The joint US-Colombian Labor Action Plan (LAP) to defend workers rights and improve labor conditions in Colombia has been deemed “useless” by Colombian labor leaders, who say the Colombian government has not lived up to its responsibilities to ensure workers’ rights.
Approved three years ago Monday, the LAP was included into the broader free trade agreement signed between the two countries as a way of assuaging critics in the US Congress concerned about the dangers facing organized labor in the Andean nation. In theory, the agreement would tie a higher standard of labor guarantees to the implementation of free trade economic policies, the likes of which began taking effect last year.
According to Colombian labor leaders, however, the LAP has not only failed to live up to its promises, but has actually hurt labor conditions in the country. The LAP, and the free trade agreement of which it is a part, is “useless and detrimental for both the Colombian economy and the rights of workers,” said Tarcisio Rivera, president of a national labor unions confederation (CUT), in an interview with Colombia Reports.
Furthermore, in a report issued Monday by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO), Colombia has a “very long way to go in successfully implementing the LAP and ensuring that workers can safely and freely exercise their fundamental rights.”
According to a recent Washington Office on Latin America report entitled “Three years of non-compliance with the Obama-Santos Labor Action Plan,” of the 22 million workers in Colombia, fewer than 8 million have contracts, pensions or other indicators of formal employment. The remaining 14 million workers still lack many of the most basic labor guarantees, such as the right to unionize.
What is the Labor Action Plan?
In the words of the Colombian government, the Labor Action Plan was introduced to demonstrate the country’s “ongoing commitment to protect internationally recognized labor rights, prevent violence against labor leaders, and prosecute the perpetrators of such violence.” The government recognized at the time that “there remains significant challenges impacting formal work, full guarantee of rights and fundamental freedoms of citizens in overcoming violence, including that committed against trade unionists.”
Some of the main provisions in the 37 agreements outlined in the LAP include:
- The creation of the Ministry of Labor to improve institutional capability to protect labor rights.
- Implementation of legislation to institute criminal penalties, such as imprisonment, for employers who undercut the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively or threaten workers who exercise their labor rights.
- Hiring of 100 additional labor inspectors and budgeting for the hiring of 100 more labor inspectors in 2012, as part of a commitment to double the labor inspectorate by hiring 480 new labor inspectors over the next four years.
Rivera sides with the WALO and labor unions on both sides of the Caribbean Sea when he says that few of these provisions have been met with.
Subcontracting, the practice of shifting permanent jobs to more tenuous forms of labor with ”no guarantees of work and no guarantee of a trade union,” is “one of the most serious problems” facing Colombian workers, according to Rivera.
As the AFL-CIO report explains, a contractor, theoretically a “partner in an independent corporation,” can be paid substandard wages for a typically unionized job and made to work under more demanding conditions, without the benefits of collective bargaining provisions. By hiring an “independent corporation” to perform labor otherwise supplied by a trade union, a company can sever its relationship to its workforce, freeing it of its obligations as specified under collective bargaining agreements and Colombian labor laws.
Hired for short bouts and then let go with no long-term commitments, contractors struggle to get by without defined benefits or pensions. Unions, meanwhile, lose their leverage in negotiation.
The Colombian Constitution, which “prohibits the misuse of cooperatives or any other kind of relationship that affects labor rights, imposing significant fines for violations,” already adresses the practice, but the LAP goes even further in defining fair labor standards. Numerous companies in the country, however — especially, according to Rivera, ”multinational companies involved in mining, oil and coal” — still use subcontracting to avoid labor laws and undermine union organizing efforts.
The government, moreover, is a prominent abuser of the restrictions it is now legally bound to enforce. Protests and work stoppages in the public health and education sectors last year focused largely around the steady transition of government jobs to a temporary form of contracting designed to allow the government to put people to work quickly but currently being employed well beyond its intended scope.
Human Rights Violations
Perhaps the most visible reason for the creation of the LAP in the first place was to address the troubling history of human rights violations and targeted violence directed against labor organizers in Colombia.
The situation has improved since the height of paramilitary activity in the early 2000s, but according to the AFL-CIO report, Colombia remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world to organize.
