Lessons from the Colombia Labor Action Plan

By Amrietha Nellan

Last week, the U.S. Trade Representative’s office released its five-year update on the Colombia Labor Action Plan (the “Action Plan”), which was negotiated as part of the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement. The Action Plan was the first of its kind setting “a critical framework to engage Colombia on labor issues” that led to major legal reforms and built capacity benefitting union leaders, workers, and the community at large. Colombia still has a long way to go, as the report acknowledges, and work must continue to implement more robust protections and higher conviction rates. But the results are significant, and an example of the opportunity to use future trade agreements, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), to facilitate international reform on important issues.

To fully appreciate Colombia’s changes, it is important to look at the context. For much of the last three decades, Colombia was the most dangerous country in the world for union organizers. Colombia’s unstable political and economic climate fueled a resurgence of crime in the 1980s, and unionists have been caught in the crossfire ever since. But after the Action Plan went into effect, Colombia’s national murder rate and murder rate of unionists have both dropped roughly 7% each year. The Action Plan played a critical role in this crime reduction by boosting police, investigatory, and prosecutorial capacity.

The Action Plan identified nine areas of reform, including the creation of a National Protection Unit for union members threatened with violence. This unit provides bodyguards, armoured vehicles, and other services to union members in the program, and it has successfully kept every program participant safe. The Action Plan also increased the number of police investigators and prosecutors focused on crimes against unionists and labor activists. This led to landmark victories against “intellectual authors” of violence — getting to the source of the organized effort against unions. Not only has the Action Plan dampened crime against unionists, but the improved political and economic situation since the Action Plan has had a positive spillover effect for the overall safety of the country.

In addition to intimidation and violence, anti-labor forces use fake cooperatives to undermine Colombian workers' rights. These cooperatives, established by employers, strongarm employees out of their right to represent themselves and bargain for fair wages and work standards. Colombia committed to several changes in the Action Plan, including banning abusive cooperatives, heavy fines for violations, and more inspectors for better enforcement. Moreover, the Action Plan created a process for employers in violation of the ban to come into compliance, transitioning workers into long-term contracts called “formalization agreements.” The U.S. also helped set up “Workers’ Rights Centers” so workers can better navigate the legal protections available under the Action Plan. As a result, Colombia collected $8 million in fines and the number of cooperatives has significantly decreased — even in industries with the worst labor records, like sugar, which is now more than 90% unionized.

Colombian workers continue to face severe challenges in the workplace, and it remains a dangerous place for union leaders. But as the U.S. strives for policy solutions in the face of complicated and deeply-rooted political entanglements abroad, the Action Plan’s successes highlight how these incremental achievements are also major steps forward for union leaders, its members, and the people of Colombia. Moreover, these successes show how close engagement and detailed action plans negotiated with trade agreements can lead to significant improvements. TPP adopts this lesson. It includes enforceable labor commitments at the heart of the deal, detailed labor consistency plans for Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei, and takes advantage of an important opportunity to improve conditions for 650 million workers throughout the Pacific Rim.