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Still a Long Way to Go for Labor Rights in Colombia

A Colombian worker loading palm fruit—palm plantations are notorious for their use of cooperatives to avoid direct employment relationships, despite being fined by the Ministry of Labor.

Celeste Drake, trade policy specialist for the AFL-CIO, sends us this. 

It’s been more than seven months since the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (Columbia FTA) went into effect, and many U.S. workers are wondering exactly how the agreement is benefiting workers in either country. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. For America’s workers, the U.S. trade deficit with Colombia is on track to exceed last year’s deficit—never good news for job creation or wage growth. Meanwhile, Colombian workers still face momentous obstacles when trying to exercise even the most basic of workplace rights, including the right to organize unions and act collectively for better working conditions. 

Prior to the implementation of the Colombia FTA, the U.S. and Colombian governments created the “Colombian Action Plan Related to Labor Rights.” Although the plan failed to address many long-standing issues, it held significant promise. Unfortunately, it has yet to be fully implemented. Although the U.S. government is monitoring progress closely—including regular visits to Colombia—efforts to date have been insufficient to fulfill the commitments made to Colombia’s working families. 

In the palm sector, one of the Labor Action Plan’s priority sectors, progress toward eliminating the cooperatives and other sub-contracting arrangements, which interfere with labor rights, is mixed. On one hand, Colombia’s Labor Ministry has sanctioned 10 real employers (as opposed to subcontractors) in Puerto Wilches. 

On the other hand, so far none of the sanctions have resulted in fines paid, and all indications are that it will take a long time, including an extended appeals process, before any fines are actually collected. There has been no movement toward conciliating the sanctions—negotiating with the employer the forgiving of the fines in exchange for actually hiring the sub-contracted workers directly, as allowed by law. In fact, not one single worker has been hired directly as a result of the inspections or sanctions in Puerto Wilches. Most of the cooperatives still function as they did prior to the Labor Action Plan.  

Meanwhile, some 200 workers have had to leave the Puerto Wilches area because of persecution. Activists who led the protest movement last year seeking the application of the new laws restricting the use of cooperatives were effectively fired (since they are not direct employees, they can’t be “fired” but they can be barred from working) and black listed. The employers have run a campaign building ill will against the union, Sintrainagro, and blaming it for production problems and firings. Importantly, Puerto Wilches represents but a small fraction of the palm sector. There have not yet been any inspections (for compliance with the new cooperatives law) in other palm producing regions in the country.

In Buenaventura, the port management company and the union agreed to negotiate an agreement to end a protest in early September. The parties met several times and came to an agreement mediated by the Vice Minister of Labor and the Mayor of Buenaventura. The agreement established that there would be no reprisals for the protest, that 35 workers would be hired directly and that further direct hires could follow pending further discussions and some legal clarifications. After the deal was brokered, the port’s negotiators managers refused to sign the agreement. Then, in a bold move, the port management filed charges against the union for an unlawful strike. The charges clear the way for reprisals—firings—despite the “no reprisals” clause in the accord. On Oct. 23, 2012, the labor court in Buga (Sala Laboral del Tribunal Superior de Buga) ruled that the strike was legal. Even so, the management continues to refuse to sign or implement the accord. After an initial 30-day bargaining period, a legal strike, a new set of negotiations, and finally an accord, the company has made no changes, not even to eliminate illegal cooperatives. 

In the meantime, 15 unionists have been killed so far in 2012, while 89 have been forcibly displaced and 351 have received threats. One step forward, one step back leaves Colombian workers vulnerable—and empowers employers to continue violating the law. The AFL-CIO continues to push the U.S. and Colombian governments to do more to implement the Labor Action Plan. Status quo is not good enough—it fails workers who stand up for themselves and their families. 

Learn more about labor and human rights in Colombia here.  

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