Union and Taxpayer-Owned GM Accused of Mistreating South American Workers

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There are a couple of little-noticed news stories on General Motors that belie the success narrative that portrays GM as a robust and growing corporation that is rewarding its workers around the globe. Both stories revolve around GM's South American operations, one involving injured Colombian GM workers who allegedly lost their jobs after being hurt at work and who are now on hunger strikes; the other centers on a strike by Brazilian GM workers who are protesting job cuts there.

The allegation of abusive treatment to Colombian workers is the more disturbing of the two affairs and warrants more coverage from the media than has been given. According to reports, workers at a plant in Bogotá, Colombia work under abysmal conditions and it is typical of GM to fire workers that are injured there who can no longer perform their jobs. Some of those desperate ex-workers took the extreme step of sewing their mouths closed and going on hunger strikes to raise awareness of their plight. From a workers.org report:

For almost 500 days, Asotrecol, the Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of General Motors Colmotores, has been fighting for justice. Colmotores, the GM assembly plant in Bogotá, Colombia, is a house of horrors. After any length of time, conditions on the job destroy a worker physically. GM typically fires workers unable to work, leaving them with no source of income. GM takes advantage of the political climate in Colombia, the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists.

The drastic measure taken by the hunger-striking injured Colombian GM workers has yet to gain coverage by the mainstream media, as observed by an article from voiceofdetroit.net. The piece points to the scene of a protest at the recent Detroit Auto Show by one of the hunger-striking Colombians who had a spinal injury. The account describes the lack of interest by American media as follows, "A GM worker from Colombia who has been on hunger strike for 55 days because GM fired him and 200 co-workers after they became disabled due to injuries on the job was the focus of the first protest, sponsored by the Autoworkers Caravan, on Jan. 13 and 14. The only media present, other than those from the progressive left, was an Argentinean reporter."

Also receiving little coverage is the strike by Brazilian GM workers. Allegations there are that GM received huge tax cuts and incentives (I guess GM's addiction to taxpayer handouts extends beyond the US borders) to manufacture vehicles at plants in Brazil. Now, GM plans to eliminate 1,598 of the 7,500 jobs at one of the plants, according to wsws.org. Evidently, demand for GM is not living up to rosy projections as the piece quotes, "'excess capacity is something that worries us,' Jaime Ardila, head of GM Latin America, told the Wall Street Journal. 'The market isn't growing enough to match the increase in capacity.'" Reportedly, talks are ongoing between GM management and labor and the protest strike lasted only 24 hours.

Given the above mentioned reports, it appears that the South American GM workers, along with Brazilian taxpayers, may have to be inducted into the "Hosed by GM Club." The ever-growing list previously included former GM shareholders and bondholders, Delphi non-union retirees, widows and other accident and asbestos litigants, owners of "Old" GM vehicles who did not have their vehicles' problems covered by "New" GM, Indian tribes and others who have had their lands polluted by Old GM, non-union workers at shuttered GM dealerships, unemployed GM workers of Canada and Canadian taxpayers and, last but not least, the American taxpayers who are on the hook for billions of dollars.

In the case of the hunger-striking Colombians, let's hope that a fear of bad publicity for GM will drive the company to address the concerns and give fair treatment to the injured ex-workers before a death occurs. There is no justification for abusive work conditions (if that is the case), especially by a major US corporation that received billions of taxpayer dollars and is still partially government-owned. It is a shame that publicity, rather than morality and ethics, has to drive the actions at GM. Whatever the motivation, GM would be ill-advised to let one of the Colombians die from a hunger strike and needs to get a resolution to the under-reported affair. The usually friendly media may not be so kind if a life is lost as a result of GM's inaction. 

Mark Modica is an NLPC Associate Fellow.