Date: Wed, 28 Apr 1999 23:19:47 -0500 (CDT)
From: Dennis Grammenos <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Bus, taxi drivers aggravate Colombia labor unrest
Bus, taxi drivers aggravate Colombia labor unrest
Reuters, Wednesday 28 April 1999
With unemployment at record levels, the economy in its worst shape since World War II and deadlock in fledgling talks aimed at ending the country's long- running guerrilla war, senior labour leaders warned Colombia was facing a social "time-bomb."
BOGOTA -- Thousands of commuters were stranded by a rising tide of labour unrest sweeping Colombia as Bogota's bus and taxi drivers staged a day-long strike (on) Wednesday to protest City Hall plans that could leave many jobless.
The transport stoppage, by some 12,000 buses and 5,000 taxis, came amid nationwide strikes by 250,000 teachers and 115,000 health workers, battling government policies they fear will mean public sector job cuts and privatisations.
The main oil workers' union USO also launched a day-long go-slow in solidarity with their colleagues in the health and education sectors but state-run oil company Ecopetrol said production and refining operations had not been affected.
With unemployment at record levels, the economy in its worst shape since World War II and deadlock in fledgling talks aimed at ending the country's long-running guerrilla war, senior labour leaders warned Colombia was facing a social "time-bomb."
"Each time there is a protest the government tries to minimise the impact and blame it on just a small group," Luis Eduardo Garzon, leader of Colombia's largest labour federation the Unitary Workers Confederation (CUT), said (on) Wednesday.
"I don't want to create panic but the social and economic situation has created a time-bomb," he added.
Bogota police chief Gen. Argemiro Serna said 95 percent of the capital's buses and taxis heeded Wednesday's strike call.
In many of the poorer neighbourhoods of southern Bogota people clambered aboard cargo trucks in an effort to get to work, paying about $1.25 for the ride compared to their regular 40 cent bus fare. Commuters in upscale districts of northern Bogota, meanwhile, travelled by car or pedalled to work through the drizzle on mountain bikes.
There were no reports of serious violence or blockades but in some areas protesters smashed the windows of buses that defied the strike, according to Reuters photographers.
The strike was a demonstration against Bogota Mayor Enrique Penalosa's so-called "Trans-Millennium" project to overhaul the capital's public transport system in 2000.
Drivers fear the plan, aimed at replacing smaller buses in this city of six million inhabitants with fewer, larger articulated vehicles, would force many of them into the growing ranks of the unemployed. Urban unemployment across the country now stands at an all-time high of 19.5 percent.
Teacher and health workers' strikes underway have targeted government economic plans which mix sweeping free market policies with austerity plans aimed at halving the public sector deficit to about 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by the end of 1999.
Union representatives met with government negotiators (on) Wednesday but while Interior Minister Nestor Martinez said he was hopeful of a quick solution there was no immediate sign of a deal.
Just two months after taking office in August, President Andres Pastrana was faced with a 21-day strike by 700,000 public sector workers -- the longest in 20 years. That was followed by a slew of one-day stoppages by state employees.
One of Pastrana's key election pledges was to restore the economy to vigorous growth.
But in the latest Gallup poll published two weeks ago by the respected El Espectador newspaper, 80 percent of those questioned said they were so far unhappy with the way Pastrana was handling the economy.
Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited
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