NO SELL OFF!
Colombian governments have been trying to privatise the state corporation Telecom and its network of local phone companies for the last 10 years. Telecom signed joint venture ‘Shared Risk’ contracts with foreign multinationals Alcatel (Spain), Nortel (US), Ericcson (Sweden), Siemens (Germany), and Itochu and NEC from Japan to install 1,800,000 telephone lines. The multinationals’ investment would be paid back with sales and call income.
At first sight this seemed an attractive deal, the state corporation would get new services without investing public funds. But with 1,590,000 lines installed, 413,000 of them still unsold, the multinationals started demanding US $2,088 million compensation, on top of bills for US $926 million, which works out at over two thousand dollars per line. So much for shared risk.
Telecom negotiated with the Pastrana government to take out a $600 million loan to pay to the multinationals to keep them at bay, and in the meantime proposing a new holding company. The Communication Workers Union USTC objected, presenting demands in February 2002 denouncing the one sided joint venture contracts. The union argued that the loan should be blocked, and that the equipment installed by the multinationals be taken over. The union was very concerned that conceding to the multinationals’ demand would mean a de facto privatisation, with dire consequences for workers rights as well as for services to the community. But it was not listened to.
The multinationals mounted political pressure. Nortel’s senators in the US Congress blocked extension of the ATPA trade agreement, under which Colombia and its Andean neighbours exports certain commodities to US markets with lower import duties. The US applied trade protection as a weapon to pressurise the Colombian government to concede to the multinationals – who stand to gain a profit of 55% over their original investment.
The USTC got nowhere with negotiation and decided to take action. The workers launched a wave of occupations across the country on 14th May, risking their lives to fight back against neo-liberalism. A series of confrontations ensued.
At 9am on 17th May an army colonel arrived at the workers occupation in Buenaventura threatening to dislodge them by force of arms. The workers contacted the Campaign Against Privatisation, Corruption and the Criminalisation of Social Protest who immediately put out an international alert to protect them from a massacre.
The state refined its tactics. The police went into the Bucaramanga occupation at 3.30am on 20th May, ejecting the workers by force and arresting 85 of them. On 22nd May the union, the national Telecom corporation, and Minister of labour Angelino Garzon signed an agreement in which the employer committed not to take reprisals against workers involved in the protests, and the union committed to return to normal working.
But the very next day 58 of the workers were named in criminal investigations in Floridablanca and Bucaramanga with charges of violation of the right to work, illegal constraint and sabotage. Telecom managers argued that only the first of these charges was covered by their agreement, and they would press charges of illegal constraint and sabotage.
Faced with escalating criminalisation of its members, the union decided once again to go into occupation of various work sites of Telecom and its network of companies.
On 13th June the police, in co-ordinatination with Telecoms security chief, carried out an attack on the workers in Bogotá. They launched tear gas into a demonstration of the Communications Workers Union and stared hitting the workers, 8 were injured and 3 had to stay in hospital.
The fight to save Colombia’s telecommunications is not over, and needs international support.
Send messages of solidarity to USTC at: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com