Colombian Context

Every week someone working in defense of human rights is murdered in Colombia.[1] According to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), 63% of people murdered worldwide for their work as union organizers are Colombian.[2] Human Right Watch (HRW) reports that, while the number of labor activists murdered yearly has decreased marginally over the last decade, current violence is increasingly selective, levels in Colombia are the highest in the world, and death threats continue to increase.[3] The informality of the workforce, a principal factor preventing workers’ access to the right to collective bargaining, is steadily increasing, and now almost two thirds of the country’s employees are employed informally.[4]

Despite these facts, the current administration of President Juan Manuel Santos has promoted a new image of Colombia internationally as a country concerned with labor standards and human rights, which has favored its political agenda of increased foreign investment and negotiating trade agreements. In April of 2012 United States president Barack Obama announced the implementation of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the two countries, effectively giving his approval for the advancement of measures outlined in the April 2011 Labor Action Plan between the US and Colombia,[5] and ignoring the plan’s apparent failures. In agreeing to implement the Labor Action Plan the Santos administration committed, among other measures, to improve the safety of labor leaders and guarantee workers’ right to unionize by reducing informal employment through third-party hiring practices. Since then, however, at least 40 union organizers have been assassinated and new legislation outlawing illegal subcontracting practices has failed to improve workers’ access to collective representation.

The following section is a discussion of the Colombian context in terms of working conditions and anti-union violence. Examples are provided to illustrate how the situation for Colombian workers is not improving, that attacks on unions, both violent and non-violent, continue to have devastating effects on collective efforts to exercise workers’ rights, and that, in the absence of further action, the violent repression of the Colombian labor movement will likely increase.

Political Context: the Santos Administration and the Action Plan Related to Labor Rights

The following is a brief analysis of the political situation in Colombia over the course of the past decade. This overview addresses the time period from 2002, when peace negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were discontinued and the administration of President Alvaro Uribe was installed, shortly following a massive increase in military aid to Colombia from the United States, to the current administration of Juan Manuel Santos.

Alvaro Uribe became president of Colombia in 2002 shortly after a massive increase in military aid from the United States. He was elected on a platform of aggression against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and immediately withdrew from peace negotiations then underway. Despite making significant headway in the war against the guerrillas, his right-leaning government, which lasted from 2002 to 2010, was highly controversial and marked by egregious levels of human rights violations and scandals linking people in the government to violence targeting human rights defenders and grassroots organizations in general. NGO and government estimates of figures regarding human rights violations during this time period are stunning: yearly, an average of 300,000 people were forcibly displaced,[6] an average of 130 human rights defenders were killed,[7] and 1,380 extrajudicial killings were carried out by the armed forces.[8] Scandals that drew the most attention included the involvement of high-profile military officers for their involvement in extrajudicial killings and disappearances, the illegal surveillance of the Administrative Department of Security,[9] and the exposure of political and financial connections between ranking elected officials in Uribe’s party and rightwing paramilitary groups.[10] Nonetheless, the president enjoyed high levels of support due in part to the progress he made in the war against the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN), and was given credit for the demobilization of thousands of paramilitary combatants. A closer look, however, reveals that while leftist rebel groups did suffer major losses – including the death of the highest ranking leaders of the FARC – it is unclear to what extent their military capacity has been reduced.[11] As far as paramilitary groups are concerned, while numbers of combatants were reduced, it is also clear that these groups remain extremely influential and continue to carry out illegal activities, including human right violations, throughout the vast majority of Colombia’s national territory.[12] Moreover, in addition to the high incidence of human rights violations and the occurrence of high profile scandals involving the government, there have been lesser-known trends, which affect a larger proportion of the population, such as increasing indigence,[13] inequality,[14] employment in the informal sector, and child-labor.[15] Although levels of poverty and unemployment have apparently decreased marginally, according to the government’s figures, they continued to soar over those of other Latin American nations.[16]

