WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
25 Jan 2012 |

Impunity Reigns in Cases of Labor Rights Violations in Colombia

January 24, 2012

Dear Member of U.S. Congress,

We greatly appreciate your commitment to promoting labor rights in Colombia. We applaud the creation of the April 7, 2011, U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan that intends to take important steps in addressing endemic labor issues in Colombia. However, the Plan continues to face serious challenges in its implementation. Union leaders and labor activists continue to be assassinated, threatened, and intimidated, and the perpetrators enjoy almost complete impunity. Two union leaders were murdered since January 17, 2012, and at least 29 trade unionists were murdered in 2011 alone. Mauricio Redondo of the oil-workers’ union (USO) and his wife, Janeth Ordoñez, were brutally murdered in Puerto Asis, Putumayo on January 17, 2012, leaving behind five orphaned children. Two days later, Alexander Gonzales Blandon of SINTRAENTEDDIMCCOL (Bugalagrande, Valle del Cauca) was also assassinated. Furthermore, despite widespread international attention on violence against trade unionists in Colombia, less than 10 percent of the more than 2,886 cases of trade unionists murdered since 1986 have reached a conviction.[1] This violence has been accompanied by a significant drop in unionization in Colombia, in addition to the consolidation of employment models that do not guarantee basic labor rights for workers. Since the Labor Action Plan was signed, serious obstacles to organizing remain in the mining (Cerrejon), health, sugar, port, oil and oil palm sectors. The inability of Colombia to improve workers’ rights led to protests in Meta, Huila, and Valle del Cauca.

Even in emblematic cases, Colombia has not respected the legal rights of workers. In 2004, 51 workers were fired from EMCALI, a government entity that provides public services in Cali, because they belonged to the SINTRAEMCALI union. SINTRAEMCALI was obligated to file cases in Colombia’s judicial system and the International Labour Organization (ILO), both of which ruled in SINTRAEMCALI’s favor. Members of SINTRAEMCALI have suffered tremendous costs, both human and financial, for defending their labor rights. SINTRAEMCALI President Jorge Ivan Velez Calvo has received four death threats just in the last month. The threats were directed at him because of his work in defense of labor unions. Over 15 members of SINTRAEMCALI have been forced into exile, 8 killed, and more than 100 were threatened since the workers were fired in 2004. The lawyer in charge of their case was fatally injured in an assassination attempt in May 2011. On October 13, 2011, the court demanded that the 51 workers that were fired on May 26, 2004 be reintegrated by EMCALI. EMCALI has not obeyed the court’s orders, and the Colombian government, which is responsible for EMCALI because it is a public entity, has not enforced the ruling. This obstruction of justice led five of the 51 fired workers to commence a hunger strike on December 5, 2011. Three workers continue the hunger strike. The Colombian government must order EMCALI to reinstitute the workers that were fired.

The case of SINTRAEMCALI is not isolated. Several trade unions and labor rights activists face ongoing death threats for protecting the labor rights of Colombian workers. Paramilitary groups that often work at the service of economic elites and private interests have systematically targeted labor leaders in Colombia. The use and threat of violence has been successful in dissuading Colombian workers from exercising their right to association. For example, SINTRAEMCALI had 3,200 affiliates in 2004; its current membership has dropped to 1,900. This trend is reflected in unionization rates throughout Colombia. Only four percent of the Colombian workforce, approximately 600,000 workers, is currently affiliated with unions—400,000 workers lost their union affiliation in the last eight years. The extremely low level of unionization in Colombia has created a labor environment where employers can more freely abuse the rights of their employees. This has been sustained by alliances that involve illegal armed groups, private companies, and state entities, as evidenced in the case of Operation Dragon. In 2004, when Senator Alexander Lopez Maya was a member of congress, the Attorney General’s Office raided two offices in Cali and Medellin linked to Ret. Lt. Col. Villate and Major Hugo Abondano. The Attorney General’s Office discovered extremely detailed plans to murder the leadership of SINTRAEMCALI and Berenice Celeyta, a Robert F. Kennedy Center Laureate. The plot, which the organizers called Operation Dragon, also included plans to falsely link at least 40 members of SINTRAEMCALI to the FARC and ELN. Seven years later, in October 2011, retired Lt. Col. Julián Villate Leal, retired Major Marco Fidel Rivera, Major Hugo Abondano Mikan, and Major Huber de Jesús Botello were finally arrested for their involvement in Operation Dragon.

