Four years in, US-backed Labor Action Plan still failing Colombia
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Four years in, US-backed Labor Action Plan still failing Colombia

Another April, another grim anniversary for Colombian workers.

The U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan (LAP) turned four this month, with little to show for original claims that it would improve Colombia’s atrocious labor rights record — a major sticking point during the negotiations of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement in 2006.

The LAP defined several areas in need of improvement, including direct violence and intimidation against trade unionists, the prevalence of exploitative subcontracting schemes, formalization of the workforce, and strengthening Colombian government institutions.

Despite the nonbinding nature of the LAP, the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement entered into force in May 2012.

Early 2015 has already seen multiple assassination attempts against unionists in southwestern Colombia, marking the most recent chapter in a long history of violence against the Colombian labor movement that dates back at least as far as the 1928 massacre of banana unionists at the order of the United Fruit Company and hands of the Colombian military, described in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The official toll includes 3,064 unionist murders and nearly 14,000 threats and other violations registered since 1977.

Of these totals, approximately 120 murders and more than 1,933 human rights violations against unionists have been documented just since the LAP was signed. Partially due to this direct violence, only about 4 percent of the Colombian workforce is unionized.

“This calls into question the protection mechanisms [for unionists],” said Luis Alejandro Pedraza, the president of the Central Workers Federation of Colombia (CUT), in an interview with Colombia’s labor think tank, the National Union School.

“Although the government provided some protections in response to pressure from the International Labor Organization (ILO) and other human rights organizations, in practice these protections are now being dismantled with the excuse that overall violence is down. But leaders keep falling. It’s also important to say that 99 percent of cases of antiunion violence remain in impunity, according to the government and Attorney General.”

“Garbage contracts” and subcontracted inspectors

Formalization of the workforce and an end to exploitative subcontracting that denies workers benefits, overtime and other social protections have not fared much better.

“There was a decree that prohibited subcontracting through [false] worker cooperatives,” said Pedraza. “While some of these entities disappeared, others continue to subcontract through other methods, such as the infamous Simplified Stock Societies (SAS) that replaced worker cooperatives. What’s more, the informal employment rate is still at 57 percent, which is concerning and one percentage point higher than last year. In this respect the agreements that President Santos signed within the framework of the FTA with the U.S. have not been favorable.”

Other labor leaders echoed these critiques.

“We are far from overcoming the conditions that result from labor intermediation and all its systems of garbage, short-term contracts, including contracting schemes like SAS,” said Julio Roberto Gomez, the president of the General Workers Federation of Colombia (CGT).

SAS is a legal designation for companies in Colombia. Because SAS companies are relatively easy to establish, many Colombian employers use them as shell companies or subsidiaries to employ workers, which allows the parent company to claim that it has no direct employees. Workers are then left with no recourse in the case of abuses or other complaints.

“The Colombian government only makes a serious effort to bring employers to the table and come to agreements after workers take extraordinary actions with sustained support from international allies, including legal assistance and sustained political pressure,” said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, which has expressed skepticism about the LAP.

“Organizing and negotiation are arduous tasks, but the Colombian experience that we’ve observed throughout the LAP is not sustainable or indicative of mature industrial relations.”

The LAP resulted in the reestablishment of a Ministry of Labor in Colombia, which had been a subset of the Ministry of Social Protection prior to 2011. The new Ministry received funding to hire officials and hundreds of labor inspectors tasked with carrying out workplace assessments and responding to worker complaints.

But Trumka says that up to 80 percent of these inspectors often lack the necessary training and orientation in labor law. In a meeting with the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá, one official said Colombian labor inspectors even lack basic supplies like desks and computers.

The U.S. Embassy provides some technical assistance to the National Protection Unit (UNP), whose mandate is protecting human and labor rights defenders in Colombia, while the US Agency for International Development (USAID) provides funding for the National Union School.

In a particularly unfortunate irony, Colombian labor inspectors are often employed under the same types of temporary contracts that they are supposed to be formalizing. Similarly, the body guards provided by the National Protection Unit are also subcontracted, leading to precarious working conditions for those charged with protecting some of Colombia’s most vulnerable leaders.

A voice for unionists in Havana?

In addition to the failure of the LAP to achieve even a limited scope of improvements, labor leaders stress that labor exploitation is part of a broader panorama of economic violence in Colombia. They say this historic pattern predates the conflict between the state and the armed insurgency, which the Colombian government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are discussing as part of peace talks in Havana.

“Now that everyone is talking about peace in Colombia, international solidarity is decreasing because people think that the conflict is also deescalating,” said Edgar Paez, International Secretary for the Colombian food service union, Sinaltrainal.

“But what is actually happening is not a comprehensive peace process, but rather demobilization of one insurgent group. And we’ve seen other insurgencies demobilize, like the M-19 and the Sons of Quintin Lame, but we’re still facing violence.”

For Paez, any potential peace agreement must necessarily incorporate victims’ proposals for truth, justice and reparations, including victims from the labor movement, in order to build peace with social justice.

“We’re critical of the Victims Law because it’s the victims that should be able to define what sort of reparations they think are just. We’re not victims of an armed conflict, but rather of state terrorism. But some people want to go and negotiate with the state and accept collective reparation for unionists when they haven’t so much as talked to a single victim.”

Lessons for Future FTAs

The failure of safeguards like the Labor Action Plan also has serious implications for future Free Trade Agreements in countries with similar human and environmental rights issues, such as the secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership currently being negotiated between the U.S. and 11 other countries.

U.S. Congressional Representative Jim McGovern and former Representative George Miller said as much in a Congressional report on their 2013 LAP follow-up visit to Colombia:

“Reports of worsening labor rights conditions in Colombia provide an important lesson when developing trade policy. The fact that the LAP has not resulted in improving working conditions in Colombia merits attention especially in the context of current negotiations for a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) FTA. The TPP includes Vietnam, a country that U.S. government reviews have highlighted as also having significant labor rights problems.”

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