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Progress Seen on Labor Rights in Colombia but U.S. Calls for More

Thursday, April 10, 2014
Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg Trade Report

The three-year anniversary of a plan to improve labor rights in Colombia that was concluded in association with a free trade agreement with the U.S. was met this week with conflicting views on its efficacy. U.S. and Colombian government officials praised the steps that have been taken and the results they have yielded to date, while labor unions in both countries criticized the plan and said it has not delivered the promised benefits. The U.S. and Colombia have agreed to continue regular meetings on the Action Plan through at least 2014.

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said April 7 that the government of Colombia has met commitments under the Action Plan Related to Labor Rights by passing laws that strengthen workers’ rights protections and establish tougher penalties for violations, expanding a national protection program to include labor activists, union organizers and teachers, hiring hundreds of new labor inspectors to expand enforcement of labor laws and regulations, hiring and training 100 new police investigators and more than 20 new criminal prosecutors to focus on cases of violence against unionists, and taking enforcement actions to combat abusive third-party contracting, including the assessment of significant fines against violators.

According to USTR and others, these efforts are having positive results. The average number of murders of union members per year dropped to 26 for the period 2011 to 2013 (after the Action Plan had been implemented), compared to close to 100 from 2001 to 2010. Labor inspectors are currently conducting 290 illegal subcontracting investigations throughout the country, including 47 in the five priority sectors of palm oil, sugar, mines, ports and flowers. The number of collective bargaining agreements was up 19% for the period 2011-2013 compared to 2008-2010, and the number of labor settlements rose 20% from 2011 to 2013. The number of Colombian workers that have a formal job is higher than those employed in the informal sector for the first time. Wages are up and unemployment is down.

At the same time, USTR still has concerns about Colombia’s implementation of certain aspects of the Action Plan. Bodyguards hired through private contractors may not undergo adequate background checks and may be more susceptible to corruption. In the 79 labor homicides that have occurred since 2011, there has been only one conviction. Threats against labor leaders and activists have increased significantly, in the form of text messages, phone calls, letters, emails and other forms. Only about 5% of the $81 million in fines levied to date for illegal contracting has been collected. Many employers have shifted from the use of illegal cooperatives to other forms of unlawful subcontracting that similarly avoid direct employment relationships and undermine workers’ rights.

A recent AFL-CIO report echoes some of these criticisms and offers others as well. The number of decent jobs in Colombia has not increased, the report states, and “the majority of the workers who were promised direct contracts and permanent employment still are trapped in informal hiring arrangements.” The report also criticizes the two sides for implementing their bilateral FTA before the results of the Action Plan were evident and urges the U.S. to pursue a different approach in future FTAs.

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