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2011 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Colombia

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 8 June 2011
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2011 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Colombia, 8 June 2011, available at: [accessed 11 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.

Population: 45,700,000
Capital: Bogotá
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 87 – 98 – 100 – 105 – 111 – 138

Trade unionists in Colombia saw no improvement in their situation in 2010. The number of trade union leaders assassinated remained high (49) while many trade union activists faced death threats and assassination attempts. The legal system continues to be ineffective in solving these murders and bringing those responsible to justice. While the new government claims to take workers' rights seriously, anti-union attitudes among employers remain strong. Numerous violations of collective agreements were reported.


The trade union rights situation has changed in recent years, particularly with regard to the autonomy and independence of trade union organisations. New laws and court rulings have improved protection against anti-union discrimination and interference, the recognition of trade unions and bargaining in the public sector, and have set out clear limits for compulsory arbitration. Freedom of association is also enshrined as a basic right in the Constitution. However, there are problems related to various contractual arrangement s, such as workers' cooperatives, service contracts and civil and commercial contracts, which cover genuine employment relationships but can be used to prevent workers from setting up trade unions.

Furthermore, while the right to collective bargaining is secured, the pension system is not covered by collective bargaining. There is also a possibility to conclude collective "pacts" directly with the workers, which can be used to undermine the position of trade unions.

The right to strike is included in the Constitution, but the law still prohibits federations and confederations from calling strikes. Laws dating back to between 1956 and 1990, which ban strikes, remain applicable to a wide range of public services that are not necessarily essential.


Background: Juan Manuel Santos, former Defence Minister in the Alvaro Uribe government, was elected President of the Republic in May 2010. The new government promised to create 2,500,000 jobs and formalise 500,000, as well as re-establishing the Ministry of Labour. Angelino Garzón, former General Secretary of the United Workers Centre (CUT) and former Minister of Labour, who had spoken out in favour of trade union, was elected vice-President. With structural employment above 12%, about 2,500,000 people are unemployed without any unemployment protection or allowances. Nearly half the unemployed are under 25. The severe winter floods affected some 2 million Colombians. Over 17,000 jobs were lost in the flower growing industry according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Impunity for crimes against trade unionists continues: Impunity remains a very serious problem in the case of crimes against trade unionists. The Public Prosecution Service only investigates 25.5% of murders and less than 3% of cases of other forms of anti-union violence. The number of people sentenced remains so low that the level of impunity for crimes against trade unionists remains at 98%. Investigations carried out by the Prosecution Service's sub-division up to February 2010 provided no significant results. The sub-division had 1,344 cases assigned to it but in reality is only investigating 1,150, because they could not find the physical records for 194 cases.

Between January 2002 and April 2010 the courts recorded 296 sentences, of which 207 were handed down by judges specialised in cases of anti-union violence. These cases concerned 414 victims, of which 254 are trade unionists, and 12 are trade unionists' family members. 148 are people who were victims of anti-union violence, although they have nothing to do with the trade unions. These results show that impunity remains very high despite the increase in the number of sentences handed down. The level of impunity for the crime of forced disappearance is chilling – one sentence in 218 cases, while impunity for non-lethal violence which causes intimidation and restricts freedom of association is virtually 100%.

Collective bargaining marginal: There are over a million companies and 19 million workers in Colombia, but collective bargaining is virtually a marginal activity. The negotiation of collective agreements has fallen over the last eight years. The Colombian government has done nothing to encourage free collective bargaining, conducted in good faith. The widespread anti-union attitude of employers, whose practices run contrary to good faith and free and voluntary bargaining, continues with no legal or administrative tools to adequately or effectively promote collective bargaining rights.

Exercising the right to strike as a trade union and social act: The increase in protest action by non-unionised and informal sector workers seen in previous years continues. This action has involved drivers, including lorry drivers and dump truck drivers, moto-taxi drivers, footballers, the 2,000 recyclers who protested in Bogota, informal vendors and traders in various Colombian cities, informal sector petrol vendors and porters in border regions near Venezuela. In Medellin and its surrounding area alone, there were 15 protests by urban bus drivers over constant extortion and the violations of their life, liberty and personal safety.

The strike in February at the DPA-Nestlé milk multinational (formerly Cicolac, also run by Nestlé) by about 140 workers lasted for 40 days and was in protest at the company's refusal to reach a settlement on a list of demands presented in December 2009. The strike was accompanied by a media offensive aimed at putting pressure on and discrediting the workers in the eyes of the public while denying them the right of reply.

