government’s repeated claims, it has not provided any evidence that certain groups intend to commit acts of violence, while all political parties and organisations have called for the protests to be peaceful. There are also reports of large military buildups in city centres, leading to fears that security forces will seek to repress protests.
Student leaders backing the protests have received death threats. The ACREES student organisation demanded security guarantees after Alejandro Palacios, Julieth Rincón and Jennifer Pedraza were named in threatening pamphlets signed with the name Águilas Negras (Black Eagles).
British and Irish trade unions have expressed support for the national strike in Colombia. The Trades Union Congress tweeted ‘We are proud to support the National Strike in Colombia later today. Two thirds of all the trade unionists murdered in the world are from Colombia. We stand in solidarity with our Colombian sisters and brothers in their struggle for peace and social justice.’
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions also offered support to the strike. ‘Solidarity from Ireland with today’s trade union protests in Colombia against labour & pension reform, against economic policies which surrender to finance capital, and for peace,’ it tweeted.
Cut Colombia, the country's main trade union confederation, has published a list of factors behind the National Strike and the protests.
November the 21th of 2019, will be remembered as the most important civic protest against any government in the History of Colombia. It is a very important event for the mixture of the sectors that participated and for the number of people who took to the streets in both Capital and small cities (between 6 and 7 million according to the most conservative calculations).
The economic policy of the last governments plus the recommendations made by the OECD, the repeated broken promises of the government regarding the peace process and the fair claims from the indigenous, the student and the union organizations are the main citizen motivations behind the strike. Here are the 7 most important reasons explained:
Social security. A reform that aims to change the public pension administration system (Solidarity regime of average premium), by an individual savings scheme. This proposal is contradictory to the principles of solidarity, universality, and efficiency of the right to social security promoted in the Political Constitution.
Peace process. Protesters accuse the government of not rigorously implementing the agreements that put an end to the conflict with the FARC guerrillas, including the economic and social plans foreseen for those areas that have been historically most affected by the armed conflict, and the protection of the demobilized.
Privatizations. The government advances a plan to open the path of privatization of 19 state financial entities, in addition to the rest of 20% of the shares of the state oil company (Ecopetrol) and the state quota of ISA (energy company) and Cenit (oïl and gas transport).
Human rights. The lack of government protection against the growing threats of the paramilitary and the systematic murders of social leaders in rural Colombia is a source of indignation and protest at the national level. Add to this the recent scandals over the murder of 18 minors in a bombing of the National Army, which forced the resignation of the Minister of Defense.
Non-compliance with social organizations. Indigenous, trade union and student organizations have reached agreements with the government in the previous protest. Today they denounce systematic breach of the government in the signed agreements. The agricultural organizations demand the revision of the free trade agreements (FTA). For their part, women’s organizations demand real measures to overcome discrimination.
Labor Reform. A labour reform presented by the government party that proposes to deepen labour flexibility and deteriorate working conditions such as the hourly contribution and announcements of business sectors linked to the government such as the payment of 75% of a minimum wage to young people, add to the reasons for the now called 21N National Strike.
Fracking, The Paramo and the environment. The government has advanced measures to make feasible the method of hydraulic fracturing for oil extraction despite the very high environmental risks of this technique (breaching a President Duque electoral campaign promise). It has also been permissive with mining in paramos (case of Santurban, Santander). This constitutes another reason for the mobilization of sectors and environmental organizations throughout the country.
The response of the President and the ruling party during the days leading up to the demonstration has been to stigmatize the protest, disqualify the social leaders who summon it and militarize the main cities. The statements made by the government after the protest day completely ignored the content of the protesters’ demands.
Several British and Irish trade unions have released statements of support for the Strike.
Solidarity message from the TUC
The Trades Union Congress (TUC), representing over 5.5 million workers in Britain, is proud to support the National Strike in Colombia on 21 November. We stand in solidarity with our sister centres, trade unions and all workers in Colombia in their struggle for decent working conditions and wider civil society in the struggle for peace and social justice. According to the ITUC, Colombia has among the worst labour conditions in the world and the government’s proposed reforms threaten to further erode basic worker rights. We join our sisters and brothers in calling for an end to the alarming rise in violence which once again sees Colombia occupy the position as the world’s most dangerous country for trade unionists, as well as the assassination of other social leaders. We condemn recent actions by the Colombian Government ahead of the strike; stigmatising and criminalising social protest. Three years on from the signing of the Peace Agreement we call on the Colombian Government to comply with its obligations, implement the Agreement and respect human rights.
