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Colombia: Colombia’s Left Government Is Pursuing Ambitious Labor Reform


Over the past few months, Colombian pop star Shakira’s newest song, “El Jefe,” has taken off throughout Latin America, highlighting the intense economic inequality and exploitation in the region. Perhaps surprisingly, the song has a fan in the upper echelons of power — Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s first leftist president.

First on Twitter/X and later at a rally in Bogotá’s Plaza Bolivar, President Petro expressed that Shakira’s “El Jefe” captures the unequal situation that his government seeks to end in one of its most ambitious projects, an overhaul of Colombia’s labor laws through comprehensive reform. “That is why labor reform is needed,” he tweeted, along with the song’s music video.

Petro was swept to power by a wave of social upheaval — social movements driven largely by Colombia’s dispossessed working class. His labor reform would reintroduce long-lost labor rights, giving workers protections and unions breathing room in a climate dominated for decades by elite and reactionary interests. Unsurprisingly, those conservative and pro-business forces — Colombia’s real-life “Jefes” — are intent on stopping the reform in its tracks.

Neoliberalism a lo Colombiano
Since the 1990s, neoliberal reforms have dealt a serious blow to union density and the political power of the Colombian labor movement. These reforms were coupled with a wave of violence against union leaders in Colombia. In the 1990s and early 2000s, right-wing paramilitaries, supported by the Colombian military, waged war on organized labor as they threatened, kidnapped, murdered, and internally displaced thousands of Colombian unionists amid Colombia’s sixty-year armed conflict.

While the 2016 Peace Agreement between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia–People’s Army (FARC-EP) and the Colombian government brought an official end to one of the world’s longest conflicts, Colombia continues to be one of the worst offenders against labor rights, and among the deadliest countries in which to be a labor leader. The violence paved the way for conservative forces to pass legislation that increased labor market flexibility, deregulated industry, and removed worker protections.

In 2002, during the presidency of Álvaro Uribe, this flexiblization was enshrined into law through regressive reforms to the country’s labor laws. Uribe’s labor reform contributed to the already-growing informal economy by increasing the number of workers hired through precarious short-term contracts, called provision of services contracts. The reform meant that many Colombians would be excluded from labor rights, forced to work for low pay, deprived of benefits, and subject to gender discrimination.

These precarious labor conditions created a ticking time bomb, which exploded in 2021 with the social movements that accompanied that year’s Colombian national strike. The lack of employment stability — combined with strict quarantines that left many without a way to provide for their families, and a tax reform by then president Iván Duque that would have raised the price of goods — brought some of the most oppressed sectors of Colombian society into the streets for months. Millions of Colombians voiced their opposition to neoliberalism and a desire for change to Colombia’s heavily unequal status quo. This movement propelled President Gustavo Petro and Vice President Francia Márquez to victory in June 2022.

Hopes of Reform
President Petro promised to bring about a national agreement between conflicting sectors of Colombian society that would remedy some of the nation’s long-standing problems, from massive inequalities to drug trafficking to the conflict with the National Liberation Army (ELN). A key pillar of Petro’s political program is his ambitious attempt to pass a progressive labor reform through Congress that would remedy much of the precaritization of the Colombian labor force. He appointed a seasoned union leader and member of the Colombian Communist Party, Gloria Inés Ramírez, as labor minister to lead the ministry and the push for reform.

Labor Vice Minister Edwin Palma told Jacobin that the reform can be divided into two principal categories. The first category involves reclaiming the rights that were taken away from workers when the Uribe government passed its labor reforms in 2002. This can be accomplished through stricter regulation and reduction of subcontracting. The second category involves incorporating labor laws that meet the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and International Labour Organization’s (ILO) international labor standards — rights such as freedom of association, the right to organize, and the right to collective bargaining.

Vice Minister Palma emphasized to Jacobin that the government’s proposed labor reform would formalize domestic care, agricultural, and gig platform workers. It would also specifically aim to empower women workers and reduce the gender wage gap.

These much-needed reforms have been welcomed by the Colombian labor movement as a step in the right direction. Fabio Arias, the president of Colombia’s largest labor federation, the Central Union of Workers (CUT), told Jacobin that these reforms could have a positive impact on Colombian workers and unionism in the country by giving them institutional support to ensure that their economic rights are respected by employers. Arias stated, “If the reform is approved, then it could strengthen the movement because it will give us tools and the potential to win our rights afterward.”

However, Marely Cely, a labor lawyer and professor at the Industrial University of Santander, expressed mixed thoughts on the extent to which the reform will have a positive impact on the rights of Colombian workers. She agreed that reform would provide basic protections to Colombian workers, but said it would not diminish any rights or legal protections that corporations have in the country. Cely frankly told Jacobin, “I have to say that the reform lacks so much to constitute any real protection and social transformation. But it is the first step, and it’s an avenue that gets us closer to a reform about limits as well as possibilities.”

The Uphill Battle in Congress
Petro’s proposed reform has faced opposition from entrenched political interests in Congress, where it needs to pass to become law. Petro’s Pacto Histórico coalition does not have a majority in either the House or the Senate. Consequently, while the reform has made progress in Congress, a year and a half into Petro’s mandate it has ultimately failed to pass in two reiterations.

At the end of 2023, a compromise on overtime hours and holiday pay was reached, but the reform still needs to make its way through the lower chamber and then the Senate. Recent comments by Uribe citing the supposed effect that the expansion of workers’ rights would have on business owners, and ridiculously comparing the reform to Venezuela and Cuba, have made clear that the opposition stands firmly against the reform.

However, at the end of 2023, the US embassy sent out a press release expressing support for the reform and noting that it adapts labor law to OECD recommendations, something that was also mentioned by Vice Minister Palma when he spoke to Jacobin. US support may win over some centrist members of Congress who are on the fence about the necessity of the reform, support that is ultimately needed to ensure that the reform passes both chambers of Congress and becomes law.

There is also pressure from inside and outside the government to push for manifestations of popular support, such as a rally that President Petro and allies held in Bogotá and different parts of the country on September 27. Vice Minister Palma spoke of the need for massive mobilizations supporting the reform to put pressure on Congress and business owners to get behind the reform despite the antagonism of the opposition. According to Arias, the CUT’s strategy is similar, aiming to mobilize outside of the government structure and in the streets while creating a social media campaign that can counter the misinformation being spread by elite-owned anti-reform media.

These mobilizations may not only be necessary to ensure the survival of the labor reform in Congress but also the continuation of Petro’s political project. Over the past two months, the opposition has begun to weaponize Colombia’s attorney general and inspector general’s offices — whose heads were appointed by Petro’s right-wing predecessor and have alleged ties to drug trafficking groups — to attack Petro’s agenda and even remove Petro’s foreign minister. This has led President Petro to present a case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and call for international solidarity through tweets in various languages.

If Petro’s labor reform is successful, it would reverse decades of neoliberal policy and conservative opportunism to restore lost rights to Colombian workers. But the climate in Colombia is volatile, and success is far from guaranteed