SEMANA, February 25, 2023


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Minister of Labor Gloria Inés Ramírez put the Petro administration’s cards on the table for workers and business owners. Contracts for indefinite terms will predominate, and informality will be over for outfits like Uber and Rappi.

SEMANA: These days you’re going to be drafting the labor standards reform. What will be in that?

GLORIA INÉS RAMÍREZ (G.I.R.): The three parts of the reform will be: principles, individual work, and collective work. That’s how the project will be constructed. That’s what we’re debating. We have already started discussing the principles: equal opportunities for workers; minimum and living wage, employment stability, the principle of favorability, and progressivity.

SEMANA: What will the chapter on individual work say?

G.I.R.: Protecting working people will be its objective. One part of that is work stability. Contracts with indefinite terms will be the general rule. That means, we are trying to reduce the use of fixed term contracts to a minimum. Those that call for working six, eight, or nine months will be diminished. The goal is that the worker can experience some stability and, therefore, a social security like we have now: one portion comes from the worker and one portion from the employer. We will end what is going on now where every four months you make a contract and have to go and join social security all over, it’s taken out of your money, but you also work a whole month for nothing.

SEMANA: Does that just apply to government employees?

G.I.R.: Not just to the government; it will apply to everybody. The public sector and the private sector.

SEMANA: And how will that work in the public sector? How long will it take to do the studies of the staff in every one of the agencies?

G.I.R.: The general regulations on employment policy will be established by the Ministry. We will work with Public Service, as we have been doing up to now, so that those 1,200,000 contracts that are not working well will be fewer. For example, for 2024, we would like to have 28,000 positions on indefinite term contracts. There have been 14 meetings that Public service and the Civil Service Commission have been promoting so that everything will be based on merit. We stand up for that value in the public sector. Finally, we will have a transition so that, beginning in 2024, those practices that diminish rights and overlap labor relations will be ended as a routine in the government.

SEMANA: But there’s a risk that the business owner, in the case of the private sector, would rather discharge workers than take on the expense of having fixed personnel . . .

G.I.R.: There are always risks. What we have to say is that we have to generate employment, but without harming workers. The country has changed; people want decent salaries. It’s a worldwide watchword of the ILO (International Labor Organization) (OIT in Spanish) and we in Colombia will be working to end the human rights insecurity that has taken place in the last 32 years.

SEMANA: What do you say to those business owners that think that reform will result in the failure of their company?

G.I.R.: That’s not true. In 2002, Statute 789 promised the creation of nearly 600,000 jobs as compensation for the loss of an employer’s right to order night work at regular pay, or repealing what we call the night-shift surcharge. It was proved that the reduction of rights did not generate jobs and, on the contrary, employees’ quality of life, income and health actually deteriorated. What we are doing now with labor standards is an act of social justice to restore working conditions. It’s just logical that a worker that works more, and at night, or works extra hours, be paid fairly. For example, now an hour of minimum wage work in Colombia is paid less than one dollar, that’s to say, less than 4,800 pesos. And the night shift surcharge for every hour is 35%; it will increase by 1,690 pesos (roughly 35 cents at today’s exchange rates). Do you think a business owner will be impoverished if that surcharge  increases by 1,690 pesos (35 cents) to recognize the contribution by that employee?

SEMANA: Has bargaining with the business owners been tough?

G.I.R.: I have to say that we have found more points of agreement than disagreement. There is an environment favorable to bargaining, and one of the concerns that we agree on even has to do with the high rates of informality and the precarious condition of workers in some sectors.

SEMANA:  Minister, is the administration prepared for a possible massive job loss because of the reform?

G.I.R.: Employment is a government policy and, as such, it has to be protected. This administration is counting on reindustrialization, associative arrangements, and a people’s economy. The reform is not oriented to job loss. On the contrary, and we’re agreed on that at the bargaining table; we want to go back to formal employment and decent labor standards. Don’t forget that the reforms I am leading are agreed on in a tripartite setting, with businesses, with unions, and with the administration. In that sense, they are legislative proposals that seek the best for Colombians. These reforms will reach Congress with as much agreement as possible.

