Labor Union Rights in Colombia

IACHR hearing about labor rights in Colombia. October 27, 2011.

Commissioners: Dinah Shelton, Luz Patricia Mejía Guerrero, José de Jesús Orozco Henríquez
Petitioners
: Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ), the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR), the Central Union of Workers of Colombia (CUT), the General Labor Confederation (CGT), the Confederation of Workers of Colombia (CTC), the Central Association of the Americas (CSA), the National Labor College (ENS), and the International Trade Union Confederation
State
: Colombia

On October 27, 2011, in response to continued threats, harassment, killings, and acts of violence against members of Colombian human rights organizations and individuals promoting labor rights, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights heard arguments from several labor organizations and a response from representatives of the State of Colombia. Petitioners included the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ), the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR), the Central Union of Workers of Colombia (CUT), the General Labor Confederation (CGT), the Confederation of Workers of Colombia (CTC), the Central Association of the Americas (CSA), the National Labor College (ENS), and the International Trade Union Confederation (CSI). Representing the State were the Ministry of Interior and the Attorney General’s office.

The petitioners allege that the continued deliberate and systematic violations of human rights in Colombia demonstrate that the State’s protection program is insufficient. Promises from the government to increase investigations into acts of violence against union members have not been realized. In spite of the Colombian people’s legal right to unionize, union membership is decreasing, collective bargaining agreements have fallen sharply, the right to strike remains restricted, and “blacklists” of union members have been sold to various violent organizations that in turn attack these members. These acts of violence are followed by impunity. The Office of the Attorney General has not engaged in an identification process to find the perpetrators, and many of the current cases under investigation have little or no identifying information. Petitioners allege a rate of 97% impunity. Further, petitioners point to recent smear campaigns against unions, stigmatizing them as part of a subversive guerrilla force on one hand, and as government collaborators on the other. For these reasons, the petitioners allege that Colombia is in breach of the American Convention on Human Rights, Article 16: Freedom of Association; and of the Protocol of San Salvador, Article 8: Trade Union Rights.

Carmen Padilla from the CTC reminded the commission that the International Labor Organization (ILO) has warned of serious violations in Colombia, and that Colombia still must fulfill 53 recommendations from the ILO. Ms. Padilla requested that the Colombia Rapporteur or the entire Commission make visit to Colombia.

The State responded by affirming its commitment to promoting labor rights through improved dialogue with unions and providing protection as required by the ILO. The State rejects all acts of violence against any of its citizens, and has introduced various conventions to support the protection of union members. Further, the State has done everything that the ILO requested of it, but contends that no country is perfect.

The State also pointed out that Colombia has made great strides in promoting union rights, and that union membership is increasing. The Attorney General has met with Human Rights Watch, and even invited unions to join in the dialogue, but only one actually came. While there was a lack of open communication in the past, the Attorney General now has an open door, permanent dialogue policy, and invites unions to come and work together through effective communication.

Commissioner Dinah Shelton encouraged all parties to comply with the Commission’s requests to submit materials backing up their numerous allegations, statistics, and responses, so that the commissioners are able to familiarize themselves with the information prior to the meeting. Commissioner Shelton also asked the State to share reports from the ILO’s trade union monitoring efforts that are not publically available. Commissioner Maria Silvia Guillen then encouraged the petitioners to take the Attorney General’s invitation for dialogue seriously, and recommended using this invitation as an opportunity to bring both side’s differing statistics towards consistency. Commissioner Jesus Orozco Henriquez affirmed this request, adding that the different statistics were an area of concern. While the State must address the allegations of inhumane treatment of union members and the efforts to harass and stigmatize them, both sides must present additional information to the Commission so that they it may properly understand and follow up appropriately. Specifically, Commissioner Henriquez requested updates on the effectiveness of the State’s various programs protecting unions and information on current investigations into anti-union violence. Commissioner Luz Patricia Mejia Guerrero requested addition information from the state on any union registry, and whether the violence perpetrated against unions has had an affect on this registry.

Each side was given an opportunity to make closing statements and responses to the Commission. The State agreed to share ILO reports with the Commission, and said that the government would like work directly with unions if they will participate, and expressed their desire for agreement with the unions. The petitioners responded by disagreeing with the effectiveness of the State’s efforts to protect and encourage union rights. The Commission implored the State and the various petitioners to gather and synthesize their materials and statistics in a cohesive format for presentation to the Commission.

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