The Department of Labor has issued its first periodic review of progress in addressing issues identified in its January 2017 report on Colombia’s compliance with its obligations under the labor chapter of the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement. The DOL states that it will continue to monitor and evaluate progress over the next year, an indication that escalation to dispute settlement measures is unlikely in the near term.
A July 2016 submission to the DOL alleged that Colombia has violated its obligations under the TPA by failing to effectively enforce its labor laws related to the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining; failing to adopt and maintain in its statutes, regulations, and practices the fundamental rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining; and failing to comply with the procedural guarantees enumerated in the TPA labor chapter. The DOL’s January 2017 report recognized “meaningful progress” by the Colombian government on these issues but also identified concerns regarding the collection of fines, subcontracting schemes and collective pacts, and the adequacy of investigations and prosecutions in cases of anti-union threats and violence as well as criminal cases of infringement on workers’ fundamental rights. Since then the two sides have held three rounds of consultations to discuss these problems, the 19 recommendations in the DOL report for addressing those problems, and Colombia’s progress toward implementing those recommendations.
Highlights of the DOL’s report on these consultations include the following.
- Colombia’s Ministry of Labor installed an electronic case management system in all regional offices and two special administrative offices and reqauired labor inspectors and their managers to use and update this system.
- The ministry published a bulletin with various inspection statistics comparing data from the third quarter of 2017 to the third quarter of 2016, including number of investigations initiated and number of fines imposed, as well as the total amount of fines collected over all four quarters of 2016 and the first three quarters of 2017.
- The ministry aims to convert 804 of its 904 existing inspector positions to career civil service positions by the end of 2018 (the other 100 are already held by career civil servants).
- The ministry has committed to improve the training that all labor inspectors receive, launched an internal group that will manage and ensure the relevance of trainings, and is working with a DOL-funded project being implemented by the International Labor Organization to design updated training curricula.
- The government has committed to link the fine collection system of the Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje (SENA, the National Training Agency) with the labor inspectorate’s information system so that the Ministry of Labor can track a fine from imposition to collection.
- The ministry is testing the concept of stationing labor inspectors in remote communities for short periods of time to give workers and employers a chance for direct engagement with a labor authority.
- The Colombian Congress approved the ministry’s request to increase the 2018 budget allocation for the labor inspectorate by 67 percent.
- The Fiscalía (Office of the Prosecutor General) reports an “unprecedented” number of total criminal cases resolved in the past year, including 92 conciliations in criminal cases of infringement of workers’ rights and 32 guilty verdicts in 22 cases of unionist homicides that occurred between 2011 and 2017.
- The Ministry of Labor still appears to lack a national inspection strategy and has yet to ensure that preventive inspections are not used as a substitute for administrative sanctions.
- Timelines for persuasive and coercive fine collection are not clear and are spread across various regulations and laws.
- The ministry still needs to improve investigations and sanctions on all forms of abusive subcontracting and the misuse of collective pacts in accordance with established timeframes.
- The government has shown evidence of increased overall investigation into illegal collective pacts but it is unclear that such efforts are addressing the undermining of associational rights of workers where representational unions exist.
- The length of time it takes to undertake prosecutions is of concern and the government has yet to adopt a system for prioritizing cases of threats against unionists.
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