SEMANA: But what could happen with a business owner who, instead of obeying the reform, starts discharging employees?

G.I.R.: The reform is oriented to strengthening employment stability. We are going to promote inspection, monitoring, and control of workplaces to avoid arbitrary discharges.

SEMANA: Is the idea to eliminate all outside contracts for service delivery or will there be exceptions?

G.I.R.: There will be cases where subcontracting will be limited. We have direct contracting as a general rule, and a reduction of subcontracting to only exceptional and specialized work. That point has to be very clear. Although that’s the law now, the exceptions have turned into the general rule and everything is outsourced.  Outsourcing will be retained, but will be reduced to the minimum.

SEMANA: In which cases?

G.I.R.: For example, in a construction project, I can’t ask that the contract be indefinite when a project will end in three months. What I can do is see that the construction company, when the project is completed, guarantees the payment of the workers’ social security. The same thing would happen in harvesting, trade, and any seasonal work. That is what we are debating at the bargaining table.

SEMANA: How is the daily schedule working now, and what are the principal changes that are coming?

G.I.R.: Statute 2101 of 2021 ordered the progressive reduction of the weekly work schedule from 48 to 42 hours. The limit of 8 hours a day was eliminated, a situation that has created concern in the international agencies like the ILO (OIT). That organization has asked the government to correct that situation. The reform is designed to respect the maximum work day limit and to correspond to international standards.

SEMANA: What about night work?

G.I.B.: We are proposing going back to starting at 6:00 p.m. and that the Sundays and holidays go back to 100% pay and not the 75% as it is now.  We are also debating and proposing that the apprenticeship contract go back to being a labor contract. To paying social security and workers risks for those young people. In addition, another proposal in the reform is workers compensation. It’s a fiercely debated issue because Statute 789 lowered the cost for businesses of discharging an employee without just cause. That’s to say, now it’s easier for a business owner to fire than it is to hire. What are we trying to do? Increase the fines or place barriers to discharges without just case. That point is being hotly debated in the Commission.

SEMANA: Is Saturday payday?

G.IR.: President Gustavo Petro announced that, but of course working hours are an issue that is still being studied at the bargaining table to arrive at the best possible agreement.

SEMANA: Finally, how many hours will a Colombian work?

G.I.R.: The administration would like a worker to work the maximum legal workday schedule of eight hours, with the appropriate night work supplement or other extras.

SEMANA: After Congress passes the law, will it be harder for a company to fire a worker.

G.I.R.: Stability will be strengthened with the reform. A discharge will have to respect due process and the Labor Ministry will be here to guarantee job permanence in labor relations in Colombia.

SEMANA: If a worker is discharged, will the company owner have to pay more?

G.I.R.: If we’re talking about a discharge that is contrary to a worker’s legal rights, the employer will have to pay the economic consequences.

SEMANA: Will layoffs because of restructuring be ended?

G.I.R.: The regulation on collective layoffs has not yet been studied at the bargaining table.

SEMANA: What do the companies say about that?

G.I.R.: We are looking at it because the companies argue the right to discharge a person that isn’t useful. We are saying that you can discharge, but with due process. Those are the central differences. We are debating that right now.

SEMANA: In your judgment, Minister, what’s the quality of the jobs and contracts that Colombian workers have right now?

G.I.R.: I have to say that the current situation of Colombian workers is awful. Look at this data: considering our country’s entire work force, nearly 50% earn less than 500,000 pesos (roughly USD $104 at today’s exchange rates). And besides that, nearly 60% work informally, meaning that they work without any social protection and have no rights. If we add to that the instability of the hiring system, there can be no doubt that right now in this country workers are in precarious shape.

SEMANA: Will you touch the 15 business days of vacation?

G.I.R.: They aren’t going to be increased. We aren’t touching that. That will stay the same.

SEMANA: Why aren’t you going to touch that? Colombia is one of the countries with the fewest vacation days in the world.

G.I.R.: The workers really worry more about their job stability and the way that hiring works, and that’s what we are working on in the reform bill.