Santos, Minister of Defense under Uribe, was elected in July of 2010 amid accusations of electoral irregularities.[17] Since then he has enjoyed the support both of a huge majority in Congress and the mass media, over many of which he has direct influence through family connections.[18] Although his right-leaning administration presents itself as a departure from the reactionary reputation of its predecessor, those critical claim the differences are largely rhetorical, noting his continued commitment to a non-negotiated solution to the internal conflict, and citing statistical evidence that levels of human rights violations remain unchanged.[19] Meanwhile, the Santos administration has adopted an ambitious legislative agenda in defining his core principle of democratic prosperity, by means of which he seeks to alleviate the country’s economic problems through large-scale foreign investment in sectors such as banking, energy, the extraction of raw materials, and biofuels.[20] A key part of this strategy involves trade agreements, extensively relaxing economic regulations, and ensuring that foreign investment continues to benefit from available land and resources, low wages, and weak labor and environmental standards. As a result, Colombia is not only experiencing an era of direct foreign investment unprecedented in scale, but the nature of this investment is shifting,[21] all to the disadvantage of workers. Increasingly, for example, transnational corporations are investing large amounts in oil and mining operations which create few, low-quality jobs. While these two industries attracted 58.4% of foreign investment between 2006 and 2010 they were responsible for only 1.5% of new jobs created (while 158 of the 958 deaths caused nationally by work-related accidents in 2010 occurred in mines). [22]

While an optimistic image of Colombia continues to be presented to foreign investors and the international community, difficulties mount up for working class Colombian families. Business journal El Portafolio and national public relations website Colombia is Passion note that, according to the Word Bank publication Doing Business, Colombia enjoys the status of “the country with the best business climate in Latin America” and the nation “which has passed more reforms than any other in improving the regulatory environment for businesses”. [23] On the other hand, it is the third poorest country in Latin America and first in terms of inequality.  It is also, as El Portafolio expresses it, “the Latin American champion of unemployment”. [24] Rural areas, home to palm, banana, sugarcane, and flower workers – all well-documented victims of violent repression[25] – present a particularly desperate situation. Family farms in the countryside continue to give way to multinational agricultural interests while 88% of workers are paid the minimum wage or less, 2.5 million are employed in the informal sector, and unemployment has doubled in ten years. [26]

Failures of the Labor Action Plan and Continued Challenges for Colombian Workers

Since the Santos administration was installed, negotiations regarding trade agreements have forced the Colombian government to engage with the international community and Colombian civil society in discussions on labor standards and anti-union violence for the first time in recent memory. According to the pre-FTA Labor Action Plan, Colombia agreed to forward the  five fundamental labor rights as stated in the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, [28] as well as address existing labor-related problems in Colombia such as anti-union violence and the and the fact that some 94% of anti-union crimes committed in the past remain unpunished.[29] Subsequently, Decree 2025 was passed in June of 2011, regulating Article 63 of Law 1429 (passed in 2010), which establishes the illegality of hiring workers through subcontracting entities such as associated labor cooperatives (CTA for their abbreviation in Spanish).[30]  In addition, Law 1453 (2011) modifies the Penal Code, broadening sanctions for obstructing union activity. The Ministry of Labor (abolished during the Uribe administration) was re-established in October of the same year to oversee the implementation of these laws. Resolutions 716 and 3900, and Decree 3375 (all of 2011), were also passed, with the purpose of increasing the effectively of state-administered protection measures for union activists.[31]

Despite apparent advances in policy since the Labor Action Plan went into effect, the National Labor School (ENS) points out that measurable results are few. The ENS calls attention to the lack of any modification to the Código Sustantivo del Trabajo (Labor Code), and cites the general failure of policy decisions to incorporate recommendations made by the ILO High Level Mission to Colombia in February of 2011.[32] According to the analysis of the ENS, 1) despite the formation of the Ministry of Labor, inadequate numbers of labor inspectors, and a lack of cooperation on the part of the business sector, make the implementation of state policy impossible; 2) enforcement by means of fines is inadequate for discouraging the practice of hiring through ever-evolving intermediary or subcontracting entities (indeed only one or two private firms have adopted changes, and public employees continue to be subcontracted); 3) changes to the way the law prevents violations of the right to unionize are limited and inadequate, evident in the recent firing of some 70 banana plantation workers provoked by their union-organizing activities;[33] 4) changes to the way the law looks to prevent union-busting are similarly insufficient;[34] and 5), despite changes to government protection measures, union organizers continue to be brutally murdered as a result of their union-related activities, with at least 29 killed in 2011,[35] and 6 during the first two months of 2012.[36] In general, there is an outcry that the Labor Action Plan between the Obama and Santos administrations is merely a way of downplaying a deep-rooted structural problem in order to facilitate the ratification of the FTA between the two countries.

