Colombia was the deadliest country for trade union leaders in 2023.
Trade unionists are being murdered as they represent workers’ and their collective rights. Too often there is no justice for workers, and their families as government and employers act with impunity. In 2023, trade unionists were murdered in eight countries in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Eswatini, Guatemala, Peru and Sierra Leone.
Workers were murdered in Eswatini and Sierra Leone.
In Sierra Leone, several peaceful protests organised in August 2022 over the rising cost of living were brutally suppressed, killing at least 21 people. Police indiscriminately fired live bullets and tear gas into the crowd as protesters marched in the capital Freetown.
Workers’ frustrations had been amplified by rising prices for basic goods in a country where more than half the population of around 8 million live below the poverty line.
ITUC-Africa General Secretary Kwasi Adu-Amankwah expressed deep concerns about the situation and called on the government to conduct an inclusive and genuine investigation to address the root causes of the protests.
In Eswatini, Thulani Maseko, a human and trade union rights lawyer and political activist was shot dead in front of his family on 21 January 2023 at his home in Manzini by unknown gunmen.
From 2012 to 2015, Thulani Maseko defended the rights of the Trade Union Congress of Eswatini (TUCOSWA) following its de-registration by the government. Subsequently, he provided legal advice to the Eswatini trade union movement. He was also the chair of the Multi-Stakeholder Forum (MSF) that represented progressive groups working for democracy in Eswatini following the banning of political parties.
Workers were murdered in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala and Peru.
On 8 August 2022, 45-year-old Hugo Eduardo Gamero Gonzalez was shot and killed in Puerto Barrios, Izabal, Guatemala. He was a Secretary in SINEPORC (Sindicato Obrero de la Empresa Portuaria Nacional Santo Tomas de Castilla) and had been a very active member in the union’s actions.
In Peru, the democratic protests, organised after the parliamentary coup and strongly supported by the coalition of trade unions, were heavily repressed by the police. As of February 2023, more than 60 people had lost their lives, while 2,000 more were injured and another 1,000 protesters were arrested. Trade unions, rural workers’ organisations and other civil society groups were illegally raided, as were universities throughout the country.
Trade unions also denounced the Boluarte government’s violent response to the protests and the various tactics used to prevent workers from protesting, such as a travel ban to the capital, the centre of the mass demonstrations, and refusal to sit down with trade unions for dialogue.
Between April and October 2022, 15 trade unionists in Colombia were victims of targeted assassinations: Wilmer Hernández, Aureliano Coral Guerrero, Misael Fernando Ávila Solarte, Mauricio Flory Balanta, Fernando Domicó, Edison Gómez Ortiz, Julio Cesar Ojeda Jara, Helberth Mosquera Hurtado, Wilfredo Parra Cardozo, Édgar Rodríguez Corredor, Sandra Patricia Montenegro, Sibares Lamprea Vargas, Álvaro Díaz Pineda, José Libardo Samboni Vargas and William Urueta.
On 26 April 2022, José Leonidas Bonilla, a union leader of the Union of Workers of the Mejicanos Mayor’s Office, in El Salvador, was detained by the police, who broke into his home and told him that an investigation was going to be carried out against him. One day after his capture, his sister went to the station where he was being held and José Leonidas mentioned that the police officers had pressured him to sign records admitting to charges of “criminal association”. José Leonidas refused to sign and was transferred to the La Esperanza Penitentiary and later to the Mariona Prison, where he was detained. On 3 September 2022, José Leonidas died in hospital because he was not given the medicine he needed to control his blood pressure and diabetes, despite the fact that a judge had ordered the prison authorities to supply it.
Rildanio Ramos Barros, President of the Union of Workers in Family Farming in Brazil, and former Secretary of Agriculture of the city of Parnarama, was brutally murdered on 18 July 2022. The 34-year-old was shot 13 times by unidentified gunmen. Three suspects were arrested in November and investigations were still ongoing to determine the motive for the murder. However, according to the Civil Police, the crime may have been linked to land conflicts and Rildanio Ramos Barro’s union work.