New Study Exposes Labour Rights Violations in Northern Colombia

News from Colombia | on: Saturday, 20 November 2010

A coalition of Colombian trade unions and think-tanks specialising in workers’ rights have characterised the situation facing trade unions as “difficult and chaotic” in a new report covering labour relations in two northern Colombian provinces. The study outlines a serious push towards informal employment and the sub-contracting of jobs in Atlantico and Bolivar provinces, and says that such practices have led to inferior working conditions and lower pay for those employed in various different sectors.

Several employers are also accused by the report of engaging in efforts to destroy trade unions both through administrative means as well as via threats. Some companies are said to be blatantly violating Colombian labour laws in their treatment of workers whilst in numerous cases employees are being forced to work longer hours for less pay than in the past.

Some of the cases highlighted include:

  • The Coca-Cola plant in the city of Barranquilla, where the company has allegedly refused to recognise a previously negotiated collective bargaining agreement and is attempting to replace permanent employment contracts with a subcontracting scheme. As a result the company has effectively destroyed the two unions at the plant – SINALTRAINAL and SINALTRAIBEC – and only 33 unionised members of staff now remain; most of who have received death threats warning them to give up their union memberships.
  • The Vikingos and Van Camps Tuna Factory, where 83 members of staff were sacked in August 2010 for joining the food industry union USTRIAL. Managers claimed that those fired had no rights as they had been taken on through temporary employment agencies – despite the fact that they carried out core functions at the factory, a situation that under Colombian law means they should have been on direct permanent contracts.

In addition, some 200 mainly young women working at the factory are suffering from a catalogue of work-related injuries including carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis and tendonitis, as a result of the rapid temperature changes their hands were exposed to. This was exacerbated by long hours standing at machines and a lack of payment for overtime or weekend hours – none of which the company has effectively responded to according to workers at the plant.

  • The Cartagena Port Society, which manages Colombia’s most important sea terminal, the Port of Cartagena, has been accused of using so-called ‘Associated Work Cooperatives’ to employ some 90% of their 2,500 workers in order to avoid having to provide insurance and other benefits to those working in the port. As with the Tuna Factory, Colombian law specifies that since the jobs involved are crucial to the functioning of the Port, rather than being auxiliary functions, and that the workers should therefore be provided with direct permanent contracts.

The use of the ‘Cooperatives’, which are predominantly owned by prominent businessmen, means that those employed at the port suffer terrible working conditions, are not allowed to join unions, and are being paid minimum wage. Despite the high-risk environment at the Port, many employees are not covered by insurance schemes whilst others are forced to purchase their own uniforms and work long shifts without overtime. The report says that those who dare to speak out about such conditions are immediately sacked.

  • At the Tubos del Caribe oil pipeline factory, workers are in dispute with management as the company refuses to negotiate with their union, SINTRATUCAR, preferring instead to negotiate individual contracts with each employee. At least eight workers have been fired for their involvement in the union whilst the key negotiators for the union have received death threats. Whilst the CUT trade union federation has reported the clear anti-trade union activities of the company to the Ministry of Social Protection, there has been no response and the case may now be taken to the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

The report, which is currently only available in Spanish, also focuses on abuses against public sector workers and those involved in the cement industry in the city of Barranquilla. In Cartagena it also looks at the difficulties facing taxi drivers and those employed by the Colombian state oil company Ecopetrol and its subsidiaries which are currently involved in Colombia’s largest industrial project on the outskirts of the city.



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