SEMANA: Will severance pay stay the same?

G.I.R.: Yes. There won’t be a change. It stays the same.

SEMANA: Is it true that the labor reform bill will have a chapter dedicated to digital platforms?

G.I.R.: Those who work in delivery and transport for digital platforms are recognized as workers. I’ll say it in a different way: there is an increase in the number of digital platforms in Colombia. Before the pandemic, the government had identified nearly 242 of them, and now, according to ILO (OIT) studies, there are more than 700. This is a new way of working and one we can’t ignore. What’s the problem? First, the presumption of employment. That’s a debate going on all over the world. And, two, the transparency of the algorhythms. What’s that? If you change your employer, you don’ have a person to tell you ‘do this or do that’. You have an algorhythm in the case of Rappi or Uber. It that tells you to hurry up or go to a certain house. The algorhythm monitors your time. In some manner, that algothythm is what furnishes the management. We say that that management by algorhythm has to be transparent so that the worker knows that he’s being geo-located, if he has been disciplined and won’t be hired again, and if his orders have diminished, among other things.

SEMANA: Who would be their boss?

G.I.R.: We have to recognize that the algorhythm subjugates the worker completely. There we are talking about the presumption of an employment relationship. Remember that an employment relationship has three requirements: direction, hours, and working conditions, and there has to be discipline. That is what the platforms are doing now. For example, an on-line purchase is made through a platform; there is no employment relationship. But all those platforms are made up of goods and services and are geo-located. They have an employment relationship because they use an algorhythm that gives directions to some individuals identified in their backpacks, some go on motorbikes, on foot, on bicycles and take home a product that has a final destination, i.e. a user. If that worker takes longer than necessary, he immediately has a warning from the algorhythm, which is monitoring him by using satellites.

SEMANA: The algorhythm is like his boss?

G.I.R.: For sure. The algorhythm is a boss, it acts like a boss.

SEMANA: What rights do they have?

G.I.R.: We have been working with them. We have said they have a right to social security. A right to join a union. In the bargaining table process that we’re having with the platforms, we have made some progress: they agree that there will be social security, and that workers can be part of a union, so where is the debate? In the presumption of an employment relationship, in this case for the mobile distribution of food, goods, and purchases, the Uber workers and the others. It’s a really big debate. I hope that in the weeks we have left we will be able to reach an agreement that would allow us to be in line with the ILO (OIT) recommendations in this area. There are now more than 200,000 families that are living with these models of moving goods and services, in general terms.

SEMANA: In the case of transportation, doesn’t that imply recognizing the digital platforms?

G.I.R.: Regulation of it follows a principle of technological neutrality, that’s to say, all the countries that are part of the ILO (OIT) are governed by the principle of technological neutrality in terms of the internet and digital settings. That means they have to be regulated, not rejected, not prohibited, not turning them into informal and illegal work.

SEMANA: Will you be regulating the work of the webcam models?

G.I.R.: They are on the digital platforms and they will have their own special chapter. There are several models. Some people are the main characters in pornography productions and others are those that produce them. There are seven differentials. There is protection and formalization of employment relations for all of them.

SEMANA: Will the context of half-time work continue to exist? Does it imply half salary?

G.I.R.: In Colombia, part-time work is regulated by legislation. It recognizes that salary rights and benefits have to be paid proportionally.

SEMANA: Can there be people who earn less than the minimum wage?

G.I.R.: The protection of rural agricultural and agro-industrial workers is already regulated. Which are the agricultural workers? We accepted the ILO (OIT) concept: all the workers that are in the countryside and work with raw materials. We are talking about those who produce food, who do the milking, the coffee pickers. There is protection for them: they don’t have social security now.

SEMANA: Does that mean that the companies will have to pay their social security?

