WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
23 Sep 2011 | Commentary | News

Labor Action Plan: Just Paper or Real Changes?

On September 8, President Barack Obama called for movement on the Colombia free trade agreement. In late August, a delegation that included U.S. Representative James McGovern visited Colombia where we met with trade unionists, labor activists and workers from the ports, oil palm, oil and auto sectors. We asked them if the labor rights situation in Colombia had improved since the April 15 launch of the Labor Action Plan between the U.S. and Colombia to merit passage of the FTA.   

We were informed that while the Labor Action Plan (LAP) is a good step forward, it has so far only led to formal rather than real changes in labor conditions and protection of trade unionists. Twenty-two trade unionists have been murdered so far in 2011, with ten of them killed after the April 15 announcement of the LAP. Death threats and efforts to discredit labor activists also continue. The rate of impunity in cases of murdered trade unionists remains extremely high at 94 percent. The Protection Program noted in the LAP is very slow in responding to the needs of those it is designed to protect. While a decree to contract the 100 labor inspectors promised in the LAP was expedited, no public information is available on their progress.

A key component of the LAP is that it requires Colombia to dismantle the exploitative “worker cooperative” or CTA model. This contracting model permits companies to subcontract workers via third parties so companies can avoid their labor rights obligations. Hundreds of thousands of workers are part of CTAs in the sugar, palm, health, mining and port industries. The CTAs impede collective bargaining and unionization. The LAP’s intention on CTAs is to have them dismantled so that workers can directly contract with their employers. In a few cases, including Carrefour and Exito, Colombia’s ban of CTAs has led to direct contracts for workers. However, in the majority of cases CTAs just changed their names but not their practices. Workers informed us that a new model using the same third party contracting model of CTAs called the Simplified Stock Companies (SAS) just replaced them de facto, with no change in the conditions faced by workers. 

Port workers in Cartagena affirmed that while banning CTAs is a good first step, all forms of intermediary and temporary contracting models should be prohibited. Temporary services companies, another form of third party contracting, are the norm in their sector. Eighty-five percent of the estimated 30,000 port workers are Afro-Colombians. Afro-Colombians employed in this sector, as well as sugarcane cutters and palm workers, suffer a high degree of labor rights abuses and racial discrimination. There are several important statistics to consider: seventy-percent of port workers do not have direct contracts with the companies who employ them; fifty percent do not have permanent access to social security; and, twenty percent do not receive retirement benefits because companies refuse to consider time worked on short term contracts toward the number of years worked required to receive this benefit.

Port workers who try to organize and belong to trade unions are frequently fired and blacklisted. As a result, trade unionists are forced to do their work clandestinely and often receive death threats. This was the case of John Jairo Castro Balanta, Director of the Buenaventura Port Workers Union, who visited the U.S. in an AFL-CIO sponsored trip in early June to brief the U.S. Congress on labor rights and the U.S.-Colombia FTA. On June 24, John and his co-director Elizabeth received texts stating:“If you the (people from the) Port Union continue to create problems you will find out what you have not yet lost” and “If you (the people from the) Port Union continue to create problems and denounce things you will die in a mortuary union.”

During our trip we also learned of two labor conflicts of great concern in the oil and auto sectors. Starting on July 14, some 13,000 oil workers employed by sub-contractors of the Canadian multinational Pacific Rubiales in Puerto Gaitán and Campo Rubiales, Meta started a mass protest to call attention to the poor working conditions they are forced to endure. They are forced to live in overcrowded tents that contain more than one hundred people for the duration of their contract, which are only for 21 days and continually renewed. The tents they live in get up to very high temperatures and do not have adequate ventilation. Conditions within the tents are unhygienic. Use of the sanitation facilities requires waiting in long lines and water shortages are commonplace.

Like the port workers, these workers are employed through subcontractors who force them to work long days and shifts. They are poorly paid. Accidents on the job are common and the use of subcontractors facilitates the company’s ability to shirk its responsibilities to provide benefits to injured and sick workers. Workers who have accidents or fall ill their contracts are not renewed or they are fired by the subcontractors.

Efforts by trade unions, including members of the USO who try to organize and visit these workers, are routinely sabotaged. For example, the USO informed us that vehicles were placed along the only road leading to the areas where the workers are congregated and that large holes were drilled making the passage of cars impossible so that their representatives would be deterred from meeting with the workers. The USO informed us that the company basically operates “like an independent republic.”

The mass protest of oil workers ended when the government agreed to set up a meeting with the workers to discuss their situation on August 3rd. This meeting resulted in a set of working tables set up to discuss the workers’ various concerns. On September 20, the USO reported that because these working tables had not amounted to any changes the workers reinitiated their protest/strike on September 18. The anti-riot police, ESMAD, have utilized aggressive force in trying to quell the latest round of protests by launching stun grenades modified with shrapnel and shooting rubber bullets from helicopters at civilian men, women and children and burning down tents. According to USO, since the start of the protests in July 50 workers were wounded and more than 500 union members fired.   

We also visited fired General Motors (GM) workers who were staging a hunger strike in front of the U.S. Embassy. The hunger strikers are a group of 25 former GM workers who were all fired once the company found out they became disabled or ill due to their jobs. These workers claim that GM acted fraudulently when handling their health records so as to have cause to fire them. A wife and mother of five children married to one of the workers described to us how the desperation felt by her husband led him to attempt suicide. He survived this attempt but has now gone missing for several days. On September 13, the President of ASOTRECOL (name of the former GM Workers group) and two other workers were approached by a policeman on a motorcycle who warned them to be careful. Also, a taxi containing a person who was photographing them was following them. While the police apprehended the two people in the taxi, during questioning they claimed they were hired to do a “security” study. This is just one among several suspicious activities committed against members of ASOTRECOL.

The LAP, while flawed and insufficient, attempts to get at changing problematic and systematic labor practices that have been in place in Colombia for the past twenty years. While this is a formal step towards turning around Colombia’s labor rights situation, it is clearly insufficient. The Obama Administration and U.S. Congress should not assume that radical changes in conduct will take place overnight. Nor should they make the mistake of thinking that new laws, decrees and plans translate to im
mediate protections and safeguards for workers. Rather they should closely monitor the LAP’s implementation and determine whether or not progress has been made by actually tracking the realities faced by workers on the ground. They must also insist that beyond the LAP, broader justice issues that generate violence and impunity in Colombia are addressed. Moving forward on the U.S.-Colombia FTA before the latter takes place would only be an injustice to workers in Colombia. 

September 22nd, 2011