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Recent Labor Rights Advances in Colombia

There are ever more signs of progress in advancing labor rights in Colombia. Some stem from the Colombian government’s implementation of the Action Plan Related to Labor Rights. Others are steps the Santos Administration has taken beyond the Action Plan, demonstrating the depth of its commitment to promoting labor rights and fostering social justice. Still others show the rule of law at work to the benefit of labor rights in Colombia.

PRIVATE SECTOR/STAKEHOLDER DEVELOPMENTS

Major Companies Eliminate Use of Cooperatives: Since the announcement of the Labor Action Plan, two of Colombia’s largest supermarket chains and the country’s largest textile manufacturer have eliminated the use of associated worker cooperatives. Many Colombian companies had pushed their work forces off the books and into fake cooperatives, denying them their labor rights. Effective June 2011, the Colombian government enacted a 20-fold increase in fines for the use of such arrangements. The three companies have now directly hired 9,550 workers from such cooperatives and plan to convert 1,600 more to direct hires.

Companies Learning the New Rules: Major Colombian business organizations have organized well-attended seminars to familiarize companies with the new labor laws and regulations. These include the new cooperatives law and regulation and the new criminal code amendment that imposes penalties up to prison sentences for anti-union employer conduct and for threats against trade unionists.

Workers Using Government Complaint Mechanisms: Since June, the Ministry of Social Protection has received an average of ten complaints a day about improper labor practices on the Ministry’s new web-based mechanism and telephone hotline.

SANTOS ADMINISTRATION DEVELOPMENTS

Decree on Public Sector Bargaining Rights: In May 2011, the Colombian government and all three major labor confederations agreed on a decree that will grant collective bargaining rights in the public sector. Labor unions noted that the decree represents a marked change in tone on labor from previous Administrations. The decree is now undergoing legal drafting review by the Santos Administration.

Teacher Federation Agreements: In June 2011, after two months of negotiation, the Colombian government signed an agreement covering 22 issue areas with the largest teacher’s union, the Colombian Federation of Educators (FECODE). The Office of the President noted that this was the first time a Colombian government had allowed all teachers’ issues to be put on the table. The agreement covers issues such as protection (including relocation for threatened teachers) and the right to association. FECODE highlighted the agreement’s inclusion of a tripartite dialogue on a Unified Teacher’s Statute (compensation, hiring, and other issues) as an important victory.

LEGISLATIVE DEVELOPMENTS

Victims and Land Restitution Law: On June 10, 2011, President Santos signed the landmark Victims and Land Restitution Law in the presence of the UN Secretary General. The law offers reparations to four million victims and restitution of nearly five million acres of land to over 460,000 families displaced due to the internal armed conflict. The government has already restored or titled more than one million acres of individual and collective properties in less than a year. The law defines victims to include victims of state agents, puts reparations in the framework of reconciliation and transitional justice, outlines the rights of victims in judicial processes, establishes assistance mechanisms to victims outside of reparations, inverts the burden of proof in land restitution cases in favor of displaced victims, and creates expedited channels for restitution. This law, introduced personally by the President, was a top priority for the Administration and the majority congressional coalition.

Law Extending Maternity Leave: On June 30, 2011, President Santos signed Law 1468 of 2011, which allows expectant mothers to take two weeks of paid leave prior to the birth of a child. The measure, which had been recommended by the International Labor Organization, extends the total leave from 12 to 14 weeks in cases of one child and 16 weeks in cases of multiple births. In the case of a premature birth, the mother can add the number of premature weeks to her total maternity leave.

Addressing Discrimination: On September 19, 2011, the Colombian Congress passed Bill 165/10, called the Discrimination Law. The law carries a penalty of one to three years in prison or a fine of approximately $2,500 to $4,000. It also adds a chapter on discrimination to the Colombian Penal Code that will include not only racism against Afro-Colombians and indigenous persons, but also discrimination caused by ethnic origin, religion, nationality, political ideology, gender, or sexual orientation, and is designed to provide the Colombian government with additional tools to combat discrimination in access to employment and social benefits. The bill is now pending signature by the President.

JUDICIAL/PROSECUTORIAL DEVELOPMENTS

Progress on Investigation of Unionist Homicides: The Prosecutor General’s Office has achieved 88 convictions for crimes against unionists in the first nine months of 2011 alone, putting it on a pace to exceed previous years. The convictions include crimes committed during the past decade, and all such sentences since January 2011 are now posted on the Office’s web page. The Office has requested in its 2012 budget additional resources for labor violence investigations and prosecutions, including 14 more prosecutors, 14 more assistant prosecutors, and 56 more judicial police investigators. This would add to the 100 new judicial police investigators that will have been reassigned to these cases by December 15, 2011, under the Action Plan.

Noguera Conviction: On September 18, 2011, the Colombian Supreme Court sentenced former intelligence director Jorge Noguera to 25 years in prison for crimes related to having placed the DAS (Administrative Department of Security) at the service of paramilitary interests. Among his crimes was providing a list of union leaders to the paramilitaries for targeted killing. The Santos Administration has secured legislation to abolish the entire DAS spy agency.

Establishment of Criminal Band Prosecution Unit: During 2011, the Prosecutor General’s Office created a dedicated BACRIM (criminal bands) unit with 28 prosecutors located throughout the country. Thirty judges will move around the country to adjudicate BACRIM cases. The BACRIM include some former paramilitaries and constitute organized crime groups responsible for much of the continuing violence in Colombia, including against trade unionists.

Jailing of Executive over Labor Issue: An executive at Colombian café chain OMA was jailed in September 2011for 15 days for ignoring a court order to rehire 13 workers he had fired for organizing a union. Though the jailing was due to contempt of court, one of the major union confederation leaders commented that it would not have happened prior to the recent reforms championed by the Santos Administration.