Solidarity message from Unite the Union
Unite the Union, the largest trade union in Britain and Ireland, offers its full support to the millions of Colombians participating in the National Strike in demand of decent working conditions and an end to exploitative practices and wages. Unite stands alongside our sister trade unions USO the oil workers union and FENSUAGRO the agricultural union, as well as all Colombian trade unions and civil society groups, to call for full implementation of the 2016 peace agreement and an immediate end to violence against social activists and FARC former combatants.
Solidarity message from STUC
The Scottish Trades Union Congress, which represents 630,000 Scottish workers, fully supports the National Strike on 21 November and sends solidarity to all citizens, workers, students, civil society organisations and communities fighting for decent living conditions, human rights and peace. We share their concern that the Colombian government’s labour reforms will further erode worker rights and increase inequality. International solidarity is a core principle of our movement and we stand alongside Colombians in their desire to build a future rooted in social justice and peace.
Solidarity message from Fórsa
Fórsa, the Irish public services union, which represents 80,000 workers, offers full support to the 21 November National Strike and urges the Colombian government to engage fully with the Colombian trade union movement and the civil society organisations involved in the strike. Fórsa shares their deep concerns that the economic reforms of the Colombian government will drastically affect Colombian workers and will likely lead to cuts in the public sector. Fórsa is also dismayed at the lack of compliance with agreements signed with public sector workers. Fórsa is a proud supporter of the Colombian peace process and will continue campaigning for its full implementation – for peace to become a reality, the agreement must be implemented, but workers’ rights must also be respected.
In support of the National Strike Fórsa today sought a meeting with the Tánaiste (Irish Deputy Prime Minister) and Minister for Foreign Affairs Mr Simon Coveney to discuss the union’s concerns about the escalating violence against social leaders and trade union activists in Colombia and urged him to use his diplomatic relationship with Bogotá to put pressure on the Duque Government to implement the Havana Peace accord in full.
Solidarity message from UCU
The University and College Union, representing over 120,000 workers in the higher and further education sector, sends solidarity to the National Strike on 21 November, to everyone who will be on the streets, and particularly to our sister unions ASPU and FECODE. UCU expresses full support for strike demands around full implementation of the 2016 peace agreement, an end to violence against social activists and trade unionists and opposition to labour reforms that will worsen conditions for Colombian workers. We stand fully behind our Colombian colleagues as they demand a fairer society built on principles of peace and social justice.
Solidarity message from NEU
The National Education Union, Europe’s biggest teacher union, supports the millions of Colombians marching on 21 November in defence of peace, human rights and social justice. The 2016 peace agreement offers hope to new generations of Colombians but is threatened by political opposition and human rights insecurity across the country. The NEU also expresses full support for FECODE’s long-running dispute with the Colombian government over chronic underfunding, poor conditions and privatisation in the public education system and denounces ongoing violence and intimidation against Colombian teachers. The NEU is proud to support the National Strike and Colombian civil society’s struggle for social justice.
Solidarity message from UNISON
UNISON, the public services union representing more than 1.3 million workers, sends solidarity to the millions of Colombian workers, students and citizens who are taking part in the 21st November National Strike. We support their demands in support of peace and human rights, and in rejection of cuts to public services and the Colombian government’s labour reforms that will severely weaken the rights of workers by limiting access to minimum wage and increasing the potential for zero hour contracts. We call on the Colombian government to comply with agreements signed with public sector unions and we stand with Colombians in their demand for an end to the violence against social leaders and for the full implementation of the 2016 peace agreement.
Message of solidarity with the National Strike in Colombia
The POA Prison Officers Trade Union unconditionally supports peace and human rights in Colombia and sends solidarity to all Colombians participating in the National Strike. We share their hopes of a new society based in peace, workers’ rights, and social justice. We call on President Duque’s Government to heed strike demands of reversing labour reforms and fully implementing the peace agreement. Unity is Strength.
Amid widespread state violence, Colombian riot police killed 18-year-old Dilan Cruz, sparking outrage across the country and leading to calls by trade unions for protests to intensify.