Events since Colombia agreed to implement the Labor Action Plan not only tend to support the concerns of the ENS, but demonstrate the continued use of violent tactics on the part of government agents and the business sector in repressing workers’ efforts to exercise their new rights. It is worth going into more detail concerning several specific labor disputes to illustrate these remarkable differences between policy changes on paper and the reality for unionists in the workplace. Oil workers work in what has been one of the sectors most affected historically by systematic anti-union violence.[37] They are routinely hired through now-illegal intermediary companies by means of 28 day contracts.[38] Thousands of members of the oil workers’ union USO (Union Sindical Obrera), working indirectly a consortium including the national oil company Ecopetrol and Pacific Rubiales from Canada, struck in the summer of 2011 in Puerto Gaitan, Meta, in response to contractual conditions, less-than-human living conditions for workers, and shifts which sometimes lasted for 16 hours, twenty days with no days off.  As a result, leaders have suffered threats, arrest, accusations of collaborating with the FARC, and illegal intimidation by the business and state sectors. Government armed forces have raided encampments, removed striking workers from picket lines at gunpoint, conditioned re-entry into company grounds on workers’ disaffiliation with the USO, and threatened strike leaders behind closed doors. While the strike inspires hope, given the willingness of workers to take direct action despite the scale of the adversity, these events also starkly illustrate the effectiveness of systematic repression. Strike leaders have had to leave the region due to threats. Over a thousand workers have been fired as a result of taking part in work stoppages. MEMBERSHIP.  Workers’ demands for improved working conditions and direct hiring practices have been ignored; however the union’s campaign moves forward, further increasing the likelihood of acts of physical violence against their leaders.

Another situation illustrating the lack of persuasion on the part of the government in putting new laws into practice is unfolding in Puerto Wilches, Santander, home to massive African palm plantations of the biofuels industry. Palm workers in Puerto Wilches are hired through CTAs, which have played an increasing role in denying Colombian workers the right to collective representation, and were, as mentioned previously, made illegal by Decree 2025. The legal concept of CTAs, passed in 1988, defined workers as partial owners, and therefore unaffected by standard labor laws. This was readily exploited by antiunion businesses. CTAs grew in number from 700 (with an average workforce of 75) in 2000, to 3,000 (with as average workforce of 160) in 2005. In 2009 there were thought to be some 1 million Colombians working at CTA’s.[39]  Their prohibition as a result of Decree 2025 fails to protect workers due to a lack of labor inspectors, the application of slap-on-the-wrist penalties for infractions, and the law’s failure to specifically address similar structures to which many CTA’s are simply converting, such as temporary service companies and simplified corporations.[40] Also relevant is the fact that the government has done nothing to change its own indirect hiring practices of public employees since the law’s implementation.[41]

In late 2011, workers in Puerto Wilches struck for 49 days, demanding that the CTAs through which they are hired be dismantled and replaced with direct hiring practices. The management of the palm companies, openly defending the CTA model, has refused on the grounds that the employees in in palm fields and palm oil factories perform tasks nonrelated to the “mission” of the business in a manipulative interpretation of Decree 2025. While the Ministry of Labor has been involved in negotiations, applied fines, and issued several written agreements, these actions have had almost no effect. Management openly criticizes government pressure to discontinue indirect hiring practices, and the only action taken has been the conversion of several CTAs into temporary employment agencies. Aggressive anti-union tactics in the region, including the murder of ten local union leaders in the past 12 years, has contributed to dwindling membership. Of more than 1,000 local affiliates 15 years ago, today only 245 remain. In this increasingly vulnerable situation, workers are charged almost 40% of their wages for healthcare, pension, transportation, clothing, and CTA administrative fees, among other costs. Despite these difficulties, they continue to demand their legal rights and have voiced their intention to strike again this year if their demands are not met. A number of the workers active in the Puerto Wilches campaign have already had to leave their homes and families due to threats against their lives.[42]

In addition to such constant (nonviolent) attacks on workers, systematic homicides and anti-union terror continue to devastate the Colombian labor movement.  More than 60 union leaders were killed between August 2010, when Santos took office, and the announcement of the implementation of FTA with the US in April 2012.[43] In the first three months of 2012 at least 7 union activists were murdered, in addition to the high profile assassination of Daniel Aguirre describes in the first section of this document. Mauricio Arredondo, a 36-year-old organizer for the USO, at the time involved in organizing a strike in the department of Putumayo, was killed in January, along with his wife, leaving behind five children.[44] A week later, Ramón Paublott, a Coca Cola worker and activist in SINALTRAINAL, the national union representing workers at food service multinationals, was shot on a bus in Barranquilla.[45] Other victims include two public sector union organizers in Valle del Cauca, a mass transit unionist in Cali, and a leader of the campesino union FENSUAGRO in the rural outskirts of Bogota.[46] Murders combine with cases of forced disappearance, torture, sexual violence, displacement, and threats to seriously debilitate the labor movement as a whole. Violent persecution and murder targeting key leaders have devastating effects on their union in terms of membership, participation, and action due to fear on the part of individuals involved.

