Saturday, September 14, 2013

The U.S. Embassy's Awkward Neighbors

Jorge Alberto Parra, right, with companions by their tent across the street from the U.S. Embassy.
Just a few years ago, Jorge Alberto Parra had a solid job working in General Motors' Bogotá assembly plant as a mechanical engineer and welder. Today, he shares a plastic-walled tent with several other ex-GM employees, without running water, a toilet or electricity, except for a television run off of a cell phone battery.

770 days protesting, and counting.
The story of Parra and his companions might be just another story of poverty and survival, if not for the fact that their campsite is across the street from the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá. From their humble abode, Parra and his friends believe they've forced one of the world's most powerful corporations to change its policies and hope to compel the company to rehire them.

Parra is the president of ASOTRECOL, the Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of General Motors Colombia. The protest began in August 2011 with 68 participants, Parra says, including mechanics, welders and electricians complaining of carpal tunnel, tendonitis hernias, they claimed they developed working at the GM plant. Parra himself says he came down with tendinitis, bursitis and carpal tunnel during his nine years working for GM. But GM did not recognize the workers' ailments as job-related, says Parra.
Parra inside the protesters' tent. 

The group set up across the street from the embassy instead of the GM factory because at that time the US government owned much of GM, having bailed the company out during its bankruptcy. Also, Parra believes that the U.S.-Colombian Free Trade Agreement obligates the U.S. government to improve worker conditions at U.S.-owned factories here.

During their stay here, the protesters have carried out a hunger strike, during which they sewed their lips shut, and also a pseudo-crucifixion.

The protesters' residential arrangement may be rudimentary, but has its comforts. They've got free round-the-clock security thanks to the embassy entrance across the street, free internet from a nearby hotel and bathroom and phone charging services from nearby businesses.

The employees of the heavily fortified embassy seem to tolerate the protesters at their front gate. But sometimes they do a little more. Parra says that P. Michael McKinley, until recently U.S. ambassador, even made several friendly visits to the protesters. (The new ambassador has not yet been appointed.)

The protesters are easy to spot
on this quiet, residential street.
McKinley "is a really friendly guy," says Parra.

But relations with embassy soured when the men symbolically crucified themselves and the embassy responded by calling the police, who closed down the block and sent in an anti-riot squad. Later the personaria, a municipal human rights entity, "who said we were provoking the embassy," Parra recalls.

U.S. unions and churches have supported the protest. The United Auto Workers even flew Parra to the U.S. for a six-month speaking tour. The pressure apparently produced some results. Last year, mediators from the States came down and tried to broker an agreement between the protesters and GM officials. But Parra says the company offered each of them only 10 million pesos - about $5,000 - and a course in opening small businesses, but that the company made clear it didn't want them back. What the workers really want, he says, are new jobs with GM.

GM Colmotores recently issued a statement saying that they had never fired employees because of health problems and that they had tried to resolve disputes via mediation and according to Colombian law.

Still, Parra believes, their protest has accomplished a lot - pushing GM to improve its treatment of workers injured on the job.

"We've accomplished more than ever before," says Parra.

And Parra says his group is determined to keep camping indefinitely.

"We're here until victory!" he says. "We'll welcome the new ambassador."

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


Stuart Oswald said...

Interesting. But nobody has a right to any job.

Miguel said...

But they may have a right not to be fired after developing job-related injuries.


Sarak DeMir said...

Mike... have a word with them...

They'll get more attention if they write their notices in English...

And even more if they make use of the local street artists - nice couple of 1800's style American slaves working on a GM Production line - would no doubt promote them into the newspapers again.

Right now - 'until victory'... Is an empty gun...

Perhaps some printed short bio's explaining the impact on the individuals lives? Some photos of their internal living conditions... diets... invitations to a meal aimed at the trade and business staff in the American Enclave...

And a polite 'Twinkies' history lesson - might not go amiss.