A Working Class Victory on Colombia’s Horizon


An article by Omar Ocampo in Inequality.org (Content licensed under a Creative Commons 3.0 License)

The Seventh Committee of the House of Representatives voted to approve 16 of the 98 articles of the landmark Labor Reform bill right before the start of winter recess. The bill will now advance to a second round of legislative debates that will resume next month.

This is great news for the workers movement: Labor reform represents one of the three flagship policy proposals of the Petro-Márquez administration that seeks to equitably transform society. The bill will not only restore the labor rights that were rescinded a little over twenty years ago by a far-right government — it will go a step further and expand these rights.

The road to reform thus far has not been easy. Since the bill was first introduced last March, it predictably encountered fierce opposition from the business community and its political representatives. Those corporate stakeholders argued that the bill distributes benefits to an already privileged class of formalized and unionized workers.

But as researcher Santiago Garcés Correa highlighted in an article for the magazine 100 Días, such depictions do not accurately portray the lived experiences of the Colombian working-class. Petro’s labor reform platform is a reflection of workers’ daily grievances and struggles.

Over the past few years, pro-reform advocates have organized sit-ins, work stoppages, and protests — both at a local and national level — against the increased prevalence of subcontracting, outsourcing, and anti-union corporate practices.

Palmosan S.A.S., a palm oil company in Santander, for example, fired 48 of its employees after its workforce formed a trade union, Sintrapalmosan, and voted to go on a strike when the company refused to negotiate a list of labor demands. The strike ended after six months with the signing of a collective agreement between both parties, but Palmosan only relented after the Ministry of Labor intervened in the dispute and a district court ruled in the union’s favor.

While all workers recognize the need for reform, some sectors felt differently about the solutions at hand. Despite such a difficult and unfavorable environment for organizing, workers in the digital platform sector initially expressed their disapproval of the Labor Reform bill.

Simón Borrero Posada, the CEO of the super-app Rappi — an on-demand delivery service popular in Colombia — gave a series of interviews rife with misleading statements. Posada asserted that the Labor Reform bill would force the company to hire digital platform workers full-time, thus eliminating the flexibility that so many rappitenderos currently enjoy. The problem with this statement? No such stipulation existed in the reform bill.

Still, five hundred Rappi employees organized a small protest in the capital city of Bogotá in March of 2023. Their principal demand was a rejection of a forced full-time contract. The corporate media took full advantage of the spectacle and pushed the narrative that workers and employers share an interest in rejecting the Labor Reform bill.

Right-wing opposition parties — led by Cambio Radical and el Centro Democrático — kept up the pressure and mobilized more than 90,000 of their supporters in street demonstrations to register their discontent with Petro’s entire reform agenda.

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Question(s) related to this article:
The right to form and join trade unions, Is it being respected?

What is happening in Colombia, Is peace possible?

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By the time the Labor Reform bill reached the Seventh Committee of the House of Representatives in June, it was dead on arrival. Lawmakers did not even get the opportunity to debate the bill since the committee failed to reach quorum. As a result, the Labor Reform bill was shelved, amounting to a major setback for the Petro-Márquez administration and allied reformers.

To the surprise of many, a slightly modified version of the Labor Reform bill was filed at the end of August and, when properly debated, it advanced to the next stage of the legislative process. 

The business community still objects to the increased labor costs attendant to the expansion of workers’ rights and claim this will hinder the formalization of the informal sector. In other words, it will discourage business owners from hiring workers who currently “operate outside of the regulatory and tax systems.” But formalization will not occur significantly unless dignified employment and social protection programs are offered. 

The 16 approved articles of the Labor Reform bill are substantive. Night shifts will now begin at 7:00 PM instead of 9:00 PM (Article 15). People who work on Sundays and holidays will now have their overtime pay rate increased (Article 19). 

Employers who discriminate on the basis of sex, gender identity, race, age, economic background, and health history will face drastic penalties (Article 21). Digital platform food delivery workers will receive social security through health and pension contributions by the platform companies for whom they work (Article 30). 

Colombia will offer new training programs for rural work (Article 37). And migrants will bear the same labor rights as citizens (Article 42). 

Right before the New Year, a scandal erupted at a tuna factory in Cartagena. Van Camp’s, a firm operated by Seatech International, was making women workers feel obligated to wear diapers on the job — bathroom breaks are tallied and deducted from their pay.  

The Labor Minister Gloria Inés Ramírez publicly denounced the multinational firm, which has denied the allegations and threatened legal action against the minister. Colombia’s right-wing opposition has rallied to the firm’s defense, but testimonies from employees seem to confirm the minister’s public declarations. 

Besaiga Raga, who has worked for Seatech International for 13 years, said that many of her colleagues are “choosing to put on a disposable diaper” because they “cannot afford to forfeit the little that they earn to the company” by taking a bathroom break.

“It is not easy to go to the restroom,” added Berky Arrieta Garcia. “There are not enough toilets for the number of women who work there. Sometimes it takes 20-25 minutes, even up to half an hour, because we have to form a queue to go to the toilet.”

The Van Camp’s diaper debacle — still playing out — exemplifies why higher labor standards are urgently needed in Colombia. The Labor Reform bill is a crucial means of improving the bargaining position and labor conditions of Colombian workers. And its advancement in Congress is an overdue victory that the Colombian working-class should achieve and celebrate in 2024.

The author, Omar Ocampo, is a researcher for the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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