In October the Association of Sick Drummond Employees (ASOTREDP) held a protest outside the Ministry of Social Protection to denounce the serious health problems affecting them as a result of their work as miners. Miners from the Sinifana coal mining region in south east Antioquia also held demonstrations in protest at the tragedy in Amagá in June 2010 in which 74 miners lost their lives.

Members of the mine and energy workers union SINTRAMIENERGETICA employed by the Carbones de La Jagua coalmine, owned by the Swiss multinational Glencore, began a 40 day strike in June in the town of La Jagua de Ibirico, Cesar department, which ended with the signing of a collective agreement. Several demonstrations took place in September in the towns of Segovia and Remedios, Antioquia department, culminating in a civil strike involving the populations of both towns, to defend the workers' ownership of the Frontino Gold Mines company. These events highlight the serious problems in the mining industry and their disastrous consequences for the environment, the local population and national interests, undermined by those of multinational capital.

Repeated failure to comply with ILO recommendations: There is no legal tool to ensure compliance with the recommendations of the ILO's supervisory bodies. It is up to the goodwill of the government to take the necessary measures to prevent or overcome violations of the trade union rights conventions. Trade union organisations will again have to initiate legal proceedings to seek compliance with ILO recommendations. In the case of the Red Cross workers' union, Sintracruzroja Colombia, which submitted a complaint to the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association in 2004, legal proceedings were taken against the government's failure to comply. The government has been awaiting a final ruling from the Supreme Court since 31 March 2009.

Violence against the trade union movement persists: Violence against the trade union movement continued in 2010. A total of 443 violations of the right to life, liberty and physical integrity are proof that an environment conducive to the free exercise of trade union rights has not yet been established in Colombia. 49 assassinations, 20 attempted assassinations and forced disappearances are an obvious demonstration that the intention to exterminate the trade unions and their leaders still exists. Added to this are the threats, forced displacements, harassment, kidnappings, illegal raids and arbitrary detentions which together amount to the systematic persecution of trade unionists and trade union activity in the country.

Assassinations of trade unionists: A total of three women and 45 men were assassinated in 2010, 16 of whom were trade union leaders, in other words one third of the murders were targeted at union leaders. The unions most affected were the Colombian Federation of Educators (FECODE), with ten cases, the second was the National Penitentiary and Prison Workers Trade Union Association (ASEINPEC) with three, then the National Transport Workers' Union (SNTT) and the South Bolivar Agro-mining Federation (FEDEAGROMISBOL) with two victims each. The new government is pushing a law on victims through congress which will set out a more favourable legal framework for demanding the respect of the rights of victims from the trade union movement.

On 5 June, Hernán Abdiel Ordóñez Dorado, leader of the National Penitentiary and Prison Workers Trade Union Association (ASEINPEC) was murdered in Cali. Ordóñez had denounced possible corruption by the management of the women's prison in his city and had been the target of threats and an assassination attempt. Despite an earlier request by the General Labour Confederation (CGT) for security protection, there had been no response from the authorities.

On 17 June, Nelson Camacho González, a maintenance worker at the Ecopetrol refinery, and member of the Petroleum Industry Workers Union (USO), was assassinated. His murder took place against a background of threats against the trade union movement in the Magdalena department, in the form of pamphlets and communiques issued by the paramilitary, against social and trade union organisations, including USO.

On 13 August, Luis Germán Restrepo Maldonado, President of the Packing Company Workers Union (SINTRAEMPAQUES) and a prominent leader of the CGT in Antioquia, was assassinated. This murder was particularly serious given that it was of a high ranking union leader who was well known for defending his political and trade union views in various national and international forums.

On 9 September Nelson Murillo Taborda, a member of the executive board of the Meta Independent Agricultural Workers' Union (SINTRAGRIM) was assassinated. He was attacked by someone who identified themselves as a member of the self-defence league, then fired several shots. He was killed in front of his wife.

On the same day Segundo Salvador Forero, a member of the teachers' union EDUCAL, was assassinated in Anserma, Caldas. The union had requested that the Caldas Education Ministry grant him the status of a threatened person which would have given him the right to be transferred, to save his life. The request was not granted.

20 attacks and attempted assassinations: There were 20 attacks and attempted assassinations during the year, principally against members of the mining unions, the Petroleum Industry Workers Union (USO) and the Mining and Energy Industry Workers' Union SINTRAMIENERGETICA, with three victims from each.

