A Year of Ups and Downs for Labor in Colombia: ENS End of 2012 Review

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2012 has come and gone and Colombia still has far to go in following up on the Labor Action Plan (LAP). The Labor Action Plan was signed by both the U.S. and Colombian governments during the contentious debate for approval of the Colombia-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.  It was intended to serve as a road map to address severe labor rights problems in Colombia as well as the systemic problem of anti-union violence which has made Colombia in recent years the most dangerous country in the world to exercise worker rights…

Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS), Colombia’s national union school, released in December a year-end review for 2012, labeling it as a year of ups and downs. Highlighting the major issues facing the labor and union movement in Colombia, ENS consulted with presidents of Colombia’s three trade union confederations, Confederación de Trabajadores de Colombia (CTC), Central Unitaria de Trabajdores de Colombia (CUT), and Confederación General del Trabajo (CGT), while also providing the analysis of ENS Director Luciano Sanín and of the Colombian Labor Ministry. 

While ENS does point to several positive steps, these, however, fell short of expectations and the Colombian government’s promises. The creation of a stand-alone Ministry of Labor, and its growing institutional strength, has been widely received as a positive step. Luciano Sanín of ENS has credited the creation of the ministry and increasing media coverage of labor issues for “generating a labor agenda in the country’s public discourse.” Another positive point has been the increase of labor inspectors, which, according to the Labor Ministry, totaled 624 as of the end of 2012.

The effectiveness of the labor inspections, on the other hand, is up for debate. Miguel Morantes, President of CTC, said, “labor inspections have improved, although not as strong as what was agreed between Obama and Santos as a condition for the signing of the FTA.” The Ministry of Labor has also levied sanctions on different companies for illegal subcontracting, including several in the palm sector, one of the five priority sections identified in the LAP. The effects of the sanctions have been minimal to say the least, considering the ministry has yet to make any progress in collecting any fines. While it is encouraging that there have been efforts in curbing illegal subcontracting, the fines only present a symbolic statement by the ministry as they have yet to provide any real effect in curbing illegal subcontracting practices. This further highlights the importance for Colombia to adhere to the conditions of the Labor Action Plan (LAP).

Sixty-eight percent of Colombia’s labor force is considered to be informal and have no social or labor protection. The use of cooperatives and indirect employment practices, which have been outlawed by Decree 2025, continues to be problematic as new indirect hiring mechanisms emerge, such as the Simplified Stock Companies (SAS, as they are known by their Colombian acronym). These hiring practices continue to affect the ability of workers to form or become part of a union and limit worker’s rights to association.

“We still have anti-union behavior that persists and does not allow a more harmonic development of the trade union movement,” asserts Julio Roberto Gómez, President of CGT. Workers seeking to associate are still being fired, as was the case for 110 sugar cane workers in Valle del Cauca who were fired earlier this year after attempting to affiliate with Sintrainago.

Although levels of violence decreased last year, 18 unionists were murdered in 2012 and threats have increased and continue to be levied against union leaders and workers attempting to join unions or organize. ENS registered 359 threats in 2012, and has noted that the number may end being higher. During the first two-and-a-half years of President Juan Manuel Santos’ administration, there have been 65 murders and 994 threats against unionists and labor activists. 

The recurring pattern of violence and threats has tragically continued in 2013. Just last week, Juan Carlos Pérez Muñoz, labor activist and organizer of Sintrainagro La Cabaña, was murdered. Juan Carlos had recently affiliated with Sintrainagro, organizing his fellow workers to join the union and to fight for the reinstatement of 86 recently fired workers. The workers, including the union’s executive board, were fired on January 3 as management refused to renew the workers’ contracts in an all-too common display of anti-union behavior.

The death of Juan Carlos, continued threats levied against labor activists and unionists, and persistent anti-union behavior demonstrate Colombia still has far to go on the labor front. It is now, more than ever, imperative that Colombia continues to implement and improve the protection commitments outlined in the LAP and provide effective protective measures to union leaders and labor activists.