Government’s labour reforms suffer defeat in congress

The ambitious programme of labour reforms presented by Gustavo Petro’s government has suffered a defeat in congress, casting one of the government’s landmark progressive policies into doubt.

The reforms had been developed by the Labour Ministry, headed by Gloria Ramírez, a former teacher trade unionist. The proposed reforms sought to strengthen worker rights, while improving job stability, conditions and pay. Core policies included regulating overtime pay at weekends and nights, clamping down on outsourcing, ensuring stable contracts and ending gender-based discrimination in income and conditions.

The reforms also aimed to strengthen the rights of workers in Colombia’s vast informal sector, which accounts for up to 60 per cent of the workforce. The pandemic further exposed the precarious conditions that millions of workers and their families endure to survive, with women overrepresented in informal areas such as domestic work, care and street vending.  

According to the International Trade Union Confederation, Colombia has some of the poorest worker rights and conditions in the world. Other studies have shown that, while Colombia has around average GDP by Latin American standards, it has the second highest levels of inequality in the region. In other words, wealth is highly concentrated among a relatively small sector of the population.

The government will now likely present an altered set of labour reforms when congress initiates its next session on 20 July. The vote is a blow to trade unions and many others who view the reforms as essential to tackle Colombia’s appalling record on labour rights and inequality. ‘This demonstrates that the will for peace and a social pact does not exist within economic power,’ the president tweeted.

Petro was critical of business elites, who he said had ‘managed to co-opt the congress against the dignity of working people. They believe that gains come from slavery, long working-days and complete labour instability.’ He added that opposition legislators and sections of the press also bore responsibility for the defeat.

Following the vote, government congress members emphasised their determination to pass labour reforms. According to congress member María Fernanda Carrascal, who presented the reform in the congress, ‘we will have a labour reform, we will have dignified and decent work in Colombia.’

There were conflicting opinions as to whether the reforms were finished or whether the government could revive them in so-called extraordinary sessions. The labour reform is one of three reformist pillars advanced by the Petro administration since it took office last August, alongside the health reform, which has already been approved in congress, and the pensions reform.