The law, including related regulations and statutes, allows workers to form and join unions, conduct legal strikes, and bargain collectively, and it prohibits antiunion discrimination. The law places some restrictions on forming and joining a union, particularly for workers in indirect contracting situations (although legal ambiguities also allow some indirectly contracted workers to form unions). The law prohibits members of the armed forces and police from forming or joining unions. The labor code provides for automatic recognition of unions that obtain 25 signatures from potential members and that comply with a registration process.
The law does not permit members of some public sector unions, armed forces, police, and persons performing “essential public services” to strike. The government published a summary of doctrine, case law, and jurisprudence that narrowed the definition of essential services for use by labor inspectors and the judiciary in 2011, although some members of the labor community criticized this document as continuing to lean toward an overly broad definition. Before conducting a strike, unions must follow prescribed legal procedures, including entering into a conversation period with the employer, presenting a list of demands, and gaining majority approval in the union for a strike. The law limits strikes to periods of contract negotiations or collective bargaining and allows employers to fire trade unionists who participate in strikes or work stoppages determined to be illegal by the courts.
On May 24, the government passed Decree 1092, which gives public sector employees the right to bargain collectively, including on their salaries, but stipulates that local and departmental level public sector workers are restrained to the salary limits set in agreements at the national level. The decree placed additional collective bargaining restrictions on some working conditions such as organizational structure and certain administrative procedures.
The law permits associated workers’ cooperatives (CTAs) as well as collective pacts. Under collective pacts employers may negotiate accords on pay and labor conditions with groups of workers in workplaces where no union is present or where a union represents less than one-third of employees. Law and regulations prohibit the use of CTAs and collective pacts to undermine the right to organize and bargain collectively, including by extending better conditions to nonunion workers in such pacts. CTAs must register with the government and provide compensation at least equivalent to the minimum wage and the same health and retirement benefits normally offered to directly hired employees.
The government instituted legal reforms in 2011, including narrowing the scope of legal uses of CTAs and prohibiting the misuse of CTAs. Maximum penalties for violation are 5,000 minimum monthly wages, or 2.6 billion pesos (approximately $1.3 million). The law also stipulates that repeat offenders misusing CTAs or other labor relationships will receive the maximum penalty and could be subject to losing their legal status to operate altogether. Employers who engage in antiunion practices may be penalized with up to five years’ imprisonment. Prohibited practices include impeding workers’ right to legally strike, meet, or otherwise associate, and extending better conditions to members of collective pacts than those in unions.
The government generally enforced applicable laws, but a lack of inspectors trained in the most recent laws at the local level, as well as an overburdened judicial system, inhibited speedy and consistent application. As part of its commitments under the 2011 Colombia Action Plan related to Labor Rights (Labor Action Plan), the government continued to take steps to increase the effective enforcement of freedom of association and collective bargaining, including the targeted labor inspections by the Ministry of Labor in five sectors: palm oil, sugar, ports, mines, and cut flowers.
The Ministry of Labor continued to build its technical capacity in several areas, including inspection procedures to enforce the new regulations on CTAs and other forms of third-party contracting. In April the ministry finalized inspection guidance to assist its inspectors in using and applying Decree 2025 of 2011 regarding labor intermediation. The guide provides inspectors with a list of suggested documents, indicators, and interview questions for workers and employers for the inspection and investigation of alleged Decree 2025 violations, including those related to the contracting out of permanent core functions. However, by year’s end inspectors largely had not been trained on the use of this aspect of the inspection guide.
The government has the authority to fine labor rights violators. In a December 17 letter from the minister of labor to the Congressional Monitoring Committee, he stated that 10,324 jobs in the sugar and port sectors in Valle del Cauca had been formalized. The Ministry of Labor reported conducting 2,103 investigations and imposing 228 penalties and fines during the year. Total fines on CTAs and pre-CTAs amounted to 11.8 billion pesos ($6.6 million). The government also inspected temporary service agencies and assigned 100 additional full-time judicial police investigators to support prosecutors who cover criminal cases involving unionists. In July the government passed Law 1562, and the Ministry of Labor created a Special Investigations Unit with the power to investigate and sanction in any jurisdiction. The Ministry of Labor’s Department of Investigation, Monitoring, Control, and Territorial Management decides on a case-by-case basis whether it will assign the Special Investigations Unit or the regional inspectors to investigate certain sites.
The government worked closely with the International Labor Organization (ILO) to develop a comprehensive plan for the ILO to provide additional technical assistance to the Ministry of Labor, and an expanded ILO presence began operating in the country at year’s end. The ministry continued to employ a telephone- and Internet-based complaint mechanism to report alleged labor violations. However, labor groups expressed concern that the two systems did not provide an option to track progress on cases.
