A recent report by the United States Government Office of Accountability (GAO) claims that, despite positive steps, labor rights face “persistent challenges” in Colombia.
According to the report, requested by the US Congress to assess the “status of [free trade agreement] labor provisions in partner countries,” the Colombian government has “acted to change labor laws” and “acted to address violence against union members.”
Still, GAO says, problems remain.
Among the labor issues cited were “limited enforcement capacity, the use of subcontracting to avoid direct employment, and… violence against union leaders.”
The labor provisions described by the report are outlined in the Labor Action Plan (LAP), which contained nine issue areas and was agreed between Bogota and Washington as a requisite for a free trade agreement between the two countries to take effect.
The report cites the concerns of the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) and US Department of Labor (DOL), which are responsible for monitoring the implementation of the LAP.
Among the several partner countries examined by GAO, only Colombia’s Ministry of Labor denied requests to be interviewed and instead provided written responses to questions.
USTR claims that Colombia has taken steps to reform the criminal justice system and to establish penalties for employers violating labor rights like collective bargaining and the right to organize.
The Colombian government has also “secur[ed] legislation to establish a separate labor ministry and expanding its labor inspectorate by hiring additional inspectors.”
Other positive steps include “enacting legal provisions and regulations prohibiting the use of temporary service agencies to circumvent labor rights.”
Some of the specifics of new labor challenges are cited by the report. These include the difficulty in collecting fines for labor violations and new forms of “abusive contracting” to “avoid direct employment relationships.”
Several organizations described these forms of contracting as a “legal loophole that is used to undermine workers’ rights.”
Violence against union members, while decreasing since its peak around the turn of the millennium, continues, according to stakeholders interviewed by GAO.
The agency says that union leaders and NGOs told them that violence “undermines workers’ ability to freely associate because of the fear that their union activities may lead them to become victims of violence.”
Critiques of US government enforcement
It is also critical of the USTR and DOL for lacking the sufficient measures to enforce Colombia’s LAP.
While they have monitored labor rights in Colombia, GAO claims that the evidence examined “does not demonstrate systematic implementation of the typical key elements for monitoring and enforcement of labor provisions.”
The GAO was also critical of an April 2012 decision by USTR to declare that Colombia had taken “important” steps to fulfill the requirement of the LAP and allow the free trade agreement with the US to take effect.
“USTR officials did not provide records or documentation of these steps, stating that they did not request such records because the website for the Presidency of Colombia supplied documentation of all actions taken,” GAO said.
After reviewing those documents, GAO found that they were not “structured so as to readily provide information about steps that the Colombian government had taken to meet its LAP commitments.”
US lawmakers question fulfillment of LAP
On a visit made last month, US Congressman Jim McGovern (Democrat) recognized progress made by the Colombian government, but said that he does “not believe the LAP has been fulfilled.”
“Workers attempting to organize and negotiate better working conditions and wages consistently face the threat of violence, including murder, and the loss of their jobs. Few if any of these murders, assaults, bombings, let alone hundreds of death threats, are fully investigated and prosecuted. Illegal sub-contracting remains common,” claimed McGovern, a member of the congressional Monitoring Group on Labor Rights in Colombia.
The Congressman claimed the Colombian government has failed to effectively implement worker protection policies, as “inspections by the Labor Ministry are infrequent and uneven in quality. And when sanctions are levied against abusive employers, they are generally ignored,” said the Congressman.
The Colombian government, meanwhile, believes that it has fulfilled the requirements of the LAP.
During a recent trip to Washington, the Colombian Labor Minister Luis Eduardo Garzon boldly claimed that plan “has already been complied with.”
The US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement was signed in November 2006 under then-President George W. Bush. Implementation of the agreement was delayed, however, due to serious concerns regarding violence against Colombian union leaders, and an institutional failure failure to prosecute those responsible for the attacks.
In 2011, Presidents Barack Obama and Juan Manuel Santos launched the LAP which promised to improve worker’s rights in Colombia with the assistance of the US government. The agreement was passed by the US Congress in October 2011.
The free trade deal came into force half a year later.