Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The law provides for the freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right. Some NGOs alleged that riot police (Esmad) used excessive force to break up demonstrations. The CNP reported that from January through August 5, a total of 28 Esmad members were under investigation in connection with 13 cases of excess use of force. The Inspector General’s Office separately reported 94 active disciplinary actions against Esmad during the year. In June a coalition of social organizations began a 16-day march from Popayan to Bogota to draw attention to the violence in rural territories. Participating organizations alleged harassment by police along the way.
On September 9-10, following the killing of Javier Humberto Ordonez Bermudez, there were violent protests in Bogota in response to the alleged excessive use of force by the police. According to media reports, protesters destroyed 50 neighborhood police outposts and at least 10 persons died during two nights of demonstrations. The Ministry of Defense reported that ELN and FARC dissidents infiltrated the protests and provoked violence.
In September, October, and November, labor federations, student groups, and human rights organizations staged a separate set of largely peaceful demonstrations throughout the country to protest a range of social and economic conditions and policies. According to police estimates, there were 142 centers of protest activity countrywide during the September protests, including caravans, marches, and rallies.
Freedom of Association
The law provides for the freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. Freedom of association was limited, however, by threats and acts of violence committed by illegal armed groups against NGOs, indigenous groups, and labor unions.
Although the government does not prohibit membership in most political organizations, membership in organizations that engaged in rebellion against the government, espoused violence, or carried out acts of violence, such as FARC dissidents, the ELN, and other illegal armed groups, was against the law.
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of workers to form and join unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes, and it prohibits antiunion discrimination. Members of associated workers’ cooperatives are not allowed to form unions, since the law recognizes members of a cooperative as owners. The law prohibits members of the armed forces and police from forming or joining unions. The law provides for automatic recognition of unions that obtain 25 signatures from potential members and that comply with a registration process. Public-sector employees have the right to bargain collectively. The government and employers generally respected freedom of association and collective bargaining in practice.
The law permits associated workers’ cooperatives (CTAs), collective pacts, and union contracts. Under collective pacts, employers may negotiate accords on pay and labor conditions with workers in workplaces where no union is present or where a union represents less than one-third of employees. Law and regulations prohibit the use of CTAs and collective pacts to undermine the right to organize and bargain collectively, including by extending better conditions to nonunion workers through such pacts. Through a union contract, a company may contract a union, at times formed explicitly for this purpose, for a specific job or work; the union then in essence serves as an employer for its members. Workers who belong to a union that has a union contract with a company do not have a direct employment relationship with either the company or the union. Labor disputes for workers under a union contract may be decided through an arbitration panel versus labor courts if both parties agree.
The law does not permit members of the armed forces, police, and persons performing “essential public services” to strike. Before conducting a strike, unions must follow prescribed legal procedures, including entering into a conversation period with the employer, presenting a list of demands, and gaining majority approval in the union for a strike. The law limits strikes to periods of contract negotiations or collective bargaining and allows employers to fire trade unionists who participate in strikes or work stoppages ruled illegal by the courts.
The government has the authority to fine labor rights violators. The law stipulates that offenders repeatedly misusing CTAs or other labor relationships shall receive the maximum penalty and may be subject to losing their legal status to operate. Employers who engage in antiunion practices may also be imprisoned for up to five years, although government officials acknowledged a fine was more likely than imprisonment. Prohibited practices include impeding workers’ right to strike, meet, or otherwise associate, and extending better conditions to members of collective pacts than to union members. The penalties under the law, which are commensurate with those prescribed for other violations regarding denials of civil rights such as discrimination, would be sufficient to deter violations but were not levied consistently.
Government enforcement of applicable laws was inconsistent. Despite steps by the Ministry of Labor to strengthen its labor law inspection system, the government did not establish a consistent national strategy to protect the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. The government did not have in place a system to ensure timely and regular collection of fines related to these protections. Structural challenges adversely affected prosecutions, which resulted in a continued high rate of impunity for violators of these rights, including in cases of threats and violence against unionists.
In March and April, the Ministry of Labor passed multiple resolutions requiring the Vice Ministry of Labor Relations and Inspections and other labor law enforcement agencies to comply with national mandates aiming to prevent the spread of COVID-19, as well as to ensure proper oversight of petitions stemming from the labor and employment impacts of the pandemic and national lockdown. These resolutions stipulated that the labor inspectorate suspend activities entailing physical contact with parties during the national health emergency, including field-based inspections and activities of the mobile inspection units as well as hearings related to the conciliation of labor conflicts, with exceptions as determined by regional- and national-level officials. The resolutions also suspended the labor inspectorate’s review and adjudication of labor complaints, including conducting investigations and adjudicating fines and appeals, for violations not directly related to the pandemic, including illegal labor intermediation (abusive subcontracting) and freedom of association violations.
Excepted from these measures were COVID-19-related priorities such as Ministry of Labor outreach on labor law compliance, including on occupational safety and health issues, as well as administrative actions related to petitions regarding layoffs and furloughs stemming from the pandemic and lockdown. The measures established that because furloughs and layoffs had a national economic and social impact, all petitions, including those filed with the ministry’s regional offices, were centralized and handled by the ministry’s Special Investigations Unit for rigorous oversight (see section 7.e.). This unit, which is part of the labor inspectorate, has the power to investigate and impose sanctions in any jurisdiction. Under normal circumstances, the vice minister of labor relations and inspections decides on a case-by-case basis whether to assign the unit or the regional inspectors to investigate a particular worksite or review a particular case. Prior to the onset of COVID-19, the unit was reportedly overburdened with cases, resulting in denials of union requests for review. In September the Ministry of Labor passed a resolution lifting the suspension of the review and adjudication of non-COVID-19-related labor cases.
