Petro’s government achieves a limited victory on its Labor Reform Bill

The country’s trade union confederations condemned that several key articles were removed from the reform during negotiations in Congress

June 19, 2024 by Pablo Meriguet
Legislators in the Seventh Commission after approving the Labor Reform. Photo: Minister of Labor

The Labor Reform proposed by the progressive government of Gustavo Petro achieved a significant victory on Tuesday June 18 after a year of difficulties. With 14 votes in favor and four against, the Seventh Commission of the House of Representatives approved the Bill that intends to improve some labor conditions decimated by decades of neoliberal governments in Colombia. The bill was supported by the Historic Pact party, Comunes Party, the Green Party, Liberal Party, and some more votes from Partido de la U and certain conservative legislators. Cambio Radical and Centro Democrático voted against.

A few days after the approval of the Pension Reform, this first approval of the law (which still needs to be debated three more times to become operational) is a significant victory for the government, taking into account that both bills had been soundly defeated for a whole year. The Ministry of Labor celebrated the decision of the Seventh Commission: “Workers’ rights are advancing! For decent and dignified work…”. In declarations to RTCV Noticias, the Minister of Labor, Gloria Ramírez Ríos emphasized that with this first step, Colombia is taking “a restitution of workers’ rights”.

The Labor Reform seeks, among other things, to establish a maximum working week of 42 hours, as well as the prohibition of working more than eight hours a day. In this sense, it will also seek to reduce the night shifts by two hours. Other changes that the Labor Reform seeks to incorporate are the fair payment of extra working hours and the payment of holidays and Sundays, and the affiliation to the Social Security of the delivery personnel of digital applications. The bill also outlines that fired workers be compensated as long as they have been dismissed without just cause; it also stipulates that the indefinite-term contract be the base model for new hires, although the development of new types of contracts is not ruled out.

Likewise, it seeks to recognize the work of apprentices in any trade through the formalization of the apprenticeship contract, whose salary may not be less than one minimum wage. The gender focus is one of the most important aspects of the law: it is intended to establish days off for people who suffer from incapacitating menstruation, as well as leave for same-sex couples who adopt children. It is important to highlight that the Labor Reform seeks to formalize the work of more than one million peasants who currently work informally.

However, in order to promote the debate of the law and reach agreements with other political parties, the Executive had to abandon some of its most important proposals (22 articles of the law were eliminated), specifically those related to the establishment of workers’ collective rights. The guarantees that were intended to be offered to unions and workers who went on strike were left aside. Petro’s government also sought to prohibit collective bargaining between non-unionized workers and companies.

In a communique, the three major unions of Colombia, the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Colombia (CUT), the Confederación General del Trabajo (CGT) and the Confederación de Trabajadores de Colombia (CTC) deeply regretted the elimination of these 22 articles, since they affirm that the conquest of collective and union rights (which are contemplated in several international agreements that Colombia has signed but does not comply with) allows the construction of a true democracy: “to eliminate from the labor reform the collective part from an institution of democracy such as the Congress is an attack against democracy itself”. The communique also stresses that the recognition of these rights and the conquest of an authentic union freedom, would safeguard the lives of organized workers from the “severe anti-union violence”, which, in the last 40 years, has claimed the lives of more than 3,350 people. “We condemn the sectors and parties, which oppose the process of democratic transition, the social reforms of the government of change of Gustavo Petro,” continues the communique.

The road to approve the Labor Reform Bill is still long. It will have to be discussed among all members of the House of Representatives after July 20, when the new legislative term begins. The path of the Labor Reform in Colombia has just begun, and several business and pro-Uribe groups are preparing to prevent its approval.