G.I.R.: We are working on that. They have a relationship; there are large and small farms. Besides, they have seasonal periods, meaning work on harvesting. We are talking about what they call part time work with rights. That means that there is an assumption of stability and a need to guarantee social security. Along with that, the workers have to be prepared to confront automation. Example: the sugar mills used to have people that cut cane. Now they do that with machines. What happens to the workers that the machines have replaced? They have to have restructured employment. We are looking for a way to guarantee that they will be retrained. Not just take a payment and get out, but a process for restructuring their employment. That would be at the cost of the employer and the government. There will be joint responsibility. We have programs in the Sena (National Apprenticeship Service), with the Fondo Emprender (Start-up Fund) and the Ministry also has some training programs.

SEMANA: Are you contemplating new penalties for using child labor?

G.I.R.: Our boys and girls ought to be in school and not working. For me, as a woman, mother, and also a teacher, that has relevance and a special concern about the well-being of our children. For that reason, we do have to strengthen the penalties for using child labor, no doubt about that. Nevertheless, I have to remember that the Ministry has the responsibility to control and authorize the work of adolescents who are protecte and that occurs in special cases, where it can be demonstrated that the work or the activity performed will not endanger the minor.

SEMANA: Is there anything about gender equity in the reform?

G.I.R.: We are working on equal pay for women, redistributing the oversight and the formalization of domestic work, and the prevention and penalties, regarding harassment and violence in the workplace.

SEMANA: What does equal pay mean? How can that be regulated?

G.I.R.: We have a historic debt owed to women workers. In Colombia, the gender wage gap is as high as 26%. At the bargaining table, we are studying which actions might work best to correct that gap. One of them, for example, is updating the criteria or guidelines for determining when wage discrimination based on gender exists. The ILO (OIT) has even recommended emphasizing the regulations that allow correction in this kind of situation. It’s necessary to recognize the principle of equal pay for equal work.

SEMANA: What will happen with the collective agreements?

G.I.R.: The statute says that when there is a labor union and a committee, there cannot be a collective agreement. We will require compliance with the statute. We need to disincentivize those collective agreements because the relationship is only with the organizations, fundamentally. That’s why we are working on a proposal for multi-level organizations at the worker centers that we accept.

SEMANA: Do you want every company to have a union?

G.I.R.: We respect the freedom to organize. We want to strengthen the unions, because the companies have organizations representing the workers for social dialog that contributes. to building the business organizations. It’s no secret that the labor movement in Colombia has been stigmatized for decades and the statistics show it: only 6% of the labor force in Colombia has a union, meaning that barely 1,200,000 people are members of a labor union. That is what we have to change. We have to see in the unions opportunities for discussion and constructive dialog. We have to recognize the trade-offs in the world of labor. If there are business and trade associations, why not strengthen workers’ organizations?

SEMANA: How many contracts can one person have with the government?

G.I.R.: Just one contract and for an indefinite term. The consultants’ contracts are something else; when you contract to build something, that means you have to produce a concrete product, but there is not a labor relationship. That’s the difference.

SEMANA: What do you say to a business that thinks that in this reform the meat is for the worker and the bone is for the employer?

G.I.R.: The employer has guarantees. It’s the system we call capitalism. There are different practices for them: credit, job creation programs for the micro and mipymes (a government program that supports start-ups and small businesses). It’s clear that the effort of workers produces wealth, but it doesn’t work by itself; it needs business owners, and because of that, I have always said that we have to work so that there will be solid, strong, potent, and cohesive companies, without uncertainty of employment, and so that it will be understood that behind the big businesses there is always a work force that needs to have some rights.

SEMANA: Do you think Colombian workers are exploited?

G.I.R.: Sad to say, because of the informality, Colombian workers are potentially exposed to systems of worker exploitation. We have to add to that the fact that the great majority of those workers don’t know about their rights.

SEMANA: Which is the sector where workers are exploited the most?

G.I.R.: We have a special concern about the lack of rights for workers in the country. The rate of informality there is 84%, basically, nine out of every ten campesinos or campesinas have no access to social security. We are working tirelessly in the labor reform subcommittee to identify the best alternatives of regulation that would promote formality and would furnish social protections in the Colombian countryside.

SEMANA: In your opinion, what is the best employment system in the world?

G.I.R.: In the suggestions for reform, we have looked at the models of labor reform implemented in Spain and México. They are based on stability, restriction of outsourcing, and strengthening rights to organize, collective bargaining, and strike.