A 2011 directive from the Prosecutor General’s Office requires the judicial police, the CTI, and prosecutors investigating criminal cases to determine during the initial phase of an investigation whether a victim was an active or retired union member or was actively engaged in union formation and organization. The Human Rights Unit of the Prosecutor General’s Office undertook training with homicide units in Cali, Medellin, and Bogota on managing crime scenes of these labor cases to avoid losing valuable evidence. It can take several months to transfer cases from regional field offices of the Prosecutor General’s Office to the Human Rights Unit and its labor subunit.
The government continued to include in its protection program labor activists, persons who are engaged in efforts to form a union, and former unionists under threat because of their past activities. As of August the NPU provided protection to 11,200 at-risk individuals, of whom 1,282 were trade union leaders or members (others protected included journalists, human rights advocates, and social leaders). The Ministry of Education managed a separate protection (transfer) program for educators, the majority of whom were union members. Between January 1 and August 31, the NPU received 557 petitions for protection of union leaders or members. After the NPU conducted risk assessments, it classified 130 of those cases as having an “extraordinary threat” and provided them protection measures. The processing time before individuals received benefits under the protection program averaged 55 days, with cases passing through the risk analysis stage in the first 30 days. The NPU devoted approximately 10 percent of its budget to the protection of union leaders and members. Following a study of gasoline usage of similar armored vehicles by international organizations and foreign embassies operating in the country, the NPU lowered the fuel allowance for their armored car program for extraordinary threat cases. Labor unionists under this protection scheme stated that the lower allowance restricted their freedom of movement and the ability to do their jobs as labor organizers. The NPU responded that the allowances were in line with usage by other organizations.
By year’s end the labor subunit of the Prosecutor General’s Office had obtained 314 convictions of at least 599 individuals for violent acts against trade unionists since the unit was founded in 2006. The office assigned the labor subunit 61 new cases during the year, bringing its total number of active cases to 991 at year’s end. The majority of those cases remained under investigation or were in the preliminary stages of the prosecutorial process.
Violence, threats, harassment, and other practices against trade unionists continued to affect the exercise of the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Unions were generally independent of the government and political parties.
Violence and discrimination against union members discouraged some workers from joining and engaging in union activities. The Presidential Program for Human Rights reported that 10 trade unionists (not including unionized teachers) were killed during the year; the National Union School (ENS), a labor rights NGO and think tank, reported that 16 trade unionists (not including unionized teachers) were killed in the same period. During the year the ENS changed its methodology for reporting and stopped including killings of unionized educators. The ENS and government figures differed because of different definitions of trade union membership and attributions of homicide motives.
On March 25, Miguel Angel Mallama, a founding member of the Union of Workers and Public Employees of Jamundi Township (Sintraxamundi) was killed. Created on January 2, Sintraxamundi had been facing a labor dispute. Following the creation of the union, 43 workers were fired, including Mallama. After his killing the union president Yennifer Andrea Ceballos and treasurer Augusto Cesar Lugo received threats. In June the NPU began providing protection to Ceballos, including two bodyguards, armored vehicle, a cell phone, and a bulletproof vest.
The ENS and other labor groups also stated that focusing on killings alone masked the true nature and scope of the antiunion violence. Labor groups noted that in some regions nonlethal violations were on the rise. The ENS reported 535 violations for the year; in addition to the 16 reported homicides, there were 353 death threats, seven nonlethal attacks, four disappearances, 20 arbitrary detentions, 89 cases of forced displacement, 42 cases of harassment, two cases of torture, two cases of illegal raids, and no kidnappings.
Teachers continued to make up the largest percentage of union members and constituted the largest percentage of victims of violence by illegal armed groups. As of July 31, under Decree 1628, the protection and relocation of teachers falls under the Ministry of National Education and the Departmental Education Secretaries. However, under the decree the NPU retains some responsibilities for the risk analysis and protection of family members. Through September the NPU evaluated 175 threat cases against teachers, of which 38 were found to be of extraordinary or extreme risk. According to the Colombian Federation of Educators, between January and December 10, there were 14 educators killed, compared with 22 in 2011.
Labor groups recognized that important advances were made by the labor subunit of the Prosecutor General’s Office but said more needed to be done to address impunity for perpetrators of violence against trade unionists. They also claimed prosecutors were not tackling the large number of threat cases. The Prosecutor General’s Office indicated that it prioritized cases in order of severity and had a backlog of lower priority cases.
