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Dying for a Living: As Global Economic Crisis Continues, Union Activists in Many Countries Pay the Ultimate Price

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On June 19, Ibio Efrén Caicedo, a teacher and trade union activist in Colombia, was murdered. He was the seventh unionized teacher killed this year in that country's Antioquia region.

Caicedo's murder was hardly an anomaly. More than 100 union activists were killed in 2009, according to a report released this summer by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). This represents a 30 percent rise over 2008, and reflects an increasingly aggressive stance toward labor organizing in a global economy still reeling from the collapse of financial markets two years ago.

As Americans mark Labor Day amidst a seemingly endless economic downturn, our national focus is understandably on the hard times faced by workers in this country. But as the preeminent world power, our moral obligations do not end at our borders.

Sadly, the U.S. too often turns a blind eye to the harassment, torture and killing of union activists, sending the wrong message to allies and opponents alike.

The ominous uptick in violence against union activists underscores the often overlooked relationship between human rights and workers rights. The right to collective bargaining is enshrined in numerous international covenants, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While human rights and workers rights are not always synonymous, it is no coincidence that some of the nations with the most egregious record of human rights violations are also guilty of mercilessly persecuting labor activists.

A case in point is Colombia. Nearly half of the union activists murdered in 2009 lost their lives in this country, which has long been singled out by human rights organizations for its rampant kidnappings, beatings, torture and killings. Though much of the public attention has rightfully focused on the torture and murder of union activists at Coca-Cola plants in Columbia, labor leaders representing everyone from teachers to oil workers have also been targeted in the world's most dangerous place to be a union supporter.

In Guatemala, another country with an ugly history of human rights atrocities, violence against labor activists has skyrocketed, with 12 union leaders killed last year alone. "Trade unions find themselves under siege, with murders, death threats, detentions and torture becoming the daily lot of their members," stated the ITUC report.

While Latin America has the worst record of violence against labor activists, the persecution of workers rights leaders extends to all corners of the globe. The ITUC report singles out Iran, Honduras, Pakistan, South Korea, Turkey, Zimbabwe, Egypt and the Russian Federation, among other countries.

Many of the nations on this list, including Columbia, are close U.S. allies, undermining our standing as a champion of human rights. Our standing is further eroded by the free trade agreement with Columbia for which the administration is seeking congressional ratification. If nothing else, the debate over that agreement should engender a deeper discussion about where workers rights fits into the broader American framework of support for human rights.

The need for such an examination is highlighted by the fact, more than 60 years after its establishment, the U.S. has never ratified the United Nations International Labor Organization Convention on the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining. Though adoption of this convention does not guarantee adherence to international workplace standards -- violence against workers has occurred in many of the countries that have signed it -- the United States' failure to embrace this basic code of conduct undermines American credibility as a defender of universal labor protections.

The consequences of our lack of interest in international labor standards can be seen, right here in Los Angeles, in the torture survivors who come here from places such as El Salvador, where in the 1980s the American-supported right-wing regime persecuted union leaders who later were granted asylum in this country. More recently, the U.S. has provided significant military aid to the government of Colombia despite its abysmal record on labor rights, even as some congressional leaders have fought to condition trade treaties on better treatment of that nation's union activists.

The U.S. would be better served by speaking and acting unambiguously about the importance of respecting the human rights of working people, and condemning violence against labor activists wherever it occurs. Such clarity will not end the abuse of those who stand up for basic dignity in the workplace, but it will make it harder for their tormentors to act with impunity, and reinforce the notion that workers rights are inseparable from human rights.

Julie Gutman is executive director of the Program for Torture Victims and former senior labor advisor to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.