Labor Rights Violations Persist in Colombia

Congressmen George Miller (D-CA) and James P. McGovern (D-Mass) released a report highlighting continued labor abuses in Colombia. The report comes one year after the implementation of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement and two years after the approval of the U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan (LAP).

Washington, D.C.—Today,

…The LAP, which sought to address labor rights violations in advance of a bilateral free trade agreement, has yet to be successfully implemented, the report concludes.

“Despite lofty rhetoric and extensive plans for reform from the Colombian and United States governments, this report illustrates how Colombia has demonstrably failed to implement the commitments it made in the LAP,”said WOLA Senior Associate Gimena Sánchez. “Basic labor protections, including the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining, continue to be violated on a national scale.”

According to the new report, the vast majority of labor rights violations and anti-union violence go unpunished. Drawing on data from the Colombian National Labor School (Escuela Nacional Sindical, ENS), the report finds that upwards of 93 percent of reported cases of violence against trade unionists do not result in a conviction. Equally troubling, even when fines are successfully levied for workplace violations, they are rarely collected.

“While it is positive that violence against trade unionists had declined, this change has yet to translate into greater workers’ rights,” added Sánchez. “Tangible progress in Colombia will be impossible as long as illegal firings, subcontracting, and even murders languish in impunity.”

In 2011, the LAP identified five priority economic sectors—the palm oil industry, sugar, mining, ports, and the cut flower industry—as areas where progress was needed. Now two years later, indirect contracting schemes, which allow employers to avoid legal obligations to their employees, have continued in these sectors. According to the report, as many as 80 percent of port workers do not have a direct contract with their employer, depriving them of the ability to bargain collectively for fair pay, workplace protections, and basic health benefits; similar situations exist in other priority sectors.

The report notes that the benefits of the trade agreement have yet to reach many of the communities through which trade passes. It looks at the port of Buenaventura, where the trade agreement has generated growth in exports and international trade, but the primarily Afro-Colombian population of the port has continued to suffer from poverty and discrimination. It also notes the brutal violence that has been unleashed in the area as paramilitary groups vie for control of this key Pacific seaport. In 2012, for example, violence displaced over 9,000 people—the vast majority of them afrodescendant—from their homes in Buenaventura.

Troublingly, WOLA expert Gimena Sánchez adds, in the midst of this climate of paramilitary violence in Buenaventura, U.S military aid continues to support local Colombian army brigades that multiple groups have claimed maintain ties to paramilitaries.

“Gruesome violence has taken hold of Buenaventura, and it remains unclear what role Colombian military units—operating with U.S. support—play in the region and its conflicts,” explained Sánchez. “Given past military-paramilitary ties in Colombia, the U.S. government should look closely at where U.S aid dollars are going and identify any connections with illegal armed groups.”

According to the report, the Colombian government needs to take more aggressive measures to enforce the Labor Action Plan and insist that employers respect the right to organize and bargain collectively. Both the U.S. and Colombia need to look at some of the unintended consequences of the trade agreement, including their impact on communities like Buenaventura.

To read the report, please click here.