As part of its commitments under the 2011 labor action plan, the government continued to take steps to protect internationally recognized labor rights. Inspections by the Ministry of Labor for abusive subcontracting in the five priority sectors of palm oil, sugar, ports, mines, and cut flowers were, however, infrequent, prior to the COVID-19-related suspension of inspections. Critics claimed inspections lacked necessary rigor, assessed fines were not collected, and abusive subcontracting continued. Prior to the onset of COVID-19, it was unclear whether there were any new fines assessed for abusive subcontracting or for abuse of freedom of association in any of the five priority sectors. The government continued to engage in regular meetings with unions and civil society groups on these and related issues.
The Ministry of Labor, in collaboration with the International Labor Organization (ILO), continued to train labor inspectors through a virtual training campus to prepare labor inspectors to identify abusive subcontracting and antiunion conduct, among other violations. It also implemented methods, including contract and process maps, as strategic planning tools to prioritize interventions. The ministry continued to employ a telephone- and internet-based complaint mechanism to report alleged labor violations. Union members complained that the systems did not allow citizens to register anonymous complaints and noted that complaints registered through the telephone and internet systems did not result in action.
The Ministry of Labor leads a tripartite Interinstitutional Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Human Rights of Workers, with participation by the government, organized labor groups, and the business community. As of August the commission met virtually two times during the year, once in Bogota and once in Pasto.
Judicial police, the Technical Investigation Body, and prosecutors investigating criminal cases of threats and killings are required to determine during the initial phase of an investigation whether a victim is an active or retired union member or is actively engaged in union formation and organization, but it was unclear whether they did so. It could take several months to transfer cases from regional field offices of the Attorney General’s Office to the Attorney General’s Human Rights Directorate, and cases are transferred only with the approval of the attorney general in response to direct requests, instead of automatically.
The government continued to include in its protection program labor activists engaged in efforts to form a union, as well as former unionists under threat because of their past activities. As of August the NPU was providing protection to 301 trade union leaders or members. Less than 1 percent of the NPU’s budget was dedicated to unionist protection as of August. Between January 1 and July 31, the NPU processed 193 risk assessments of union leaders or members; 150 of those individuals were assessed as facing an “extraordinary threat,” and the NPU provided them protection measures. The NPU reported that the average time needed to implement protection measures upon completion of a risk analysis was 60 days in regular cases or five days for emergency cases. NGOs complained that this length of time left threatened unionists in jeopardy.
The protection and relocation of teachers falls under the Ministry of National Education and the departmental education secretaries, but the NPU retains some responsibilities for the risk analysis and protection of family members. According to the Attorney General’s Office, through July 31, one unionized teacher was registered as a victim of homicide.
In cases of unionist killings from previous years, the pace of investigations and convictions remained slow, and high rates of impunity continued, although progress was made in the rate of case resolution. The Attorney General’s Office reported receiving 217 cases of homicides of unionists between January 2011 and July 2020. Whereas between January 2011 and August 2016, there were 20 sentences for homicides issued, between September 2016 and July 2020, an “elite group” working under a national strategy to prioritize cases of homicides against unionists reached 40 sentences. Labor groups stated more needed to be done to address impunity for perpetrators of violence against trade unionists and the large number of threat cases.
The Attorney General’s Office reported the killing of eight trade unionists through July. In 2019 the Attorney General’s Office reported 10 trade unionists killed, down from 24 in 2018. The National Union School (ENS), a labor rights NGO and think tank, reported 14 trade unionists were killed through August. The ENS and other labor groups stated that focusing on killings alone masked the true nature and scope of the violence against labor activists. Labor groups noted that in some regions, nonlethal violations continued to increase. Through August the ENS reported 38 death threats, nine nonlethal attacks, one case of forced disappearance, and seven cases of harassment.
Violence, threats, harassment, and other practices against trade unionists continued to affect the exercise of the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining.
Unions cited multiple instances in which companies fired employees who formed or sought to form new unions. Some employers continued to use temporary contracts, service agencies, and other forms of subcontracting, including cooperatives, to limit worker rights and protections. Fines assessed by the government did little to dissuade violators because fines were often not collected. The government continued to reach formalization agreements with firms engaged in abusive subcontracting or that had labor conflict during the year. In the first two months of the year, prior to the onset of COVID-19 and the related suspension of administrative actions by the Ministry of Labor, the Vice Ministry of Labor Relations and Inspections reported 62 workers benefited from six formalization agreements that the Ministry of Labor reached with employers in key sectors, including commerce, agriculture, health, and transport. During this time, however, there were no formalization agreements reached in any of the five priority sectors. Labor rights groups expressed concern that previously signed formalization agreements were not sufficiently monitored by the ministry.
Labor confederations and NGOs reported that business owners in several sectors used “simplified stock corporations” (SAS), union contracts, foundations, or temporary-service agencies in attempts to circumvent legal restrictions on cooperatives. While in theory SAS workers may exercise their right to organize and bargain collectively with SAS management, it appeared that in some cases the SAS had little or no control over the conditions of employment. The Ministry of Labor stated that a SAS, like any corporate structure, may be fined for labor violations. Labor confederations and NGOs reported these enforcement actions did not address the scope of abusive subcontracting and illegal labor intermediation in the country.
The port workers’ labor union reported Buenaventura port operators engaged in abusive subcontracting through SAS and that Ministry of Labor inspections and adjudication of cases at the Buenaventura port were ineffective in safeguarding the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining.