While in Washington, D.C., for the release of a new AFL-CIO report on the implementation of the Colombian Action Plan Related to Labor Rights (the Labor Action Plan), a delegation of Colombian worker advocates met with officials from the U.S. Department of Labor, Department of State and Trade Representative's office.
The delegation included Miguel Conde, general secretary of the Puerto Wilches local of Sintrainagro, an agricultural worker union representing workers on palm oil plantations; Jhonsson Torres, a founding member and vice president of the cane cutters union; Sinalcorteros; and Jose Luciano Sanin, executive director of the Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS, National Union School). Both Conde and Torres have had death threats leveled against them for their work to give workers a voice in improving their own lives, but only Conde has received a protection scheme from the Colombian government. Better protection programs for workers under threat were just of the requirements of the Labor Action Plan that have yet to be completely fulfilled—others include cracking down on the misuse of collective pacts, cooperatives and temporary service agencies, all of which impede workers' right to organize and form unions.
The U.S. officials listened carefully as the delegation explained how there is no "plan to implement the plan." They explained how what little progress that has been made, including the negotiation of a few collective bargaining agreements in the sugar cane sector, is quite precarious. Workers fear that unless the United States keeps up the political pressure on the Colombian government to fulfill the plan, those employers who have complied will revert to their old approach: labor repression, including using armed groups to harm labor leaders. Sanin told the officials that, due to a tragic murder he had just learned of earlier that week, 34 unionists have been killed for their labor activities since the implementation of the Labor Action Plan. "This is not an inspection plan, it's an action plan," Sanin said, highlighting the need to ensure that real changes follow initial investigations.
Emphasizing their commitment to improve the situation for workers in Colombia, the U.S. officials discussed the possibility of a detailed visit to evaluate progress on labor rights in the coming months. They also committed to continuing to provide much needed attention, resources and support for Labor Action Plan implementation. Getting assurance of continued support for implementation made the trip worthwhile for the Colombians, who are in the midst of a long-term struggle for an economy that provides workers with dignity, fair pay and benefits, respect for the exercise of free association and other fundamental rights.