WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
3 Jun 2013 | Commentary | News

Upon Colombian Labor Minister’s Visit to Washington, Labor Rights Violations Continue

[To download a PDF of the letter, please click here.]

Mr. Rafael Pardo Rueda
Minister of Labor
Carrera 14 No. 99-33

Bogotá, Colombia

Re: Visit to Washington, DC and the U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan

Dear Mr. Pardo,

We hope to have the opportunity to discuss with you various labor rights cases and security situations that are a priority for WOLA. We regret that this conversation was not able to take place at the Colombian Senate Labor Hearing on April 26, 2013, in Cartagena.

We take this opportunity to ask that you intervene to guarantee the following:

1) Colombia’s adherence to the commitments found in the U.S. – Colombia Labor Action Plan. In particular, the obligations regarding the protection of trade union leaders and labor activists; justice in trade union murders; and direct contracting for workers in the port, mining, sugar, oil palm, and flower sectors.

2) Rapid and efficient action with concrete results regarding the reintegration of workers who have unjustly been fired in these sectors.

We remain very concerned about the continuous murders, death threats, and other types of hostilities that are taking place in the trade union sector. In 2012, 20 trade unionists were killed and so far in 2013, four have been murdered. While there are fewer murders now, general insecurity and death threats remain a major concern. More than 994 death threats have been issued targeting the trade union sectors since President Juan Manuel Santos began his term in office. We are especially concerned about the death threat issued by paramilitaries against the CUT, which declares the union’s entire leadership to be a military target, and the intimidation against the CGT union, by the FARC.[i]

Another delicate issue of major concern is the report by the president of the CUT regarding the anomalies experienced with the protection mechanisms that were granted through the National Protection Unit (UNP). Electronic location devices (GPS)[ii]  were found in the cars and the cellphones provided by this institution. We are interested in knowing what the Ministry’s response has been to these allegations.

The ENS reports that between January 1, 1986, and of December 31, 2012, 2,937 trade unionists were murdered. We also understand that the impunity rate in these cases remains over 90 percent, and that in the cases were there has been progress; those who have been sanctioned are mostly material authors and not the intellectual or financers of this violence. We are, therefore, interested in knowing what concrete steps have been taken since the Ministry of Labor was created to combat impunity in these cases. In particular, what special efforts are being taken by the Ministry to guarantee justice so that these crimes are not repeated?

In the priority sectors of the U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan, we have seen some major steps backward, especially in the LAP’s intention to guarantee direct contracting. Decree 2025 of 2011 ended the associative cooperatives model in name only. The subcontracting model continues to exist. A major point of the LAP is to do away with these types of contracts. In the sections, we detail our concerns more specifically by sector:

Port Sector

It is worth noting that more than 80 percent of the workers in the port sector continue to be subcontracted using models like SAS and others that create obstacles for trade unionization, impeding the improvement of labor conditions for workers. As a result, workers who suffer accidents or illnesses related to their work do not have their basic needs met. Workers who become injured on the job end up invalid and the family members of workers who die end up in ruin.

Hostilities against the Port Workers Union and its affiliates continue. Reprisals against workers who attempt to improve their situation are common practice. In 2012, more than 1,000 port workers were fired (more than 400 in Buenaventura, more than 200 in Barranquilla, more than 80 inn Turbo, more than 50 in Santa Marta and more than 250 in Cartagena). Furthermore, the Port Society and Contecar have reduced the salaries of some 600 workers.

Sugar Sector

In the sugar sector, we strongly condemn the murder that took place on January 28, 2013, of Juan Carlos Pérez Muñoz, a labor leader with SINTRAINAGRO. We also see the recent firing of 110 sugarcane cutters in the refineries of La Cabaña and Maria Luisa as a step backward in the implementation of the LAP. These workers were fired due to their affiliation with the trade union SINTRAINAGRO. This round of firings adds itself to many individual firings and previous mass firings that remain unresolved in this sector. The following two cases in this sector require attention:

San Carlos SA:The situation of the fired workers of the San Carlos Refinery SA, in the sugar sector remains grave. The more than 300 fired workers—some with more than three decades of experience with the refinery—have not received a satisfactory response from the Ministry of Labor. The workers are also suffering from slander and false accusations such as being deemed belligerents. Many have been placed on blacklists that impede their possibility of obtaining any employment. This company’s actions violate the LAP and Colombian law, both of which protect the right to free association.

Agricorte SA: For many years, SINTRACATORCE has been subjected to death threats and harassment for its efforts to unionize the sugar sector. On May 22, 2013, 58 workers were fired, the majority for presumably affiliating themselves with the trade union SINTRACATORCE. Of the 58 fired, 45 were members of a trade union; these firings are a violation of international norms and the agreements found in the LAP. SINTRACATORCE leaders had asked for labor inspectors to intervene weeks prior to the firings and immediately after them but it is our understanding that the Ministry has not acted to resolve this situation.


