What labour and trade union agenda should the new Colombian government and Congress pursue? Here are some proposals

What labour and trade union agenda should the new Colombian government and Congress pursue? Here are some proposals

“Stable and well-paid employment is only possible if the state implements policies that promote the full development of the country’s productive forces, with emphasis on scientific and technological progress, economic diversification and social, economic and transport infrastructure”, says Carlos Julio Díaz Lotero.

(Luis Robayo/AFP)

In Colombia, we have recently seen alternative forces make significant headway in the configuration of the new Congress of the Republic and, according to the most recent polls, left-wing candidate Gustavo Petro could become the new president of Colombia.

Given this favourable political outlook, it is essential that we present the proposals advocated by the National Trade Union School (ENS) and the trade union movement for consideration by the new congress and potential new government with an anti-neoliberal perspective as part of their political and legislative agendas on labour and trade unions. If we manage to turn these proposals into public policy objectives of the new government and the recently elected Congress of the Republic, we will progressively be able to make the principles of ever more decent work a reality in our country.

Making decent work a public policy objective

The starting point for making decent work a reality in Colombia would be to ensure compliance with the law and those rulings of the Constitutional Court that prohibit all forms of labour intermediation through Associated Work Cooperatives, foundations and other unauthorised organisations, and to curb abusive labour intermediation practices by temporary service companies. The state, for its part, should set an example of respect for labour standards by avoiding subcontracting and prioritising the direct employment of the staff who carry out missions in the public sector.

An issue of great concern in Colombia is the commercialisation of social security. A new system needs to be designed that is not driven by the market, and that is public, universal, solidarity-based and preventive.

What are the building blocks of this new social security and protection model? First of all, we need to remove the false social protection floor introduced by the government of President Iván Duque, which has made working conditions ever more precarious. We also need to establish a public, universal and solidarity-based health system with a preventive rather than reactive approach. Another building block is the pension system, which should be predominantly public and based on the average premium (intergenerational solidarity) approach, to guarantee real retirement pensions. As regards occupational health and safety, the system should restore its true purpose of promoting health and preventing illness and death at work. We also recommend studying the possibility of introducing a ‘basic income’, at least on an emergency basis, to urgently address the terrible hunger crisis affecting over 21 million people in Colombia.

With regard to the right to freedom of association – one of the dimensions of decent work – Colombia must honour the international commitments undertaken by its governments (Obama-Santos Labour Action Plan, Roadmap with the European Union, OECD commitments), and implement the recommendations of international organisations such as the ILO, the rulings of the Supreme Court and constitutional mandates. More specifically, multilevel and sectoral collective bargaining needs to be developed, as recommended by the OECD, and so-called collective pacts prohibited in companies where trade unions are present, as recommended by the ILO.

In addition, Article 56 of the constitution needs to be regulated to define what is meant by ‘essential public services’ and to prevent the few strikes that take place in the country from being declared illegal on unreasonable grounds.

The resources that the state dedicates to the supervision of employers’ obligations to ensure labour justice are far below the standards set by the international organisations to which Colombia belongs. The number of labour inspectors is 55 per cent lower than that indicated by the International Labour Organization and the ratio of labour judges to population is 83 per cent lower than the average for OECD countries, for example. Between 1993 and 2019, the number of labour cases increased by 177 per cent, but the number of labour judges remained unchanged. To ensure greater effectiveness of the Ministry of Labour’s inspection and monitoring responsibilities, the number of inspectors needs to be increased in line with international standards, and both a preventive approach and a rights protection approach should be adopted. More labour judges need to be appointed, and efficient and expeditious mechanisms for access to labour justice should be established to ensure the defence and restitution of labour rights and freedoms that are violated.

A promise left unfulfilled for more than 30 years by the Congress of the Republic is to bring the labour legislation into line with a series of principles set out in Article 53 of the political constitution. One of the priorities the new Congress should set itself is to fulfil this constitutional mandate, which also states that duly ratified international labour conventions should form part of the national legislation.

Gender discrimination, anti-union violence and the future of work

Given the lack of progress in overcoming gender discrimination in the country’s labour practices, an employment policy with a differentiated approach is needed aimed at promoting and protecting women’s employment. The coronavirus pandemic had a highly negative impact on female employment. Although women have been progressing in terms of their levels of participation in education and labour, when faced with social emergencies they return to the home to take care of the family, as indicated by macro employment data. In view of this, urgent action needs to be taken to develop a national policy on the care economy, so that care work is democratised and women do not continue to be the only solution to care needs.

It is also important to include, as part of a differentiated approach, the Ministry of Labour’s inspection and monitoring of employment in care-related activities, as these are the activities that employ women in the main. The vast majority of domestic work positions are for example occupied by women (94 per cent), and it is a line of work that presents many challenges in terms of the protection of decent work.

Likewise, when promoting the creation of new formal jobs in the country, a differentiated approach should be included in the supply generated, since not only is there a higher level of self-employment among women, but the implications are much more complex due to the structural conditions in which women find themselves in Colombia.

Another pending issue is the anti-union violence that still prevails in our country, targeting trade union activists and leaders.

Coordinated action is needed to change this reality and should aim at eradicating the anti-union culture that legitimises violence; fostering recognition that ending anti-union violence is essential to ensuring non-repetition of the conflict; ending the high levels of impunity that limit victims’ access to truth and justice; promoting collective and comprehensive reparation for the trade union movement and reflection on the need, legitimacy and importance of the free exercise of trade union activity as a fundamental prerequisite for strengthening democracy and building peace.

Finally, measures are required to address the issue of digital platform work, which takes place in the context of high levels of illegality, precariousness and labour flexibility. These digital and virtual forms of work present major challenges in terms of legal frameworks, as they are not regulated by labour law but by commercial law. Digital work is an unavoidable trend, but labour regulation needs to be the only regulation that applies to these new forms of work organisation. Moreover, not only should employment relations be regulated by labour law; they should also include social protection for all the workers.

A new development model that creates decent work

A key task for the new government is to rethink the development model that has governed us for more than 30 years, with appalling results. Stable and well-paid employment is only possible if the state implements policies that promote the full development of the country’s productive forces, with emphasis on scientific and technological progress, economic diversification and social, economic and transport infrastructure.

The new development model must guarantee freedom of enterprise but with a leading role for the state in guaranteeing social security; in regulating finance, trade and markets; and in boosting the productive economy.

The state must guarantee access to sufficient credit for productive investment in agriculture, industry, responsible mining, energy, communications and transport, rather than continuing to base our economy on mining and energy extraction activities, the export of primary products and financial-speculative rationales that contribute very little to employment and account for the high levels of informal employment in street sales and the subsistence economy.

This article has been translated from Spanish.