Bolivia’s main trade union, Central Obrera Boliviana (COB) called this week for an indefinite general strike after sporadic rallies and riots last week followed the Morales administration’s decision to cap wage increases for government employees at 5 percent. Demonstrators contend the increase is not enough to compensate for diminished purchasing power and a rise in food prices. Last weeks work stoppages, which began with miners and industrial workers, were soon followed by a 24-hour strike by teachers and public health workers.
These are the first widespread strikes in Bolivia since Evo Morales took office in 2006. Once he assumed the presidency, Morales increased wages by 13.7 percent in his first year and has increased wages by an average of 8.7 percent each year until 2009 when wages were raised by 14 percent.
The government has so far downplayed the impact of the strikes and is standing by its decision. Economy and Finance Minister Luis Arce pointed out that the increase was well above the .26 percent inflation recorded in 2009. Other studies, however, indicate that the real minimum wage between 2006 and 2009 grew only 1.4 percent.
Trade unionists in Colombia continue to face intense harassment, despite government efforts to increase protection. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) published a report yesterday, citing Colombia as the world’s most dangerous place for trade unionists. The death toll in 2008 rose to 49 union-related deaths, up from 39 in 2007.
At a meeting in Canada on Wednesday, President Álvaro Uribe said that the Colombian government is "working every day to overcome impunity,” and highlighted a government program that spends $40 million per year to protect 10,000 individuals. Vice-Minister for Labor Relations Ana Lucia Noguera pointed out that union member killings had fallen 81 percent in the last seven years. Only 4 percent of Colombian workers are members of a trade union.