While the Colombian government declared in 2012 that it had complied with the human rights standards called for in the LAP, the facts tell a different story.
“In 2013, 26 trade unionists were murdered, four more than in 2012. Attempted murders also increased, from seven to 13 over that period. Since the LAP was signed, there have been 31 attempted murders, six forced disappearances and nearly 1,000 death threats. Likewise, impunity remains high at 86.8% for murder and a near total 99.9% for threats against unionists. The overall impunity rate for human rights violations against trade unionists is at 96.7%,” reads the AFL-CIO report.
In a report of her own submitted to the Colombian Congress, Senator Alejandro Lopez said, the Ministry of Labor is “lying to the world, claiming that which is not true, that labor rights are being respected. In reality, the agreement has been followed by threats, persecutions and killings of trade unionists.”
When the LAP was signed, President Juan Manuel Santos called it “a historic day for Colombian and US relations, a historic day for Colombia’s role in the world, and a historic day for the businessmen and workers of Colombia,’’ but the latest figures show trade with the United States is down and human rights abuses continuing.
The crux of the problem, according to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) is that ”the measures were adopted without modifying the existing legal or political framework, no public policies were formulated to overcome the illegality of many employment relationships, violations of the right to organize, protection of union members, and impunity, thus generating contradictions and gaps.”
Furthermore the Ministry of Labor, the state entity charged with heading up the LAP, appears “distant, lazy, and ineffective in the face of the violations of labor rights that workers and their union organizations suffer on a daily basis.”
“The LAP was flawed to begin with,” said Gimena Sanchez, WOLA’s senior associate on Colombia, in an interview with Colombia Reports. Colombia never had the “legal, political and institutional tools necessary to make sure that it was properly implemented,” and the United States never did anything to verify otherwise.
Unions in both the United States and Colombia have expressed their anger at their respective governments with the President of AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka saying that he hopes their reports “serve as a wake-up call to Presidents Obama and Santos, and to the government officials responsible for protecting worker rights”and Rivera asserting that “[President] Santos does not deserve to be re-elected” in May due to his failure to adhere to the LAP.
Apart from the harsh criticisms, though, labor leaders have called on tangible solutions. The AFL-CIO writes in its report that the Colombian government should:
- The monitoring and follow-up consultation process of the LAP should be extended for another four years.
- An independent committee should be created that would be tasked with compliance monitoring of the 37 measures included in the LAP. This committee would be formed by members of congress from both countries, the national trade union centers of Colombia and the United States, the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas and representatives of non-governmental organizations that focus on labor rights.
- This committee would then be tasked with issuing a public quantitative and qualitative analysis every six months disclosing information on at least the following points: progress in reducing all forms of labor intermediation; results of workplace labor inspections and fines paid; growth in unionization; and collective work agreements signed.
- The Colombian government should make a public presentation of a complete analytical report on the implementation of the LAP and submit that for public discussion and analysis by the Permanent Commission on Coordination of Wage and labor Policies (CPCCSl)
Meanwhile, the US government should:
- Annually convene US-based companies operating in Colombia to provide guidance on laP-compliant hiring and subcontracting practices and on respecting the right to organize and bargain collectively.
- Ensure that US development and technical cooperation provide sufficient funds for labor rights organizations to monitor labor rights, train worker and employer organizations and produce research and reports documenting progress against laP commitments.
At the time this article was published, neither the US State Department nor Colombian Ministry of Labor was available for comment.
- Interview with Tarcisio Rivera
- Qué es una Cooperativa y Precooperativade Trabajo Asociado? (Ministry of Labor)
- Three Years of Non-Compliance with the Obama-Santos Colombia Labor Action Plan (WOLA)
- Plan de acción de Colombia y Estados Unidos para derechos laborales (President’s Office)
- La verdad sobre las CTA en Colombia (El Mundo) – Clemencia Dupont Cruz
- “El Plan de acción laboral nunca se cumplió en Colombia”: senador Alexander López (Congress Official Site)
- ‘El Plan de Acción Laboral está fracasando’ (Portafolio)
- Colombian Action Plan Related to Labor Rights (US govt.)
- Making the Labor Action Plan work for the workers (AFL-CIO)
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