Colombian Human Rights Defenders Union, SINDHEP, Expelled From The Bargaining Table

By Tanya Nuñez and James Patrick Jordan

In a new act of anti-union abuse by Carlos Camargo, Colombia’s right wing Ombudsman, the Human Rights Defenders Union, SINDHEP, was recently expelled from the collective bargaining table on reasons that have no legal basis. This arbitrary and illegal act comes days after SINDHEP made a public denouncement of the Ombudsman, Carlos Camargo, warning about the risks of corruption, clientelism, and wiretapping of workers taking place under his administration.

On May 24th, 2023, the administration of the Ombudsman’s Office, who themselves act as negotiators within the collective bargaining table, illegitimately assumed the powers of a judge, determining the legality of the union’s attendance by claiming SINDHEP had failed to meet the requirements to be allowed to participate in the table.

SINDHEP rejected the proclamations made and denounced the anti-union attack carried out by the Ombudsman’s Office, saying that it was in fact the administration who was violating the law under both the Ministry of Labor and the International Labor Organization, having no right to determine the legality of SINDHEP’s participation in the bargaining process.

In a video statement following the expulsion, SINDHEP members announced they would continue defending their union’s right to be at the collective bargaining table and demanded that the administration of the Ombudsman’s Office respect their rights.

“They have demanded we exhibit our meeting minutes. We have been required to show them certification of our bargaining committees. Even so they have proceeded with a test of validity and legality which exceeds their functions. And they have determined that we have breached Decree 160 of 2014, which is not true…There is a legal precedent, compañeros, which indicates that it is not up to the employer to behave as such in the negotiating table. It isn’t in their competence or that of any of their negotiators to analyze and validate our autonomous acts, which is why compañeras, it constitutes a violation of our right to freedom of association, union autonomy and collective bargaining.” – David Vargas Rios

Ombudsman Camargo claims that there was no subjective consideration or personal judgment on behalf of the administration in their decision to expel SINDHEP. However, the expulsion comes after a series of questionable actions by Camargo since he was elected to the post by the congress during the previous administration of Ivan Duque. (The Ombudsman office is not a cabinet position, but an independent office.) Camargo is seen as an ally to the right wing and those who would like to see Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro removed from office. During the elections of last year, at a time when the nation was experiencing a major spike in reports of irregularities and threats and assaults against mostly Center-Left campaigns, Camargo called for a suspension of human rights monitoring by SINDHEP workers. According to a union statement,

“The risks are elevated for the communities, especially at this time when we are in a very complex situation where displacements, confinements, the systematic assassinations of leaders are taking place. With this ban, they are taking a lot of attention away from these areas.”

Before that, during the National Strike of 2021, Camargo was criticized by SINDHEP for undercounting the assaults and killings and failing to protect the rights of protesters and social leaders. In March, 2021, SINDHEP called for Camargo’s resignation, claiming that,

“Camargo does not represent us nor the people. We are concerned about his erratic actions and pronouncements, which put protesters and workers of the Ombudsman’s Office at risk…. There is a lack of clarity in the figures that the institution is offering. We believe this is happening because Camargo is complicit in the State terrorism that Colombia is facing…. Colombians’ human rights will continue to be violated as long as there is military in the streets. To protest is allowed by our Constitution, and this human right is being outraged by the government, by the military, and by the Ombudsman.”

More recently, in May, workers represented by SINDHEP alerted that Camargo is illegally intercepting and monitoring their private cell phone communications through the technological platform of the Ombudsman’s Office. The complaint is part of a report that the union has prepared on alleged irregularities that have occurred during the Camargo administration. In the report SINDHEP warns about the Ombudsman’s use of the Digital Evidence Forensic Laboratory, a software meant as a tool to support the work of public defenders, being used to spy on workers in order to prosecute them.

“‘At the same time of situations of corruption’, says SINDHEP member Maura Alzata Giraldo, who was present at the time of the expulsion, ‘there has been the creation of a digital laboratory, in which we found evidence in disciplinary processes of colleagues who are part of our unions, records of their social networks, of their calls, of their WhatsApp messages being taken from the forensic lab, and therefore we have alerted a possible misuse of this laboratory against the rights of workers.’”

Camargo’s funding for the digital lab came from an expensive $18 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank, 2500 million pesos of which was used to finance the project. Further, the hired contractor for the controversial lab, was later appointed by Camargo to a prominent position within the institution. The lawyer Andrés Guzmán Caballero, founder of Adalid, a company that provides legal and information security services, resigned from the position last month, but this after selling his expensive services to the Defensoría.

However, in a clear application of double standards, Colombian media has largely ignored this flagrant abuse of labor rights and privacy, while giving major coverage to a scandal involving Pres. Petro’s former Chief of Staff Laura Sarabia, who is accused of using wiretaps against a nanny in her employ. Pres. Petro maintains he had no knowledge of the wiretaps and is cooperating with investigations. The focus on this scandal takes place amid various efforts to undermine and even topple the Petro administration.

Colombia still holds the top rank as the world’s most dangerous place to be a union leader. It is consistently among the top countries for killings of environmental defenders. Despite the 2016 Peace Accords, social movement leaders, human rights defenders, and protesters are being killed at a rate of one victim per day. By suspending negotiations with his own workers charged with the defense of the people, the Ombudsman has launched yet a new attack against labor rights and peace in Colombia.

Please send an email to Colombian authorities in solidarity with SINDHEP’s struggle

And while you’re at it…

Take a moment to send a solidarity email with SINDHEP’s sister union of security guards, Memoria Viva, who are also enduring significant repression