Unions cited multiple instances in which companies fired employees who formed or sought to form new unions. Employers continued to use temporary contracts, service agencies, and CTAs to limit worker rights and protections and lower costs. Many employers used CTAs to engage in illegal subcontracting. In practice fines assessed by the government did little to dissuade violators, as many companies chose to appeal rather than pay the fines. Strengthened laws and penalties regarding CTAs and other forms of illegal labor intermediation influenced several companies to contract CTA workers directly. However, the majority of companies contracting their workers through CTAs and temporary service agencies did not transform their labor relationships into direct-hire contracts.
During the year there were increasing reports that illegitimate cooperatives, which lack financial and operational independence from end-users, were changing their legal status into simplified corporations (SAS) while continuing to violate certain contracting laws, including on labor intermediation, and undermine labor rights. Many unions noted that these SAS were simply another form of subcontracting. While in theory SAS workers can exercise their right to organize and bargain collectively with SAS management, it appeared that in many cases the SAS were “shell companies” that had little to no control over the terms and conditions of employment (much like illegitimate cooperatives).
Of those CTAs that transformed their labor relationships into direct-hire relationships, a number converted the CTAs into SAS in order to directly hire workers. Labor confederations and NGOs reported that some business owners in several sectors used SAS and continued to use union contracts or temporary service agencies in an attempt to circumvent new legal restrictions on cooperatives, with the most problematic sectors being ports, textiles, and health care. Unions continued to voice reservations about the strength of the law regarding CTAs and labor intermediation as well as the government’s ability to regulate adequately due to labor inspector shortages.
The Port Worker’s Union estimated that 60 percent of the workforce in ports was employed under flexible nonunion contracts during the year. On January 17, port workers contracted by the company TECSA began a work stoppage to push TECSA to formalize its workforce. Although the workers returned to work following TECSA’s agreement to directly hire 70 to 80 workers, indirect and direct hires began another work stoppage in August, reportedly in response to TECSA’s refusal to negotiate on several issues, including the formalization of TECSA’s workforce. Workers reported that on August 29, the first day of the work stoppage, there was a violent clash between the riot police and protesters, and they alleged that police injured four protesters and detained three during that encounter. The government responded that the intervention of riot police was necessary because the protesters were preventing other workers who wanted to work from entering the premises, adding that intervention in this instance was normal and proper. The Ministry of Labor convened a labor roundtable; following the initial meeting, the workers returned to work and reinitiated negotiations. Through November TECSA had directly hired 302 workers. Union leaders asserted, however, that some workers were pressured to renounce their membership in the union before being offered employment. The ministry reported that in the port sector of Buenaventura, it conducted 157 inspection visits that resulted in the opening of 148 investigations and the sanctioning of 30 companies for a variety of labor law violations.
Some sugar and ethanol refineries also utilized CTAs as a means of subcontracting labor to third parties, and some sugarcane cutters, predominantly Afro-Colombian and indigenous men, were required to belong to a CTA to gain employment. However, a number of large sugar refineries offered direct contracts to cane cutters in CTAs. Due to legal ambiguities and lack of enforcement, some indirectly contracted workers formed unions. For instance, sugarcane cutters formed unions to enhance collaboration. Although the law does not clearly define whether this is legally permissible, the unions were respected throughout the sugarcane sector.
CTAs and other subcontracting institutions were also common in the palm oil sector. After collective bargaining broke down over salary negotiations at one palm oil plantation in the region of Puerto Wilches in 2011, direct and subcontracted workers at five other plantations joined the strike to demand direct employment relationships for palm workers they believed to be performing core and permanent labor functions and thus illegally subcontracted. The sector-wide strike ended when local and national government officials, palm oil company executives, CTA owners, and union members reached an agreement to begin labor inspections to identify the misuse of CTAs and other subcontracting institutions. The ministry sanctioned 10 palm oil companies and several cooperatives in Puerto Wilches under Decree 2025 as a result of labor inspections conducted in response to the strike. Labor groups claimed that companies had directly hired no workers since the 2011 agreement and had blacklisted workers who participated in the strike.
Workers participated in multiple strikes in the oil region of Puerto Gaitan, Meta. Community members joined the protests, demanding better infrastructure and benefits. On October 5, police used force against protesters including rubber bullets and tear gas. Protesters also claimed that police used batons and clubs to beat them. Many protesters reported that police wounded and detained them. A sector-wide energy workers’ union, the Petroleum Industry Workers’ Union (USO), which claimed an increase of more than 2,000 in membership by subcontracted workers during the year, led many demonstrations. On several occasions protests led to violence, and some unions and NGOs alleged that the government sometimes used excessive force to end the protests. The killing of seven USO workers in Orito, Putumayo, and Meta, a media campaign to discredit the USO, and mounting legal cases required the majority of the unions’ resources to be spent on legal defense.