The Petro government’s social reforms: what is their current status?

Tackling the gaping inequality that mires millions of people in economic difficulties was one of the driving factors behind the election of President Gustavo Petro’s Historic Pact coalition in June 2022. The progressive government’s social reforms package – focused on healthcare, worker rights, pensions and education – seeks to address material realities faced by many people in the country. The reforms have fared more successfully in certain areas than others, as the government battles to pass them into law. 

Here is an overview of the current status of each of the government’s social reforms.

1) Healthcare reform

The health reform was shelved by a senate vote on 3 April, a development which has since informed the government’s efforts to achieve compromises with opposition groups.

The vote against the reform took place one day after the government assumed administration of health insurance providers, known as EPS. Workers in Colombia pay regular instalments into state-run funds which are then distributed via these insurers to hospitals, clinics and other entities. For the pro-business opposition, the reduction of the private sector’s role has been one of the healthcare reform’s most contentious components.

The government will resubmit the healthcare reform in the next legislative session, likely with amendments that supporters hope will achieve its approval. This could include a loosening of government oversight to allow a level of private involvement. This comes amid increasing financial losses among EPS, which are resulting in rising costs for the public. In December 2023, the healthcare reform had gained approval in the lower congressional chamber, known as the House of Representatives. Among its core provisions were an expansion of healthcare services into regions affected by long-term state neglect; increased public financing for the health service; improved conditions for workers; public input into decision-making processes; transparent management of finances and resources to weed out corruption; and national development of vaccine production.

2) Labour reform

In a vote on 18 June, two days ahead of the deadline, Colombia’s congress approved the labour reform bill but removed key articles relating to the right to strike and collective bargaining, generating criticism from trade unions. The bill has faced sustained challenges from government opponents as it seeks to improve conditions for Colombian workers, who, according to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), endure some of the weakest labour rights in the world.

In total, 82 articles were approved and 22 eliminated. This was done to achieve the support of independent congress members whose votes were necessary for the bill’s approval. While a further three debates lie ahead before it can be passed into law, this is the first concrete advance of the reform in over a year.

The bill recognises night work – and the extra pay attached to it – as now beginning from 7pm rather than the existing system’s 9pm. It guarantees minimum wage to young people in state-run SENA apprenticeships. It obliges employers to provide stable, long-term contracts and reduce outsourcing. Paternity leave for fathers is extended from two to six weeks. It also regulates working hours and contracts for over one million agricultural workers.

Elsewhere, there is stricter regulation of worker rights at digital platforms such as Uber and Rappi, a food delivery application. It requires companies to provide contracts or recognise the worker as independent.

However, while the labour reform strengthens the individual rights of workers, articles relating to collective rights were removed from the final version. Among these was a ban on non-unionised workers forming pacts with companies – which is a means to incentivise unionisation – an end to the 68-day strike limit, parity of representation for men and women in labour organisations and guarantees over the right to strike for workers in ‘essential services’.

Highlighting the protection of trade union rights under ILO legislation, Colombia’s three main trade union federations, the CUT, the CTC and the CGT, expressed dismay at the removal of the articles. ‘For an institution of democracy like the congress to eliminate the collective aspect from the labour reform is an attack on that very democracy,’ they said in a joint statement. They also condemned the influence of opposition politicians and the business sector as having backtracked on assurances over trade union rights made as part of the country’s entry into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, while highlighting decades of shocking violence suffered by the national trade union movement and the call for collective reparations.

The labour reform’s next debate will take place in Colombia’s forthcoming legislative period, which opens on 20 July. The government will likely seek to reinstate articles on collective bargaining, while opposition parties will continue to represent business interests.

3) Pensions reform

On 14 June, the pension reform was approved in congress by 86 votes to 32, making it the first of the social reforms to be fully approved. It will come into effect on 1 July 2025. Currently, only one in four workers qualifies for a pension, reflecting the high levels of inequality that impact Colombian society. This leaves many people in economic difficulty as they enter old age.

The government calculates that the reform provides coverage to around 2.6 million retirees, a significantly higher number than currently receive pensions. It covers the many Colombians left unable to make pension contributions during their working lives due to low pay, informal work, unemployment, poverty and other economic factors. Millions of workers are unable to pay into a pension prior to the official retirement age of 62 for men and 57 for women.

Pensions will also be administered in part via a state fund rather than the private entities that have been used until now. A person’s contribution obligations depend on their financial status. Anyone earning up to 2.3 times the minimum wage will be required to make contributions to the Colpensiones public fund, while those earning higher salaries will be able to pay earnings over that figure into private funds.

There are specific benefits for women. For each child, up to three children, women can deduct 50 weeks of pension contributions. The number of weekly contributions for women to qualify for a state pension is reduced to 1,000 (compared with 1,300 for men). Workers who have not reached the stipulated number of weeks will receive a state pension of close to £50 per month. Workers who are approaching retirement age are exempt from the new criteria.  

4) Education reform

Prior to its shelving on 20 June, the education reform was formed around the premise of ‘education as a fundamental right’. Among the principal aims is the guarantee of access to schooling for children in vulnerable situations, such as those affected by conflict or poverty. It expands university access for students from low-income backgrounds and proposes increased financing of public institutions. Tackling school dropout rates and ensuring all children graduate is another focus.

However, the Federation of Colombian Educators (FECODE), Colombia’s largest single-sector trade union organisation, declared its opposition to the bill after governing legislators reached a consensus with opposition politicians on 5 June. This required the government to accept a series of modifications to the bill that were strongly rejected by FECODE. This saw ten days of national teacher strikes that closed schools to protest what FECODE argued did not reflect agreements it had reached with the government. Principal among the federation’s concerns was what it called ‘enabling the privatisation and marketing’ of the education system, an issue central to its trade union campaigning.

The decision by the Historic Pact bloc in congress to withdraw the bill demonstrates the government’s willingness to listen to its support base. At the same time, it emphasises the highly complex challenge of meeting the demands of that base with the need to navigate a congress in which the lack of a government majority necessitates pursuing agreements with other political groups.

As with the healthcare reform, the education reform bill will now likely be resubmitted during the next legislative period.