June 8, 2009 / 6:48 PM / 10 years ago

Unions at ILO meeting say Colombia violence growing

* Unions say violence against Colombia union members growing

* Government says tackling problem

* ILO debate could influence U.S.-Colombia trade deal

(Adds committee conclusions)

By Jonathan Lynn

GENEVA, June 8 (Reuters) - Colombian and international trade unionists condemned violence against workers in the Latin American country on Monday and said the government was not doing enough to stop it.

A committee of experts at the International Labour Organisation had reported that Colombia was making progress, but worker representatives at the United Nations agency’s committee on labour standards disagreed.

"Because of the continuing violence one cannot speak of progress in comparison with the situation in other countries. Too much still remains to be done," said Luc Cortebeck, president of the Belgian CSC union and spokesman for the workers’ group on the ILO labour standards committee.

Violence was committed with impunity, with 96 percent of cases of violence against unionists going unpunished, he said.

The debate at the ILO, a U.N. forum grouping governments, employers and workers to promote good working conditions, is important because a U.S.-Colombia free-trade pact is held up in the U.S. Congress where some Democrats want Bogota to do more to end violence against labour unions.

Indeed, the U.S. government representative acknowledged initial steps by the Colombian authorities, but said the situation for Colombian unions remained extremely serious.

"Violence — and fear of violence — must be eradicated so that workers and employers organisations can exercise their activities in full freedom," she told the committee.

After the discussion the committee welcomed steps by the government to strengthen the public prosecutor’s office and progress in combating violence and impunity but told the government to do more to end them through effective policies.

"The Committee observed that more measures were needed... coupled with a clear message at the highest level of the important role played in society by trade unions and that anti-union violence would not be tolerated," it said in a draft report.



CONFLICTING FIGURES

Colombia agrees much remains to be done but says it has acted under President Alvaro Uribe to improve security for labour activists as part of broader efforts to stabilise the country after a protracted civil war.

Vice-Minister for Labour Relations Ana Lucia Noguera repeated those arguments to the ILO, saying that killings of union members had fallen 81 percent in the last seven years, against a 44 percent drop in general homicides.

The government has increased protection for labour activists, and increased the number of prosecutors working on violence against union members to end impunity for such crimes.

But unions say the number of members killed jumped 25 percent in 2008 from 2007 to 49 from 39 and say efforts to prosecute murders and other anti-union violence are flagging.

So far this year 14 union members have been killed according to government figures, or 17 according to union figures.

"In 2009 Colombia remains the most dangerous place on the face of this planet for workers, accounting for more than 60 percent of all assassinations of trade unionists in the world," said Stanley Gacek, a U.S. workers’ representative on the committee.

The climate of fear fed by killings, abductions and other violence meant only 4 percent of Colombia’s 18 million workers are union members, and only 1.2 percent have been able to negotiate their working conditions, according to Tarsicio Mora Godoy, president of the Colombia United Workers Federation CUT. (Editing by Charles Dick)



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