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NARAMATA, B.C.– A prominent Colombian trade unionist and human rights lawyer is calling on Canadian labour leaders to organize “a simultaneous day of protest against privatization.”

The call came in mid-May from Maria Eva Villate, of a Colombian public service union affiliated to the United Federation of State, Public Service and Community Workers and Professionals (FUTEC), which is affiliated to Public Service International.

She and other Colombian trade unionists toured Canada to draw attention to the negative impacts of privatization, globalization and the increasing criminalization of social protest. “We need to stop the government from killing trade union leaders,” she said. “We need to stop them from putting trade unionists in jail.”

The day will be harder to organize in Colombia where 60 per cent of the people live in poverty and illiteracy is high, she said. “But we need to strengthen our unions at the base by working with each other and with other social partners.”

In observing the current push to privatize in British Columbia, Villate said the effects of such policies are similar to what occurs in her country. There are layoffs, firings, worsening conditions at work, weaker unions, reduced public service and overwork.

However, the way it’s done is different. “Yes, they use regressive legislation as they do in B.C.,” she said. “But in Colombia they persecute trade unionists for speaking out against privatization. Paramilitary squads violently attack trade unionists.”

In health care, the Colombian government has turned citizens against health care workers and stripped the once public system, leaving it open for privatizing by transnational corporations.

The government began to undermine the public system that was in place before 1993,” she said. “They set up a list of illnesses that could be treated by private companies. They made sure that the most ruinous diseases could not be treated privately.”

In this way, they,” she added, “the public system was manipulated to fail. Then they forced public health care facilities to charge for their services. Another blow designed to turn the people against public health care.”

Health care workers themselves had a modest system before privatizing began, but this too has been attacked. The Colombian media has also played into the government’s hand by focusing on patients who are dissatisfied with the care.

It’s so perverse,” Villate said. “They have designed it so that the people are blaming health care workers for the deterioration in service and hospital closures. They have to endure the social as well as the political costs of privatization.”

Workers cannot win the fight against privatization alone,” she said. She hopes the protest day will help build a global social network against privatization. “We need to teach our members that being a trade unionist goes beyond the walls of the office or factory.”

While in B. C., Villate met with CUPE BC leaders and visited CUPE members on the job in Courtenay, Victoria, North Vancouver and Kamloops. She also spoke at CUPE’s week-long labour school in Naramata. Her visit culminated with an event at the Maritime Labour Centre in Vancouver on May 17, 2004.

The tour, sponsored by CUPE, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the Canadian Labour Congress and other unions, was organized under the title “Defending Public Services – Canadian and Colombian workers on the front line.”

For more on Villate and the tour, contact Barbara Wood, Co-Development Canada, 604-708-1495. (Ext. 114), bwood@codev.org.