Report Confirms Anti-union Climate

News from Colombia | on: Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The Colombian 'National Trade Union School', the ENS, has released the results of a study of the working conditions of public and private sector workers in Bogota and the department of Cundinamarca which surrounds the capital. This report provides a grim snapshot of the situation in the country as a whole, concluding that the majority of the unions studied had conflicts with employers.

In the public sector the report looks at the situation within the Ministry of Social Protection, which employs 1800 workers who regulate and oversee labour regulations and their implementation. The ENS notes that the unions within the Ministry had submitted a list of proposals over 20 months ago, but had received no response. Moreover the former Minister, Diego Palacio, refused to meet the unions to discuss them. These proposals covered issues such as the vast wage differentials within the Ministry, where workers doing the same jobs were often being paid different amounts. They also note that many workers are severely overworked, and moreover live with significant job insecurity since there is a proposal in Congress to split the Ministry in two.

The ENS also looked at the situation within the health sector in the region and found that repression and the incremental privatisation of the health service had led to the decimation of the public sector unions and a worsening of public health provision. In this sector unions also noted the existence of large wage differentials and late payment of salaries.

The situation of public sector workers in Colombia has been severely affected by the infamous Law 617 of 2000, which behind the fig-leaf of fiscal efficiency established limits on the amounts that departments and municipalities could pay their staff, leading to the lay-off of 10 000 public sector workers in Bogota alone. Furthermore, the severe repression of public sector workers’ unions has compounded the difficulties unions face in confronting the labour conditions.

In the private sector things are even worse both in foreign-owned and domestic companies. In the group of metallurgical firms owned by the Brazilian Grupo Gerdau, unions accuse the multinational of working to close down existing plants in order to hire a new, non-unionised workforce. This is the case in Andinos steel plant, where only 43 of 340 workers remain, although they are not being allowed to work, since the company halted production on the site in October 2009, in the hope that the workers will eventually leave. In another plant owned by the Group, workers have had no salary increment since 2009 and 55 workers have been fired. Such events have led trade unions to accuse the company of imposing a systematic anti-union policy throughout the firms that it owns in Colombia.

In the banking sector unions accuse Citibank and HSBC of not fulfilling the collective agreements reached between unions and the banks. In the Colombian subsidiary of Spanish bank BBVA, the bank has imposed a collective pact which has been signed by half of the workers. The collective pact currently matches the terms and conditions of the collective agreement negotiated by the UNEB trade union, but the condition of signing the pact has been for the workers to leave the union. Furthermore, new employees are blocked from joining the union and a large proportion of them are now sub-contracted workers.

In other companies the management also pressure workers to sign collective pacts, providing workers with incentives to leave the unions they are affiliated to, resulting in falling trade union membership. In several companies these pacts are signed despite the fact that workers had saved the companies from ruin by investing their savings in them. In Ave Colombiana, an electrical goods company employing 180 workers, such action had resulted in the agreement that the company would pay an annual bonus to the workforce, a bonus that the firm no longer wants to pay, and which it hopes to be able to end by forcing the workers to sign a collective pact.

In another Venezuelan-owned firm the workforce created a trade union in April 2010, and the next day its entire leadership was fired, except the union president. A series of legal actions followed, but the leadership has yet to be reinstated. In the textile sector unionised workers are being laid off, and in one case unionised workers are prevented from working the higher-paying night shifts or overtime, which seriously affects their income. In other firms the workforces suffer from chronic late payment of wages and the imposition of collective pacts used to undermine the trade unions.

The union study shows that in Bogota and the surrounding region conditions in both the public and private sector are extremely difficult, with workforces overworked and little job security. The ability of unions to represent workers’ interests is severely curtailed by legislation and by repression, and an anti-union culture.

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