I’m still looking for a fair trade beach hat, but this quest has taken a back seat (literally) to a worker’s protest against General Motors (GM) in Bogota, Columbia. More than 200 workers, injured while working for GM Colomotares in Columbia, have been fired, including Jorge Parra a welder who started with the automotive company in 2001 as a welder.

Information I received yesterday from SumOfUs, a world-wide movement working to hold companies accountable for their actions, explains that for nine years, Parra worked 10 to 12 hour shifts six days a week lifting auto parts and heavy machinery. One day in 2010, he found he couldn’t move. Just 36 years old, Parra had a badly damaged back that required surgery. But after his operation, he was fired from GM.

Manuel Ospina, another GM worker has a similar story. In a Foreign Policy blog written by Annalise Udall Romoser, Lutheran World Relief acting director for public policy and advocacy, I read that Ospina also suffered from back pain. He’d worked for GM for 11 years and like Parra, was diagnosed by a doctor who reports to GM. This doctor attributed Ospina’s back injury to having helped his wife clean their house, specifically making their bed. Ospina was fired from GM, now walks with a cane and is unemployed.

What? I read this again, unable to believe the words in front of me. How could a doctor come up with such a ridiculous diagnosis? I make my bed every day and don’t suffer from debilitating back pain. Obviously, this diagnosis is a sham, a convenient excuse to get rid of a long-time employee without admitting culpability. Even harder for me to stomach, is the fact that GM sold $4.67 million in the first half of 2012, making it the second-largest automaker in the world. Toyota is first with $4.97 million in sales. Plus, yesterday, at the first public day of the North American International Auto Show, GM won Car of the Year for its Cadillac ATS. Why doesn’t GM treat its employees decently? If these workers were American, would more people take notice? Would American workers be treated so negligently in the first place?

Quite possibly, as it turns out. Actor Danny Glover is protesting the North American Auto Show because of the way Nissan is treating its U.S. employees. A Detroit Free Press article states that Nissan is discouraging its Canton, Mississippi employees from joining a union.

In an attempt to gain GM’s attention, Parra, along with other fired employees, began a hunger strike, going one step further than usual. On August 12, 2012, they sewed their lips shut and stood outside the U.S. Embassy in Bogota to protest their firings.

GM “is firing us without just cause, harming us and our families. We are taking this decision because our health has worsened day by day, we have lost our homes, we’re basically in the street and have been forgotten by the government,” said one protester.

Another protestor said they’re sewing their lips shut until the company listens to their requests.

Three days ago, on January 18, Jorge Parra reached day 60 of his hunger strike. Witness for Peace, a non-governmental organization, says that people in at least 20 states have fasted recently to show their solidarity with the striking Columbian workers.

In a Columbia Reports article, Katie McBride, a GM spokeswoman, says that these workers were offered hundreds of thousands of dollars in programs, along with 15 months of healthcare and pension benefits and two years of higher education. Parra disagrees, saying the offer was very bad. He claims the maximum offered was $30,000 a person, which doesn’t cover the costs of spinal surgery he needs. He goes on to explain that he and his fellow workers want to be reintegrated into their jobs at GM again.

These Columbian men want to get back to work. They want GM to acknowledge the truth…that working in their factory can cause physical harm. They want GM to provide the required medical services enabling them to get better. They want to know that their jobs are secure while they’re getting the medical attention they need.

Simple, basic requests, yet these workers are being let go because of on-the-job injuries, as if they didn’t matter, as if they didn’t have long-time employment histories with GM.

I don’t own a GM car, or a Nissan, and I won’t be purchasing one of these vehicles anytime soon. I will be in the market for a new car next year but before I even start looking, I’m going to delve into the backgrounds of automakers, to see which ones play fair with the people who make their cars, the necessary yet invisible people on which this billion dollar industry depends.


About Shelly Sanders

Shelly (represented by Amy Tipton, Signature Literary Agency) is the author of THE RACHEL TRILOGY--Rachel's Secret, Rachel's Promise & Rachel's Hope (Second Story Press).Rachel's Secret received a Starred Review in Booklist and was named a Notable Read from the Association of Jewish Libraries. Rachel's Hope was shortlisted for the Vine Awards for Canadian Literature in 2016. Before turning to fiction, Shelly was a freelance journalist for the Toronto Star, National Post, Maclean's, and Canadian Living.
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