SEMANA: Minister, are you confident that you will have the support of the parties in Congress to pass this reform?

G.I.R. We are confident of the support for paying the historic debt this country has with our workers. I have expressed that in meetings with the various caucuses in the Congress. We will also embrace all of the labor policies that the administration is proposing for the development of the country. Besides that, the Ministry supports programs for job creation.

SEMANA: On another issue, Minister, what are the key points in the pension reform?

G.I.R.: We are trying to make the public fund, Colpensiones, and the private fund, which are the two funds for individual savings, stop being competitors and instead be complementary. The second point is the universality of the right to a pension. We are working to broaden coverage of the right to a pension because we have a reality: neither of the two systems furnishes a pension for all of its members. We have had Statute 100 for years, and we now realize that people are not getting pensions. There will have to be a solid pillar from which we can broaden coverage, one with contributions that has a scale (semi-contribution) for those people that can contribute and can’t manage to achieve a pension. We will take measures so that they have a benefit not just of the 500,000 pesos (roughly USD $103 at today’s exchange rates) that the President is proposing, but rather an additional benefit that has to do with the contributions. And a pillar of contribution, which is where there is the most debate. We are proposing that it be four minimum wage amounts as a base, and that every Colombian contribute that figure to Colpensiones.

SEMANA: And the rest?

G.I.R.: From four times the minimum wage and upwards, that means, the excess, that’s contributed to the individual savings system. Besides that, we will have another system of voluntary savings so that a person who wants to improve his pension can have a public stipend added to his/her voluntary savings to what they receive in the individual.

SEMANA: that means, a person that earns more than four times the minimum wage can have a private pension fund and be in Colpensiones at the same time.

G.I.R.: Right, or in a single one.

SEMANA: Where is the discussion between the administration and the private funds?

G.I..R.: They are proposing up to twice the minimum wage for coverage, we’re talking about four, that’s what we’re negotiating.

SEMANA: Will the reform respect seniority and its acquired rights?

G.I.R.: That’s the transition. We have a law in the Constitution, all rights must be respected. The laws aren’t retroactive. We respect that principle. Nobody will touch the savings of Colombians. That has to be respected. It has to be very clear, neither do we touch the governing and special rules. What they’ve been saying, certainly some have sai;, that we will take savings away, that won’t happen. They have the savings now, but they are in investments. We will respect every Colombian that comes and claims his pension; that has to be paid. We totally respect that acquired right, not just of the pensioners, but also of those who expect their pension.

SEMANA: How do you expect to handle the transition?

G.I.R.: Every Colombian will start to contribute to Colpensiones up to four times the minimum wage. Whoever has savings from another fund enters a transition and when the person takes the pension, the funds have to give us the money and we will pay the pension. I’m talking about the pension’s subsistence allowance.

SEMANA: Will you insist on freezing the age of the pension?

G.I.R.: Yes, there are studies that show that we have up to 15 years to make changes in the ages. There are discussions, but we will work in a committee that will evaluate that every five years.

SEMANA: Some experts fea that putting practically all of the workers into the public system (as more than 80% of workers will be in the group earning up to four times the minimum wage) would be very serious for the government’s finances and for future generations, given that with aging and the lower birth rate, there won’t be enough to pay out the pensions under the payment system, which would imply that the government would have to insert more funds. Is that a valid criticism?

G.I.R.: Look at Japan, Denmark, and Sweden, because their populations are aging also. So do they close down their social security system? No. That’s what immigrants are for. Or how does Canada manage? What we want to do with pension reform is to broaden coverage; sadly, only one out of five older adults have the possibility of receiving a pension. And I take the opportunity here to insist that, with this pension reform, we want to pull nearly four million older adults out of poverty. Our grandfathers and grandmothers should have a decent pension and, lacking that, a decent income.

SEMANA: Does this reform have the support of Finance Minister José Antonio Ocampo?

G.I.R.: We are working together. SEMANA knows who is in those Ministries, Finance and Planning. Even further than what you have heard, we are working together.

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