In addition to the use of violence, companies have used different sub-contracting models to circumvent their legal responsibility to respect workers’ rights. The Labor Action Plan is successful in drawing attention to the abusive Associative Labor Cooperative (CTA) model. However, CTAs are being replaced by Simplified Stock Companies (SAS) and other entities that use the same model in order to deny workers the possibility of establishing a direct contract with the company that benefits from their services. Workers are unable to form unions that can pressure the companies under these conditions and are therefore denied their right to association. Senator Alexander Lopez Maya has proposed legislation that would outlaw CTAs and all forms of subcontracting. However, President Santos gave a direct order to his allies in the Colombian Congress to defeat Senator Lopez’s proposal. The U.S. and Colombian governments should adapt the Labor Action Plan to include not only CTAs, but also all of the entities that use the labor sub-contracting model to undermine labor rights in Colombia.

Efforts by workers, unions, grassroots organizations, and politicians like Senator Lopez Maya to protest unjust working conditions have confronted serious opposition from the central government, private companies, and illegal armed groups. The 2008 sugarcane cutters’ protest of CTAs was openly critiqued by government officials for supposed ties to the guerrillas. The stigmatization of five sugarcane cutters, Senator Lopez Maya, and two of the Senator’s assistants resulted in a court case against the eight individuals. They were falsely accused of conspiring to commit a crime, sabotage, and inflicting harm. Finally, on January 23, 2012, the sugarcane cutters and Senator Lopez Maya’s staffers were absolved of the accusations. However, the individuals implicated in the case have suffered from severe stigmatization in the public sphere which has put their personal security more at risk, in addition to high financial costs that have affected their ability to continue their work in defense of labor rights. Colombia’s justice system should work in defense of labor rights and it should not be used as a tool to undermine workers’ rights. Given the extraordinarily high level of impunity in labor abuses, the government should concentrate its efforts in pursuing the intellectual authors of violence and threats against union activists. Justice in these cases will send a clear message to the perpetrators that violence and threats against labor rights leaders will not be tolerated.   

We ask that the U.S. Congress:

  1. Encourage the Government of Colombia to publicly promote and implement an integral public policy that de-stigmatizes trade unionists and defends labor rights, including the merits of unionizing. It should also provide effective protection measures for trade unionists.
  2. Support the Attorney General’s Office and the Prosecutor General&rsquo
    ;s Office in their investigations of murders and threats against trade unionists in order to ameliorate the dismal levels of impunity in these cases.
  3. Ensure that the progress made under the Labor Action Plan in regards to dismantling abuse sub-contracting under the CTAs is not limited to CTAs. Inspectors should expand their investigations to include the new forms of sub-contracting.
  4. Establish the case of SINTRAEMCALI as emblematic. Concrete steps should include the reinstatement of the 51 employees that were fired in 2004; a public apology on behalf of the government; and effective protection measures for the members of SINTRAEMCALI.
  5. Urge the U.S. Department of Labor to recognize that the Colombian government is incapable of taking the leadership of the ILO given the grave labor rights abuses that continue to take place in the country.



Senator Alexander Lopez Maya

Jorge Ivan Velez Calvo, President of SINTRAEMCALI

Tarsicio Mora Godoy, President of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Colombia (CUT)

Gimena Sanchez and Anthony Dest, WOLA

[1]Human Rights Watch. “Colombia: Ensure Justice for Anti-Union Violence.” October 3, 2011.