Making matters worse is the negative public image of the union movement fueled by state spokespersons and the mass media. In a recent publication, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) expressed its concern regarding the way national news outlets tend to portray union-related activity as an expression of insurgent and guerilla groups.[47] As Alejandro Mantilla of the National Labor Institute put it, the report points to “articles [which appeared in the newspaper El Tiempo] illustrating how the press reflects a stigmatizing and criminalizing portrayal of the labor movement”.[48] An example of this phenomenon is the coverage of the 2004 massacre of three influential union leaders from Arauca at the hands of the Colombian army. The declaration of then vice president Francisco Santos was widely published in the news media: the victims were guerrillas who died in combat. The subsequent clarification that these statements were false, on the other hand, was hardly covered.[49] This dangerous ideology not only helps justify crimes against trade unionists in the eyes of the Colombian public, but creates fear among non-unionists and potential union members.


In summary, labor standards and working conditions in Colombia are inadequate due, in part, to decreasing levels of organization among workers exacerbated by violent repression, homicide, and negative press. In other words, corporations are successfully using violence and repression against unionists to worsen working conditions and increase profits.

While the Colombian government has taken steps towards the implementation of new legislation, essential components are missing and further action is needed. According to the ENS, if the country’s labor laws were to be successfully implemented it would require institutional changes that would provide labor rights to some 2 million workers who currently lack them, greatly reducing both anti-union violence and current obstacles to collective bargaining.

In this context, we can expect a rise in conflict situations such as protests, work stoppages and labor negotiations. Therefore, we can expect a rise in violence, given that violent aggression tends to target organizers with leadership roles during these conflict situations, as demonstrated by recent study prepared for PNUD by the Center for Research and Popular Education (CINEP).[50] Furthermore we can assume that if violence is not curbed, unions will continue to lack the capacity to mobilize and employ traditional, legal methods to protect workers’ rights. The following section argues that an international presence should be part of the strategy to provide collective protection to union leaders who are putting themselves at risk by leading such efforts. This should work towards bolstering areas where government protection measures fall short. The Colombian government has made a commitment to dialogue with the international community and improve the safely of trade unionists and should therefore support such efforts.

[1] Cada semana es asesinado un defensor de derechos humanos en Colombia, Semana, 5 March 2012.

[2] ILO Sanctions Colombia’s Poor Human Rights Record, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), June 2010. See also Colombia sigue siendo el país con más crímenes de sindicalistas, El Espectador, 2 January 2012.

[3]Herederos de los Paramilitares: La Nueva Cara de la Violencia en Colombia, HRW, February 2010.

[4] Informe nacional de coyuntura económica, laboral, y sindical en 2010-2011, National Labor School (ENS), 2011

[5] Colombian Action Plan Related to Labor Rights, Office of the United States Trade Representative, 7 April 2011; the document can be read at

[6] Codhes informa: boletín informativa de la Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento numero 76, Human Rights and Displacement Concultancy (Codhes), 27 Jaunary 2010.

[7] Protección a defensores de derechos humanos: saldo pendiente, prepared by the Human Rights and Peace Platforms as articulated in Techo Común, in Hechos de Paz 60, PNUD, July 2011.

[8] Figure based on statistics from 2002 to 2006 set forth by the CIDH and cited in Ejecuciones extrajudiciales: el caso de oriente antioqueño, Coordinación Colombia-Europa-Estados Unidos, 2007.

[9] See Far Worse than Watergate: Widening Scandal Involving Colombia´s Intelligence Agency, Washington Office on Latin America, US Office on Colombia, Latin America Working Group, and the Center for International Policy, 25 June 2010.

[10] See Balance político de la parapolítica, Claudia López y Oscar Sevillano, Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, 2007.

[11] See A diez años del inicio del Plan Colombia: Los herederos de las AUC, la geografía del narcotráfic

y la amenaza de nuevos carteles, Mauricio Romero Vidal and Angélica Arias Ortiz, Arcanos no. 16, Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, 2011.

