Progress or Promises? Free Trade and Labor Rights in Colombia
Rodolfo Vecino has a death sentence on his head. He has been told he will be kidnapped, tortured and his family will be murdered. Already this year one of Vecino’s colleagues has been killed – in January, Mauricio Arrendondo and his wife Janeth were gunned down in front of their children.
Vecino is the president of Colombian oil workers union (USO), which was last year declared a “military target” by right-wing paramilitaries for its campaigns against what the union says are the abusive labor practices of Canadian oil giant Pacific Rubiales. The union’s campaign began last summer; just two months after Colombia signed a Labor Action Plan (LAP) with the U.S. pledging to tackle the very practices used by Rubiales and the type of anti-union violence that USO has suffered. The signing of the pact unblocked negotiations over the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the countries, which had stalled over Colombia’s abysmal labor rights record.
A year on, and at last weekend’s Summit of the Americas, the U.S. declared it was satisfied that Colombia had complied with the LAP and was enacting the reforms called for. The decision opens the way for full implementation of the FTA in May, even as unions and human rights groups in both countries continue to accuse the U.S. of “rewarding promises not actions”. Meanwhile, USO’s campaign against Rubiales continues and it is far from an isolated case. Unions across Colombia maintain they face the same problems of violence, worker abuse and anti-union practices, all committed with seeming impunity.
Protests against Rubiales began after workers at the company’s Puerto Gaitan site contacted USO and described how 12,000 sub-contracted workers – the overwhelming majority of the workforce – were enduring low pay, appalling conditions and instability while being denied the right to bargain collectively and associate freely.
Ending the abusive sub-contracting system commonly used in Colombia was one of the principal aims of the LAP. The practice began in the late 70s, when businesses began to take advantage of the fact that many of Colombia’s labor regulations did not apply to worker cooperatives. Companies fired their entire workforce then forced workers to sign on with contractors calling themselves cooperatives. As the workers were then classified as temporary employees and could be laid off without cause, the cooperatives forced them to accept whatever pay and conditions were on the table. It was also a useful tool for preventing unionization as any worker who began organizing or agitating could be immediately fired. “They lost their rights, they lost money [and] they lost their working stability,” said Andres Sanchez from Colombia’s National Union School (ENS). The practice continues today, utilizing Colombia’s army of the unemployed and underemployed as ready replacements for sacked workers.
The LAP called for Colombia to enforce pre-existing but widely ignored legislation banning the cooperatives. However, as the Rubiales workers testified, in many sectors little has changed. Because the cooperatives are now banned, most of the contractors have simply changed names and become Simplified Stock Companies or Temporary Service Companies. “The phenomenon continues the same,” said Sanchez. “It is the same dynamic, they do the same things, workers [still] can’t demand that they benefit from their labor and not the third party,” he added. According to Sanchez, over 2 million workers in Colombia are still employed through these sub-contractors.
In Puerto Gaitan, the sub-contracted Rubiales’ workers have been forced to accept what Rodolfo Vecino called, “truly humiliating and poverty stricken” conditions. “They don’t have the conditions of a dignified life, they don’t have dignified salaries, they don’t have contracts that genuinely give the workers respectable levels of stability,” he said.
The workers have also testified to being pressured and threatened because of their association with the union and being told they would not be employed again while they were still members. “Although I am aware of my rights,” said one worker in a letter to USO, “in this case my need to survive and stay in work is more important.”
The ENS and USO both say they have persistently informed the government of the continued use of the cooperative style sub-contracting but little action has been taken despite the harsh penalties now demanded by law. So far, one company has been hit with a $6.5 million dollar fine over its use of contractors in the African palm sector. However, the fine was only imposed after a 107-day strike and came a week before Colombia’s labor minister traveled to the U.S. to discuss progress on labor rights. According to Sanchez, several months later and the fine has yet to be paid.
The paramilitary right and anti-union violence
After five months of strikes, blockades, occupations and violent clashes between riot police and protesters in USO’s confrontation with Pacific Rubiales, Rodolfo Vecino announced he had been threatened by four men claiming to be from the Auto-defensas (Self-defense forces). According to Vecino, the men told him he had been “sentenced” because USO’s confrontation with Pacific Rubiales made him an “obstacle to development.”
The term Auto-Defensas refers to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), an umbrella group for Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary movement that controlled vast criminal networks and infiltrated the core of Colombia’s political and economic systems. Its stated mission was to combat Colombia’s leftist guerrilla groups, something it did in part by waging a dirty war against “guerrilla collaborators” – members of leftist political parties, community organizers, human rights workers and unionists. From 1986–2011, nearly 3000 unionists were murdered, and although most of the cases remain unsolved, in Colombia there is little doubt that paramilitary groups such as the AUC were responsible for the overwhelming majority of the killings.
The AUC officially demobilized in 2006 after negotiations with the government of Alvaro Uribe. However, the much criticized process gave rise to a new wave of illegal armed groups. These new organizations mostly consist of former mid-level AUC commanders and foot-soldiers that either never demobilized or simply re-enlisted after demobilization. For the most part they no longer fight the guerrillas – in some cases they even collaborate with them – but instead concentrate on drug trafficking and maintaining the AUC’s criminal networks and commercial interests. However, the end of the ideological war between the paramilitaries and the guerrillas did not lead to a significant drop in anti-union violence and Colombia remains by far and away the most dangerous place in the world for unionists.
