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Colombia Labor Action Plan Fails to Stop Labor and Human Rights Violations

Colombia is known as “the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist.”

Today, Colombian trade unionists, representatives from the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS, Colombia’s National Union School) and the AFL-CIO participated in a panel discussion on the implementation of the Colombian Action Plan Related to Labor Rights. The panelists reached a grim conclusion—so far, the Labor Action Plan (LAP) has failed to stop serious labor and human rights violations in Colombia, even though the U.S. government has declared it a success and has allowed the related Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) to go into effect.  

For many years, Colombia has held the infamous distinction of being known as “the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist.” Workers there endanger their lives by the simple act of organizing. To address the lack of basic human and worker rights, Presidents Obama and Santos (of the United States and Colombia, respectively) negotiated the LAP. Successful implementation of the LAP was made a prerequisite to enactment of the Colombia FTA. While the panelists unanimously agreed the prerequisite was not met—that’s not the end of the story.

The message of the panelists was clear: just because the LAP has not yet accomplished its goal is no reason to throw in the towel. The LAP gives Colombian working families hope—for some, it is the first ray of hope they had experienced in a long time. Failure to accomplish a monumental task that LAP embarks on does not represent permanent failure. What Colombian workers need is continued effort and resources from the Colombian and U.S. governments—and allies who will create the political will in Colombia that is not yet sufficient to protect workers’ lives and livelihoods. 

Miguel Conde, secretary-treasurer of the Puerto Wilches local of Colombian trade union SINTRAINAGRO, who spoke at the panel, explained how the current situation in Colombia makes it difficult to freely associate to bargain for better work conditions.

Conde said:

Due to legal restrictions, intimidation from armed groups and the rise of illegal cooperatives, it’s now easier to form a guerrilla group than a union in Colombia.

“So far, the LAP has failed to accomplish the goal of cracking down on illegal cooperatives and other forms of subcontracting so that workers can be hired directly by employers and exercise their fundamental rights of freedom of association, organization and collective bargaining,” AFL-CIO Trade Policy Specialist Celeste Drake said. “Rather than the U.S. or Colombian governments declaring victory, the AFL-CIO urges both governments to commit the considerable resources and intense political will necessary to make the promised changes come to fruition.”

Only last year, 30 trade unionists were assassinated for their union activity. Eleven have been killed already in 2012. Jhonsson Torres, one of the panelists who experienced threats firsthand due to his work as a founding member of the sugar cane cutters' union (Sinalcorteros), shared his story, which underscored the lack of protection and the constant violations of human rights, even after the LAP became effective.

“After our two-month strike was able to improve working conditions, the Colombian government charged several of us and our allies with conspiracy and sedition,” Torres stated.

On April 27, our union’s secretary general, Daniel Aguirre, was assassinated. The killers haven’t been found yet. A few months ago, I received death threats. With the trade agreement, the government told us that security and safety would improve. I still fear for my life and the safety of my loved ones.

Drake added:

The implementation of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement must not be the end of the story on Colombian labor rights, but only the beginning.

Panel participants also released an AFL-CIO report detailing the specific lack of progress made in Colombia. Find the report by clicking here, then on " The Colombian Action Plan Related to Labor Rights: The View Through Workers’ Eyes ."

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