July 12, 2012—The Solidarity Center has expanded its program work in Colombia, with the goal of consolidating and implementing labor reforms and formalizing labor relations for hundreds of thousands of precarious, subcontracted workers who currently toil without many of the protections of the labor law or the right to join a union.
||Workers in Colombia's palm oil sector are frequent targets of threats and violence. Photo by Molly McCoy, Solidarity Center
Colombia has a long history of repression of worker rights and the world’s highest murder rate for trade unionists, according to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Colombian workers are largely employed under innumerable subcontracting schemes that sever the traditional employee-employer relationship and render them ineligible for protections under labor law. As a result of these factors, fewer than 5 percent of Colombian workers belong to a union.
In response to these problems, and as a result of negotiations with the U.S, government around the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, the Colombian government committed in 2011 to a Labor Action Plan, leading to legal reforms including the prohibition of fraudulent worker cooperatives and other types of labor intermediation that prevent unionization of workers and protection of worker rights. Unfortunately, only a minority of workers have been able to capitalize on these reforms, as a result of a weak enforcement of the law and employer hostility toward unions.
To address these challenges, the Solidarity Center is increasing the size and scope of its work in Colombia. Solidarity Center work will focus on building organizing capacity within unions to rebuild membership and on strengthening unions’ advocacy capacity to press for full implementation of new legal reforms, with an emphasis on women’s empowerment and inclusion. While the Solidarity Center will continue to work with its longstanding partners in the public sector and the sugar cane, ports, palm oil, and energy industries, it will increase its work in such sectors as cut flowers and telecommunications—all with the potential to achieve significant, precedent-setting gains for workers.
Specifically, work with partner unions will focus on training and empowering vulnerable workers, with emphasis on women workers, to grow their unions and advocate for their rights. Training areas include worker organizing, leadership skills for new union members and emerging leaders, negotiation and collective bargaining , labor law (particularly new laws that were created or changed to eliminate fraudulent subcontracting), and tools for defending worker rights, including international justice mechanisms.
In addition to training and capacity building, Solidarity Center staff in Colombia will play a critical role in providing ongoing mentorship and support to unions undertaking new organizing campaigns. In sectors where union activists and leaders are frequent targets of threats and violence, such as the sugar cane, energy, and palm oil sectors, this role has entailed Solidarity Center staff presence alongside workers engaged in both short-term demonstrations, such as rallies, and longer-term struggles, such as work stoppages, as well as solidarity and support for union-led advocacy directed at decision makers in Colombia, such as the Ministry of Labor, elected officials, and the U.S. Embassy. Solidarity Center work in Colombia also includes support for several union- led public forums, seminars, and publications, intended to build broad support for worker and union rights and to increase public pressure for compliance with labor law.
“We are working with all three national union centers and key sectoral unions in Colombia to support their demands for direct, formal labor relations with employers that will bring workers under the full protection of the law,” said Rhett Doumitt, Solidarity Center country program director for Colombia. “For Colombian workers to be recognized as ‘workers,’ with due rights under national and international law, and for Colombian enterprises to be made legally responsible as employers are critical to improving worker rights in Colombia.”
The Solidarity Center’s Bogota-based team will implement its expanded Colombia work with financial support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).