According to Vecino, three of these groups operate in the same areas as USO – the Rastrojos, the Urabeños and the Popular Revolutionary Anti-terrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC). He believes the continuing violence against unions is because of the links between businesses and the paramilitaries. “We believe there are links in the zone,” he said. “Today there are no political lines of definition of these groups but interests around drug trafficking [and] they sell themselves to the highest bidder,” he said. “If [the company] gives them money it wouldn’t be the first time multinationals have associated with paramilitaries or common criminals to strike against the union sector.” Vecino also claimed that some of the cooperatives have ties to armed groups and are used to launder drug money.
Pacific Rubiales has adamantly denied any contact with paramilitary groups. Jorge Rodriguez, the company’s head of corporate affairs, told news website Colombia Reports: “We are very sorry for the USO union. We reject any type of threat, any type of intimidation, not only to trade unionists but to anyone in the country.”
Andres Sanchez agrees with the theory that the new groups continue to act as the armed wing for powerful commercial interests, pointing to how Chiquita bananas and Coca Cola have been implicated in the murder of unionists. “It is a culture where some businesses have used violence as a way of solving labor relation problems,” he said. “In Colombia, the links between paramilitaries and business have not yet been uncovered.”
For most American politicians and unionists, anti-union violence was the biggest obstacle to the passing of the FTA with Colombia and curbing that violence the LAP’s greatest promise. In the first year of the plan, 27 unionists were murdered and 2 disappeared, according to the ENS. While that remains the highest murder rate for unionists in the world by some distance, it does represent a significant reduction; in 2010, 51 unionists were murdered and 7 disappeared. However, Andres Sanchez believes the drop in homicides does not tell the whole story. “The situation with the violence has shown changes in its logic,” he said. “Now, it is not necessary to murder a unionist to successfully freeze a union. We have seen that threats, injuries and displacement have increased … homicides have gone down a bit [but] the situation persists.”
In the LAP, the Colombian government pledged to increase protection for unionists by broadening the coverage of its protection program, clearing the backlog of applicants for the program and speeding up the application process. According to the U.S. government this is exactly what it has done. However, while the unions acknowledge there have been some improvements, they remain critical. “They say ‘no one in the program has been killed,’” said Sanchez. “So we say the program is badly designed, because they kill the unionists who aren’t in the program.”
The unions complain that the protection program excludes too many people and that the Colombian authorities have cleared the backlog and sped up the process partly by rejecting more people more quickly. According to Sanchez, this has involved turning down unionists who have received death threats. “They say that if they threaten someone it is a salvation because generally, the ones who are murdered have not been threatened, [and] the threat is to silence someone so it is not necessary to take measures after,” he said.
The approach has had a serious impact on USO leaders. Last August, USO received a letter informing them that protection programs for 23 leaders and a number of regional offices would either be terminated immediately or only extended temporarily. Three of those leaders were involved in organizing in Puerto Gaitan.
The LAP also pledged to tackle the impunity enjoyed by those responsible for the anti-union threats and violence. Less than 10% of the more than 3000 cases of murdered unionists have resulted in convictions. Many of those convictions came not from successful investigations but from confessions by paramilitary killers and, while the perpetrators of the crimes identified themselves, the intellectual authors remained hidden.
In 2007, the Attorney General’s Office set up a specialist sub-unit dedicated to anti-union violence. However, of the 195 murders that took place between the start of the sub-unit’s operations and May 2011, only 6 resulted in convictions. The unit did not obtain a single conviction for the 60 homicide attempts, 1,500 threats and 420 forced displacements in the same period.
The prosecutor’s office’s shortcomings in investigating anti-union violence were supposed to be addressed by 15 measures in the LAP, ranging from assigning more full time investigators to the unit to establishing victims assistance centers. As Congress approved the FTA in October, American union AFL-CIO reported that all but three of the obligations had either not been met, had been met insufficiently or there was no evidence of progress.
Progress for labor or for free trade?
Although he believes the LAP has failed to significantly improve the labor rights situation in Colombia, Andres Sanchez says the plan was an important step. “Yes, [the LAP] was to facilitate the unfreezing of the FTA,” said Sanchez, “but it was also a serious attempt.” However, he thinks the LAP will not be effective unless the government does more to involve unions in the process. “They are important measures,” he said, “expensive measures that could be effective but with this great vacuum of not taking into account the unions, they are measures that could fail.”
In the U.S, the implementation of the LAP has been monitored by the AFL-CIO, which has been critical of the government for using it to push through the FTA. “We don’t think the plan was sufficient to accomplish the goals but we do think it was a step in the right direction, a step towards meaningful change,” said the AFL-CIO’s Celeste Drake. “Unfortunately, with the continued violence against unionists and too little progress on cooperatives and other practices like collective pacts [worker agreements used to sideline unions], it is far too soon for the US government to declare victory on the LAP and move ahead on the FTA. Colombian workers will lose whatever leverage they have to make real progress if the US moves too quickly.”
On the front line of the struggle against the violence and abuse suffered by Colombian workers and unionists, Rodolfo Vecino says he has seen very little change since the LAP came into force. “At the moment it is innocuous,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what is written there, they are dead words, they don’t have life because there isn’t anyone who is putting it into place.”
James Bargent is a freelance journalist based in Colombia. See jamesbargent.com
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