A U.S.-government mediator begins negotiations today on behalf of General Motors with a group of former workers from the auto maker’s Colombian operations who claim they were fired for injuries on the job, a case that has seen them sew their mouths shut in a hunger strike to raise awareness.

The hunger strike ended last week when GM, which is working to rebuild its image from a 2009 U.S.-taxpayer-funded bankruptcy, decided to call on the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in Washington to settle the case.

Walker Grooms, a spokesman for the human rights organization Witness for Peace, tells WardsAuto the workers want their jobs back, coverage for health-care costs and worker compensation. He says repetitive motion on the job caused most of the injuries, such as carpal-tunnel syndrome and hernias.

“It is a glaring example of the fact labor rights are widely ignored in Colombia,” he says. “It is not just the auto industry, either; it is a widespread and pervasive problem.”

Grooms says fair-labor laws were expected as both a condition to and product of the U.S.-Colombian Free-Trade Agreement that went into effect earlier this year.

“In neither case has anything been done,” he says, calling Colombia one of the world’s most dangerous places for labor organizers with deaths of activists every year.

The association of injured workers seeking reimbursement from GM, called Asotrecol, starting camping outside the U.S. Embassy in Bogota one year ago to draw attention to their cause. Several of them sewed their mouths shut in the 3-week hunger strike that ended late last week.

“I don’t know of a precedent for a 3-week hunger strike,” Grooms says.

GM says it “remains committed to ensuring a safe, healthy work environment for all our employees in GM facilities around the world.

“We have been addressing the issues raised by the former workers of GM Colmotores since they became known to us.”

The auto maker says it is pleased the group has suspended its hunger strike and “looks forward to productive dialogue through mediation to enable resolution to all concerns.”

Earlier this summer GM’s South American operations saw protests against job cuts it planned for a plant near Sao Paulo. The auto maker has since chosen to delay the action.

jamend@wardsauto.com