AFL-CIO Makes Two Major Labor Conflicts a Test of Labor Action Plan with Colombia

Source: USLEAP

In a November 3, 2011 letter to Presidents Obama and Santos, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called for a peaceful resolution of two major labor conflicts in Colombia, at Campo Rubiales and Puerto Wilches, calling them a test of whether a Labor Action Plan agreed to in April 2011 represents more than paper commitments.

Signing of the controversial Labor Action Plan paved the way for Congressional approval of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement in mid-October but worker rights supporters including USLEAP argued that Congress should have given the Colombian government time to demonstrate the Plan’s effectiveness before voting.  An October 4, 2011 internal AFL-CIO memo that was leaked shortly before the vote found serious deficiencies with the Plan’s implementation to date while a report this fall from the leading Colombian NGO on worker rights, the National Labor School, also found little progress on worker rights since the signing of the Plan.

President Obama has stated that he will delay activation of the agreement until “key elements” of the Labor Action Plan have been implemented.   The Administration has not revealed what these “key elements” consist of (and, conversely, what elements of the Plan are not considered “key”).  

USLEAP believes that the Administration should take advantage of this last opportunity before activation of the trade agreement to push for, at a minimum, complete and full implementation of the Labor Action Plan, as well as the resolution of the Campo Rubiales and Puerto Wilches conflicts.

The Colombian government’s handling of a long-running conflict at Campo Rubiales suggests that the government is feeling unconstrained now that the FTA has been approved by Congress.  Prior to the vote, Colombian Vice President Angelino Garzon facilitated talks between the oil workers union USO and the Pacific Rubiales company over an effort to organize a union and secure a contract at the company’s Campo Rubiales operation.   Ten days after the FTA was approved, the company on October 24, 2011 announced it would fire 500 workers, prompting a work stoppage. 

The Colombian government responded by sending in hundreds of troops, including assault commandos, army, and police units, and, according to the Trumka letter, threatening workers at gunpoint “to leave or face imprisonment or worse.”  Six leaders are under threat, for whom the AFL-CIO is seeking immediate protection.  Other workers are being told that they can return to work only if they join the company union, says the letter, which states, “Rather than supporting the right to freely associate and collectively bargain, the government appears to be responding to legitimate and peaceful labor protest at Campo Rubiales with a military approach.”

The second conflict highlighted by the letter calls into question the Labor Action Plan’s commitment to eliminating the abuse of cooperatives to deny workers their basic rights, which both governments highlighted as one of the most important advances under the Labor Action Plan.  Workers at four plantations in the palm sector at Puerto Wilches have for two months been on strike.  One key issue is the misuse of cooperatives and elimination of illegal sub-contracting.  The union, Sintrainagro, has obtained from the palm oil employers association a document that explicitly states the employers do not consider cooperatives illegal and cooperatives “exist and will continue to exist at Puerto Wilches.”  On September 21, 2011, Sintrainagro asked for intervention by the Ministry of Social Protection but as of November 3, the Ministry had reportedly failed to act in accordance with the commitments made under the Labor Action Plan to eliminate the use of cooperatives to deny workers their basic rights.  The International Union of Foodworkers has been leading international solidarity work in support of the Puerto Wilches workers.

The government’s handling of these two cases, involving two of Colombia’s most important and biggest unions in two of the country’s key sectors, is, as the AFL-CIO argues, a key test of both government’s commitment to worker rights in the post-FTA vote era.

Other LAP deficiencies include companies replacing cooperatives with other forms of indirect employment to deny workers their basic rights, failure to develop a “robust enforcement regime” to address use of temporary service agencies to deny workers their rights, and the unexplained dismissal of hundreds of requests by trade unionists for inclusion in protection programs.