[12] See De la guerra de ‘Jojoy’ a la guerra de ‘Cano’, Ariel Fernando Ávila Martínez, Ibid.

[13] Cultura Política de la democracia en Colombia 2010: consolidación democrática en las Américas en tiempos difíciles, Vanderbilt University and Universidad de los Andes, USAID, 2010.

[14]Desigualdad extrema, Semana, 13 March 2011

[15] Ibid. 4

[16] Ibid. 13

[17] Pronunciamientos nacional de coordinadores, elecciones 2010, Electoral Observation Mission, 2010

[18] Santos superpoderoso, La Silla Vacía, 21 June 2010

[19] A un año del gobierno de Juan Manuel Santos, las violaciones a los DDHH continúan, Asociación Americana de Juristas, 24 October 2011

[20] Buen Gobierno para la Prosperidad Democrática, Juan Manuel Santos, 2010

[21] Balanza de Pagos Banco de la República de Colombia, 2011

[22] Ibid. 4

[23] Colombia: El mejor ambiente de negocios en América Latina, Portafolio, 13 October 2009

[24] World Bank, 2011

[25] Colombia es el campeón del desempleo en A. latina, de acuerdo con los datos del Dane, Portafolio, 1 October 2009.

[26] Que os duelan las sangres ignoradas: Informe sobre violaciones a los derechos humanos de los y las sindicalistas y la situación de impunidad, 2009-2010 y 2002-2010, ENS and Colombian Comission of Jurists (CCJ), October 2010.

[27] En el campo, casi 90% recibe el mínimo o menos, Portafolio, 29 April 2011.

[28] FACT SHEET: Benefits of the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement, Office of the United States Trade Representative, 6 April 2011.

[29] For analysis and recommendations regarding antiunion violence and impunity, see letter from HRW to then Fiscal General of Colombia, Viviane Morales, Human Rights Watch, dated 29 September 2011. It can be read at

[30] El Plan de Acción sobre Derechos Laborales; ¿Una nueva frustración?, ENS, 6 October 2011.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Conclusiones de la Misión Tripartita de Alto Nivel a Colombia, International Labor Organization (ILO), 18 February 2011. The conclusions of the mission can be read at

[33] Letter from US Congresspersons to Colombian Minister of Labor Rafael Pardo Rueda, 12 April 2012. It can be read at

[34] Ibid. 3

[35] Asesinado en Putumayo líder social y sindical del sector petrolero —En el atentado también murió su esposa, ENS, 19 January 2012.

[36] Informe sobre la situación de DDHH en el Valle (Colombia) de CUT Valle para organizaciones sindicales Europeas, Central Unitaria de Trabajadores Seccional Valle de Cauca, 2012.

[37] Ibid. 26

[38] Cepsa enciende la mecha de una batalla campal en Colombia por sus despidos, Observatorio de Multinacionales en América Latina (OMAL), 22 July 2011.

[39] PASO Interview with USO, Bogota, 25 May 2012.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Las cooperativas de trabajo asociado en Colombia, Eduardo Benavides Legarda, Revista Deslinde, June 2009.

[43] Ibid. 30

[44] Ibid.

[45] El conflicto laboral en el sector palmero sigue tenso, y todavía lejos de solucionarse, ENS, 17 February 2012.

[46] Ibid. 36

[47] Asesinado en Putumayo líder social y sindical del sector petrolero – En el atentado también murió su esposa, ENS, 19 January 2012.

[48] Ibid. 36

[49] Asesinan líder sindical en el Valle del Cauca, RCN Radio, 28 April 2012.

[50] Reconocer el pasado, construir el futuro; Informe sobre violencia contra sindicalistas y trabajadores sindicalizados 1984 – 2011, UNPD, Noviembre 2011.

[51] Alejandro Mantilla, statement delivered during a panel on Violence, Impunity, and the Union Workers in Colombia held at the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR), 17 May 2012. A recording of the event is available at

[52] See ¿Sindicalistas o guerrilleros?, Semana, 8 September 2004.

[53] This position was expressed both in a letter from Colombian unions to President Barack Obama and a letter from US Congresspersons to the Colombian Minister of Labor, both written in April 2012, present extensive evidence for the need for further action.

[54] Incidencia de la violencia contra de trabajadores sindicalizados y evolución de su propuesta: resumen ejecutivo, CINEP, 9 June 2010