loader image

The Government of Colombia presented a labor reform proposal, with which it seeks to guarantee and improve the rights of Colombian workers. Photo: Ministry of Labor of Colombia

Inequality and work: A world in which reduced working time and slavery coexist

20 March, 2023 | Ricardo Changala

On March 17, within the framework of an event in the Plaza de Armas of the Casa de Nariño, the government of Colombia presented the labor reform, a key project in this legislature that the Congress of the Republic should discuss. According to the Minister of Labor, Gloria Ramírez, the initiative is “…the most ambitious labor reform of this century … that aims to guarantee the labor rights of the nearly 22 million employed, of which eight million are women.”[1]

The minister explained that the reform aims to comply with the rights agenda, the recommendations of the ILO control bodies and the inter-American system, regain the labor tradition of promoting permanent labor relations and the transition to labor formalization by combating the multiple forms of precariousness existing in Colombia and throughout the continent. The government intends to protect excluded populations such as people working in agriculture where about 1 and a half million employed people will benefit from access to social security and labor benefits.

This initiative, which will barely begin its discussion at the Congress in the coming weeks, places the Colombian State within the countries and sectors that intend to act in the face of the enormous present and future challenges of the world of work from the perspective of rights, breaking decades of neoliberal decline in this issue.

The issue is the subject of debates all over the world and the responses are very diverse.

While these lines are being written, France is experiencing intense mobilizations against the social security reform approved by the government without the participation of the Legislative Branch, with rules that are understood to reduce benefits and extend working time to access retirement.

In South Korea, on March 17, it became known that the government had to withdraw an initiative to increase weekly working hours in the face of public demonstrations, especially by young people, who insisted that the reform threatened health and family relations. Due to pressure from business groups, the government intended to raise the maximum weekly working time to 69 hours, when the current legislation (approved in 2018) establishes it at 52.[2]

In Brazil, also in mid-March, more than two hundred sugarcane workers living in conditions “analogous to slavery” were rescued during an operation by the Brazilian Ministry of Labor and Employment (MTE) that lasted for three days in the territory of the states of Goiás and Minas Gerais, where the workers had been smuggled,

Among the many irregularities that the inspection has brought to light, the charges for the rental of huts used as accommodation and work tools, lack of food supply, absence of protective elements during the application of pesticides, lack of sanitary facilities, among many other findings of terrible working conditions and accommodation stand out.

According to the MTE, the contracting companies assumed their responsibility and agreed to pay severance payments and moral damages. In 2022 alone, 2,575 people, most of them of African descent, were freed from slavery-like conditions.[3]

It seems obvious that profound changes in labor relations are required in the country if it is intended to overcome these working conditions, which are no longer only precarious, but of contemporary slavery, as expressed by the mandate of the UN rapporteurship.[4][4]

It should be recalled that, on slave labor, the European Commission presented on September 14, 2022 a proposal for a resolution to ban products made with forced labor on the European Union market, linked to the proposal for a directive on monitoring the sustainability of enterprises adopted in February 2022 and urging national authorities to assess the risks of forced labor based on many different sources of information.[5]

On the basis of this directive, it will be possible to launch investigations on products about which there are well-founded suspicions of forced labour, to request information from companies and to carry out controls and inspections, including in third countries. If the national authorities verify that forced labour has been used, they will order the withdrawal of the products already marketed and prohibit their marketing and export (in order to prevent them from being sold on other markets). The regulation must be adopted by the Council and Parliament and will enter into force two years after its publication. It will be supplemented by guidelines that the Commission will publish within 18 months of their entry into force.[6]

At the other extreme of slave labor or the extension of the working day, there is the proposal to reduce the working day, an old desire of working people, of their organizations and that is at the basis of the creation of the International Labor Organization and its regulatory standards.

In recent years, several such experiences have been put into practice, at least as pilot experiences in core countries.

Such is the case of Germany, Iceland, Japan, Spain, Ireland, the United States, New Zealand. The United Arab Emirates became the first country to establish a four-and-a-half-day working day in all its government entities, as well as in the central bank.[7][7]

It is interesting to note that among the drivers of the reduction of the working day are some business organizations that have created the so-called 4 days a Week foundation, which based on data and concrete experiences in New Zealand and other places, substantiate that the shorter weekly work duration not only improves the quality of life of working people including gender inequality, but also productivity at work.

According to reports, they have recently completed the largest experiment in the UK involving more than 60 companies and 3,000 working people. At the end of the experience, with one less day of work and the same salary, people are more satisfied, they fulfill the job and companies earn the same or more, while saving costs and retaining talent. According to the spokespeople of 4 days a Week, almost all the companies are going to continue with the new schedule.[8]

The impressive technological advances should have as a consequence the liberation of the time dedicated to work and, therefore, generate better living conditions for all people. However, as we have seen in this brief text, the reality is far from that, despite clear evidence that it is possible that it happens without even affecting business income.

Inequality is expressed in multiple ways, such as when we see that while people in northern offices have access to less time and better working conditions, many agricultural workers in the south are still slaves, as if we were several centuries ago.

[1] https://www.elcolombiano.com/negocios/reforma-laboral-petro-2023-colombia-que-cambios-trae-IM20799760

[2] The information can be expanded in https://www.eldiario.es/internacional/theguardian/protestas-jovenes-obligan-corea-sur-dar-marcha-semana-laboral-69-horas_1_10036784.html

[3] https://g1.globo.com/go/goias/noticia/2023/03/17/mais-de-200-trabalhadores-sao-resgatados-em-condicoes-analogas-a-escravidao-em-goias.ghtml

[4] The mandate on contemporary forms of slavery covers, but is not limited to, the following aspects: traditional slavery, forced labour, debt bondage, slave labour, child labour in or similar to slave conditions, domestic servitude, sexual slavery and servile marriages. https://www.ohchr.org/es/special-procedures/sr-slavery

[5] EUROPEAN COMMISSION Brussels, 14.9.2022 COM (2022) 453 final 2022/0269 (COD) Proposal for a REGULATION OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL on prohibiting products made with forced labour on the Union market

[6] Information of IR share Nro. 191, September 21, 2022.

[7] Taken from https://estrategia.la/2023/03/07/reduccion-de-la-jornada-laboral-camino-a-la-fabrica-digital/

[8] The information can be expanded in https://www.4dayweek.com/research-results