Last Updated: Monday, 18 December 2017, 09:48 GMT

The Global State of Workers' Rights - Colombia

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 31 August 2010
Cite as Freedom House, The Global State of Workers' Rights - Colombia, 31 August 2010, available at: [accessed 18 December 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Unions in Colombia are legal but operate under severe constraints. Less than 5 percent of the workforce is unionized, and 60 percent of the labor pool works in the informal sector. The technical process of establishing a union is relatively straightforward under Colombian law. In 2008, the Constitutional Court ruled that filing union registration documents with the Ministry of Social Protection is sufficient to establish a union's legal status. Collective bargaining is permitted but has declined in recent years, for two main reasons. The first is that public-sector workers, who represent an ever-increasing share of the unionized workforce, are barred from negotiating collective-bargaining agreements. The second is the proliferation of subcontractors, cooperatives, and other business structures that provide greater labor flexibility and are seldom if ever unionized. The right to strike is ensured by law, but strikes are increasingly ineffective due to the government's ability to refer disputes to arbitration after 60 days. Vocal labor activists, especially organizers and strike leaders, commonly face retaliation, including dismissal.

The most fundamental limitation on worker rights is violence. More trade unionists are murdered in Colombia than in any other country. Since 1986, over 2,500 union members have been killed, although the figure of 39 (or 28 according to government statistics) for 2009 was significantly lower than the annual totals during the peak of violence in the 1990s. Impunity remains the norm for these killings, with 95 percent of documented cases left unsolved.

The rise in killings of trade unionists coincided with the rise of right-wing paramilitary groups in the 1980s and 1990s, and these groups are considered responsible for over 60 percent of the murders. Another 30 percent are blamed on the country's leftist guerrillas, who assassinate union members as part of their struggles for ideological and economic domination. The remaining killings are perpetrated by a variety of culprits, including members of the security forces. The government has at times described many of the murders as the result of either common crime or guerrilla infiltration of unions. However, unions claim that a majority of murders and threats occur in the context of labor strife and note that many of those killed are union leaders, not rank-and-file members. Unions and human rights groups also assert that spurious legal charges and rhetorical attacks against unionists by state officials have contributed to an environment that is conducive to violence.

In 2006, the government formed a special unit within the prosecutor's office to focus on union slayings. It had obtained 189 convictions by the end of 2009. Still, a backlog of over 1,300 cases remains to be prosecuted. In addition to murders, many union activists have faced death threats, displacement, kidnapping, and torture. Teachers were the unionized workers most likely to suffer violent attacks; 15 of the union members murdered during 2009 were teachers.

Although the law permits collective bargaining, it is limited in practice by the country's low union membership. In addition to antilabor violence, union strength is weakened by the large informal sector, high unemployment, and antiunion attitudes among employers and some sectors of the state. In 2008, less than 1 percent of the workforce was covered by a collective-bargaining contract.

Copyright notice: © Freedom House, Inc. · All Rights Reserved

Search Refworld