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Ex-GM Workers Suspend Hunger Strike in Colombia

by Dan MolinskiFox Business/Dow Jones Newswires

BOGOTA, Colombia--A small group of former General Motors Co. (GM) employees in Colombia who sewed their mouths shut as part of a three-week hunger strike over a dispute with the auto maker have called off the strike, GM said Thursday.

The hunger strike began Aug. 1 in front of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota. The workers claim they were fired from GM's local unit Colmotores more than a year ago due to serious on-the-job injuries sustained while lifting heavy objects and doing repetitive movements on the assembly line and other tasks.

"The parties have agreed to resolve the concerns through a mediator, and the former GM Colmotores employees have suspended their hunger strike," GM representative Katie McBride said in an emailed statement.

A statement from GM added that officials from the auto maker in Colombia "have been addressing the issues raised by the former workers of GM Colmotores since they became known to us," and said the company looks forward to "productive dialogue through mediation to enable resolution to all concerns."

The hunger strike in Colombia marked the latest labor issue to hit GM's South American branches. In Brazil, GM agreed not to cut 1,840 jobs at a factory there following union protests and government threats that the job cuts could lead to the reinstatement of taxes cut earlier in the year. GM had planned to shut down passenger-car production at the plant as demand for the models produced there fell.

The former employees, who are part of Asotrecol, a Colombian association of workers and former workers of GM's assembly plant, have said they want the auto giant to compensate them and rehire them in some capacity. During the strike, they said they were prepared to die if GM didn't address their concerns.

Representatives at Asotrecol weren't immediately available Thursday to comment.

The hunger strike began with about six workers who stitched thick string through their upper and lower lips. Several more Asotrecol members joined the strike in recent days, also sewing their lips shut.

The ex-GM workers said they chose the grounds next to the U.S. Embassy to stage the hunger strike because of a labor action plan agreed to between Colombia and the U.S. last year under the countries' free-trade agreement, which took effect May 15.

They and other unions in Colombia say the labor plan, which was supposed to improve labor standards in Colombia, has been virtually ignored by both governments and multinational companies, including GM.

Colombia for years has been one of the most dangerous countries in the world for labor unions, with several dozen union activists murdered each year on average, although the number of killings has declined in recent years.

A few days after the strike began, the U.S. Embassy said in a statement it was monitoring the situation closely and has been following the General Motors-Asotrecol case closely, "with particular concern for the health of those on a hunger strike."

GM began operating in Colombia more than 50 years ago, and currently has more than 1,800 employees there.