A report from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative finds that five years after the launch of a labor rights action plan negotiated in the context of the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement Colombia has made “meaningful progress” in some areas but still faces several challenges. The report acknowledges that the labor concerns that are the subject of the action plan represent entrenched and historical challenges and that fully and effectively addressing them will require intensive and continued engagement over time.

According to the report, the action plan includes specific commitments by Colombia to address key areas of concern, including violence and discrimination against trade union members, impunity for acts of labor-related violence, delays and backlogs in the program to protect threatened unionists, widespread fake worker cooperatives used to undermine workers’ rights, and illegal use of collective pacts negotiated with individual workers to weaken unions and avoid collective bargaining. Progress has included a significant decline in the use of fake worker cooperatives, a reduction in violence against labor unionists, and a doubling of the number of labor inspector positions in Colombia’s Ministry of Labor. This has contributed to tens of thousands of workers joining or forming new unions in Colombia, with a reported 150,000 new union members since 2011.

Important challenges remain, the report adds, but even here progress is being made. For example, some forms of illegal subcontracting have increased as cooperatives have declined. In response, Colombia recently issued new regulations that specifically target all other forms of subcontracting, beyond cooperatives, that undermine the rights of workers. These regulations provide detailed indicators for labor inspectors to uncover illegal subcontracting as well as guidelines for applying fines as high as $1 million to punish employers who use contracting arrangements to violate labor laws. Another problem is that the rate of fine collection for labor law violations continues to be low. To address this issue, Colombia recently transferred responsibility for collecting labor fines to a publicly-owned, for-profit agency specializing in debt collection. Further, there have been few prosecutions of violence and threats against union members or criminal cases against employers for infringing on certain workers’ rights, but Colombia has prioritized 20 of the latter cases and its efforts have resulted in successful conciliations of some cases of employer misconduct.

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