In Search of Security

The evolution of Colombia’s trade unions 

By Jiahui Hu


[dropcap]C[/dropcap]olombia’s 2011 Citizen Security Law has done little for citizen security, and workers have been the hardest hit.

Under the new legislation, police action against existing labor unions not only intensified, but also spread to grassroots labor organizations. Law enforcement officials have begun jailing even members of La Asociación Nacional de Usuarios Campesinos (ANUC), a coalition of Colombian peasant farmers. Under previous legislation, ANUC would not have even been considered a labor union. Yet clauses in the Citizen Security Law now permit severe police action against not only those organizations that bargain for higher pay for specific employees but also those that attempt to protect their minimal collective rights.

“Under the paradigm of citizen security, police now have the power to prosecute other social grassroots-led organizations that might be characterized as labor unions, but not under old labor laws,” Michael Reed Hurtado, a senior lecturer in Latin American Studies at Yale University, said.

Supported by President Juan Manuel Santos and approved by the Colombian Senate, the bill represents the latest in a long-string of anti-union legislation passed by the Colombian government. With citizens scarred by decades of attacks from right-wing paramilitary groups and left-wing guerrillas struggling for power, the bill’s initial sponsors might have had noble intentions: to promote peace by suppressing group violence.

However, the bill aims to achieve such ends by making even the smallest symptom of an uprising or protest illegal, banning the very means by which people can express their dissatisfaction with and disenfranchisement by the status quo. According to one clause in the bill, anyone commits any act of violence against a public servant can be sentenced to as many as eight years in prison. (There are a staggering 111 articles in total.) In other words, any group, no matter their intention, that bars a road so that a government official cannot pass, or any person who resists a police order to stop protesting, may face years behind bars.

Although the Citizen Security Law is only the largest major setback in workers’ struggle for core labor rights, it is indicative of a larger and more problematic anti-union culture that exists within the Colombian government. Since the end of the 1980s, the government has passed legislation either explicitly or implicitly discouraging union membership.

Beginning in the 1960s, the Colombian government has been fighting to push back left-wing guerrilla groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the right-wing paramilitary groups formed to counter the leftist groups. After almost three decades of civil conflict, the government made a push at the beginning of the 1990s to weaken labor unions because of their leftist character. Law 50 of 1990 was the first prominent legislative blow to labor unions. The legislation sought to reduce unemployment by giving business owners greater freedom in determining workers’ salaries, responsibilities and terminations. Five years later, a protest by Telecóm employees led to the explicit criminalization of social protest.

Further discouraging the growth of labor unions, the Colombian government has supported collective pacts, a practice whereby businesses break up unions by only complying with union demands for workers who agree to leave the union. Although collective pacts were outlawed under a free trade agreement with Great Britain, that stipulation has not been enforced, according to research by Justice For Colombia, a British advocacy group, in the summer of 2014.

Lastly, the Colombian government has both directly carried out and condoned the murder of thousands of union leaders. Since the 1980s, there have been more union-related deaths in Colombia than in any other country. The government has launched investigations into less than a quarter of the murders and less than one percent of all threats directed against union members. Labor rights researchers often suspect that state officials themselves have been directly involved in these killings.

“There is a history of repression in Colombia,” Hurtado said. He noted that, due to the culture of trade unions, labor leaders were prone to be outspoken and would often denounce government corruption. “Unions used to be important. However, they were associated with the left, and union leaders became targeted for non-union reasons, both personal and political.”

Since the 1980s, Colombian union membership has dwindled from around 10 percent of the working population to less than 4 percent.

Yet, Hasan Dodwell, a lawyer with Justice for Colombia, still finds reason to hope. Dodwell cites recent peace negotiations with the FARC as a sign that the government is moving to become more inclusive and allow for a greater range of political dissent. However, he acknowledges that the government’s anti-union practices have become the norm and that there is no reason to become too hopeful before the government makes concrete steps to support unions, such as by ending the culture of impunity surrounding union attacks.

“Trade unions are representative of a wider phenomenon experienced by anyone who has faced murder by the Colombian government,” Dodwell said. “Social activists—whether trade unionists or not—have been targeted.”


Jiahui Hu ’18 is in Pierson College. She can be reached at

Top: A former Colombian coffee farmer now produces plantains due to the effects of climate change (courtesy Flickr user CIAT).