In July Alejandrino Betancur, president of the Antioquia mineworkers' union SINTRAMINEROS, in Amagá, received a death threat by telephone. The threats were made after he had taken steps vis a vis the companies that own Industrial Hullera, in an attempt to resolve an industrial dispute that had been running for over 13 years.

On 16 December threats were made against the presidents of the Universities of Colombia National Workers' Union (SINTRAUNICOL) and the University Professors Trade Union Association (ASPU) and the vice-president of SINTRAUNICOL in a pamphlet signed by the "Bloque Central Los Paisas" paramilitary group. The threats came while SINTRAUNICOL was demanding guarantees for the public employees of the University of Colombia and during a pilot process of collective reparation following the paramilitary takeover of the university as an institution, during the last decade.

Attacks on trade union premises: Several trade union premises were attacked during the year. On 10 February, the premises of the Electricity Workers Union of Colombia (SINTRALECOL) and the United Teachers Union of Caldas (EDUCAL) in Manizales were targeted, with threats that identified their members as military targets. In July shots were fired at the windows of the premises of the National Hospital Workers' Association of Colombia ANTHOC and the United Workers Centre (CUT) in Villa Vicencio, Meta.

Attacks on workers during industrial action: In January, 185 workers from the Palo Alto farm, owned by Gnecco Espinos Palo Alto Investments, in Ciénaga, Magdalena, were forcibly removed from their workplace by gunfire, which left one of the workers injured. The armed men asked for two workers, José Luis Soto Jaramillo y Juan Carlos Torres Muñoz, both leaders of the National Agri-business Workers Union (SINTRAINAGRO). The incident took place during a period of union action to protest against the non-payment of salaries and other emoluments.

Later several workers who had taken part in a strike were threatened, and in May Francisco Antonio Abello Rebollo was assassinated, despite the intervention of the United Workers' Centre (CUT) before the President and Vice-President of the Republic, and the Ministry of Social Protection of the Interior and Justice, to denounce the potential risks faced by workers.

Court ruling C-614 of 2009 not complied with: The Constitutional Court has stated that service contracts and associated labour cooperatives (CTA) violate the labour rights of workers employed by the State when they prevent them from freely exercising their trade union rights.

Mass dismissal of public employees: When the new government came to power, the National Customs and Taxation Department announced the dismissal of 1,012 "superfluous" workers, on the grounds of budget cuts. There had been no meaningful consultation with the trade unions. The cuts go against the good faith agreements that had been reached with the unions and the previous director in earlier years on expanding the staff (those with a formal employment relationship) and the payment of bonuses.

Dismissed for creating a trade union organisation: The Peruvian multinational soft drinks company AJE COLOMBIA S.A. dismissed the leaders of the workers' union SINTRA AJE COLOMBIA S.A. without just cause, as soon as the union was formed. The company also signed a collective agreement that only benefitted non-unionised workers, initiating the lifting of the union protection clause (fuero sindical) which led to the withdrawal of the list of demands by the union organisation and ended their collective bargaining.

Widespread lack of good faith among employers over collective bargaining: Throughout 2010 there were serious cases of anti union policies in which employers opposed the unionising of their workers and any collective bargaining. Some examples come from the transport of valuables sector: Domesa and Prosegur; from the mining industry in Guajira and Cesar: Drummond, Chaneme Comercial S.A., Glencore, and Carbones de l Jagua; in the oil industry: Gran Tierra Energy and Emerald Energy (Canadian multinationals that drill for oil in the Putumayo Department) British Petroleum and Ocensa; in the food and drinks industry: Coca Cola, Sodexo, Proleche and Parmalat, and Coolechera; in the transport sector: Copetran, Fenoco; in the financial sector: Banco de Bogotá and BBVA, and in the flower growing sector Naneti/Sunburst Floramérica.

Workers from Gran Tierra Energy and Emerald Energy, in Illagarzón, Puerto Limón, Puerto Guzmán and Puerto Umbría, submitted a list of demands for the improvement of their working conditions, the hiring of workers from the region, and on investment policies for the region. The list was presented jointly with community representatives, social leaders and town councillors. Demonstrations and rallies were held from 19 April onwards to press for dialogue with the representatives of the multinationals, to no avail. On 9 June, the national police force's Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (Esmad) attacked demonstrators in Villagarzón with gas and rubber bullets, leaving at least 10 people injured.

The National Education Ministry's Workers' Union (SINTRENAL) in Cauca, the Putumayo Educators' Trade Union Association (ASEP) and the District and Municipal Public Servants Union of Colombia (UNES) are some of the unions whose bargaining rights are being undermined.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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