The labor rights of workers in this sector continue to be violated. Over the past several decades, this sector has seen a significant increase in its foreign exports, thanks in part to the relaxation of trade restrictions. Nevertheless, trade liberalization and increased profits have not translated into an increase in employment in this sector; on the contrary, the number of positions has decreased. The extension of the workday has had serious health consequences among workers; carpal tunnel syndrome, respiratory problems, dermatitis, and other work-related illnesses are now common, according to a report by Professor Martha Vargas.[iii]

Third-party subcontracting continues in this sector, as do violations of the right to free association; there are even several large companies that rely exclusively on indirect contracting to employ their workers. The workers in this sector are afraid to organize as unionization effectively spells unemployment. They report that it is not possible to receive legal protections due to the high cost of a lawyer and a complete denial of the current labor situation in the sector. The Ministry of Labor must intervene in this priority sector to guarantee that workers’ rights are respected and to prohibit subcontracting in practice, not merely in law.

Labor situation the Caribbean Region.

WOLA participated in the Colombian Senate hearing in Cartagena on April 26, 2013, which focused on the labor situation in the Caribbean region. Nineteen cases of anti-union repression, persecution, denial of labor protections, and murder were presented. We ask that you intervene immedi
ately to guarantee the safety of the following people who are at high risk of death:

-Edwin Molina Galvan, Sinaltrainal, Cartagena

-Wilson Castro Padilla, Sinaltrainal, Cartagena

-Jairo del Rio Caro, Sintratucar, Cartagena

-Daniel Polo, Sintrabiofilm, Cartagena

-Juan Carlos Castellar, Sintraime en La Jagua de Ibirco

-Aníbal Pérez Parra, Association of Sick Workers Drummond en Ciénaga, Magdalena

-Edgar Antequerra, SENA student leader in the city of Barranquilla

Additionally, we are concerned about the escalation of threats against union and local leaders in this region. In particular, we are concerned about the April 1 threat from Los Rastrojos against more than 50 leaders and social organizations in the Caribbean region, including Senators Alexander Lopez Maya and Enrique Robledo, We ask that you intervene to ensure that this threat is investigated and those behind it are brought to justice.

Finally it is important to note that this hearing—which included more than 43 labor organizations—also denounced the violations related to the 20,000 subcontracted miners working for Drummond, Glencore, and Prodecco.

Oil Workers’ Union (USO)

The USO reports that in 2012, there were eight murders, 10 attacks, and 34 threats against members of the union. We condemn these deaths and in particular that of Milton Enrique Rivas Parra, a union leader in this sector, who was assassinated in Puerto Gatian (Meta) on December 11, 2012. On May 4, 2013, there was a serious assassination attempt against Hernando Arturo Herrera Bossio of USO-Cartagena, and on May 7, there was another attempt against Rafael Rodriguez from the same union, who was leading protests in support of labor rights in Magdalena Medio.

Union activity and social protest are systematically repressed and criminalized in this sector. USO access to the workers onsite has been blocked by members of the Colombian public security forces and various private security entities. Workers who try to join unions are blacklisted, intimidated, or interrogated by employers, or suffer disciplinary actions or firings.

In this sector, 80 percent of the workers are subcontracted or employed indirectly. In the Puerto Gaitan region where more than 100 Pacific Rubiales and CEPCOLSA contractors and subcontractors operate, labor conditions remain precarious. The workers are on short-term contracts, and as a result, do not have any job stability, nor do they have the ability to improve their labor conditions. In the case of the state company Ecopetrol, 30,000 of 38,000 workers are subcontracted.


After almost two years on trike, ASOTRECOL (The Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of General Motors Colmotores) continue to face obstacles in securing their rights and securing justice in their case. In October of 2012, Labor Ministry inspector Ligia Teresa Pérez opened the case and identified possible violations committed by Colmotores; she did not, however, notify the parties involved, a violation of Colombian law.

On January 15, 2013, Ms. Pérez returned the case to the office of Dr. Pablo Edgar Pinto Pinto, the regional director of Cundinamarca, so he could notify the parties involved. The case remains in his office. According to administrative law, the complaint will expire in August 2013, three years after it was made. The Ministry of Labor must identify the official in charge of this case, and said official must continue with the investigation. The expiration of the case would be a violation of the rights of those involved.


We continue to be concerned about the security situation and spurious legal charges against leaders of the Sinaltrainal union. Additionally, there exist a number of labor issues in the Coca Cola bottling plant that require Ministry action. We would be interested to know what action has been taken in response to these incidents and the problems outlined in this report.[iv]

Again, we thank you for the opportunity to dialogue with you on these issues and we await your response to these dire situations.

Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli
Senior Associate


[i] Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS). Agencia De Información Laboral ENS. Centrales Sindicales Denuncian Incremento De Amenazas Y Actos Hostiles Contra El Movimiento Sindical. N.p., 24 Jan. 2013. Web.

[ii] SINALTRAINAL. Siguen Las Escuchas Y Los Localizadores a Los Sindicalistas En Colombia. N.p., 29 mayo 2013.

[iii]Vargas, Martha. Informe: Situación De Los Trabajadores De Las Flores En Colombia. Rep. Cundinamarca: Corporación Para La Defensa De Los Derechos Laborales Y De La Mujer Trabajadora – Corpolabor; Unión Nacional De Trabajadores De Las Flores – Untraflores, 2013.

[iv]Ver carta de SINALTRAINAL sobre los varios casos preocupantes: http://bit.ly/Zonhwb.