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US Cracks Down on Illegal Subcontracting in Colombia

Labor conditions in Colombia have improved since the U.S. instituted the Colombian Action Plan Related to Labor Rights five years ago, but now the U.S. is looking to help the country tamp down on illegal subcontracting.

The practice of doling out work to smaller, sometimes unregistered and not-up-to-standard factories in order to get goods made more quickly has been a thorn in the apparel industry’s side, though widespread calls for greater transparency are helping to quell the issue.

To address labor concerns in Colombia, the U.S. launched the action plan in 2011, and since then, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) said things have gotten better.

“As we mark the five-year anniversary of the Action Plan, we note that Colombia has made meaningful progress across a number of areas, including a significant decline in the use of fake worker cooperatives that undermine workers’ rights, a reduction in violence against labor unionists, and a doubling of the number of labor inspector positions in Colombia’s Ministry of Labor,” USTR said in a statement.

Colombia has put protection programs in place for union members threatened with violence, reduced the instances of illegal cooperatives that undermine workers’ rights, and reformed their criminal code to allow for penal sanctions on employers that threaten workers’ right to organize and bargain collectively.

There are still things Colombia needs to address, however, like unauthorized subcontracting, which in some cases has increased in the last five years.

The country recently issued new regulations specifically targeting subcontracting that tell labor inspectors what to do if they uncover the practice and which punishments should follow. As per the new regulations, employers engaged in illegal subcontracting could be faced with fines as high as $1 million.

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“If these regulations are systematically and robustly applied, their impact on other forms of illegal subcontracting could be as significant as the impact that earlier regulations have had on illegal cooperatives,” USTR said.

Labor concerns like Colombia’s represent “entrenched and historical challenges” in the country, according to USTR, and addressing them properly will take time and ongoing engagement.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) stationed a full time labor attaché in Bogota, Colombia, to help foster that engagement and work with the U.S. Ambassador there to monitor and follow up on labor concerns as they come up.

The DOL has also been funding a $9.8 million International Labour Organization (ILO) project for 2012 through 2016 to strengthen the capacity of Colombia’s Ministry of Labor, to help train labor inspectors and to focus on curbing illegal subcontracting. DOL has helped institute nine technical tools, like guides on the graduation of sanctions and a checklist to identify unlawful and disguised labor relationships that could threaten workers’ rights.