Colombia’s Constitutional Court has ordered the country’s national airline, Avianca, to pay an unprecedented sum estimated to be around USD2 million to workers whom it cheated of pay and benefits in a long term plan to prevent staff joining trade unions.
The historical decision ends a decade of labour discrimination against personnel. Avianca must pay the money this week.
The court victory follows years of campaigning and lawsuits by two ITF (International Transport Workers’ Federation)-affiliated unions, the ACAV (Asociación Colombiana de Auxiliares de Vuelo) and ACDAC (Asociación Colombiana de Aviadores Civiles).
The unions and their members brought nearly a dozen cases against Avianca – one of the largest aviation companies in Latin America – for discriminating against union members. These exposed tactics such as the airline setting up a voluntary benefits plan. This offered non-union members guaranteed salary increases, seniority premiums, and maternity and life insurance benefits, among others. Workers felt pressured by the company to agree to the scheme, which demanded they should either not be union members or must renounce their membership if they were.
ITF president Paddy Crumlin commented: “This is a historic judgment. It upholds the fact that no company should be able to ignore human rights – including the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. We congratulate the Constitutional Court of Colombia and call on Avianca to begin a process of negotiation in good faith with the unions representing its workers, in every country in which it operates, in line with this landmark judgment. The ITF offers its services to help achieve this.”
ITF general secretary Steve Cotton said: “Alongside Colombian unions’ timely and effective complaints, the international trade union movement also reported Avianca’s offences to the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC). Regrettably the IFC failed at that time to act as the Constitutional Court thankfully now has. We trust that the IFC will in future respond when such breaches are reported to them.”
Avianca’s breaking of international labour conventions was reported to the IFC as far back as 2006 when Avianca applied for a loan of USD50 million dollars.
The Constitutional Court’s ruling states Avianca’s plans had the ‘undeniable purpose of discriminating against union workers by discourage union membership, or promoting their leaving their unions … in order to weaken the trades unions’.
It confirmed the right of the plaintiffs to protection of their freedom of association and equal rights, and ordered that all workers must be able to access the benefits of the voluntary benefits plan. It ordered Avianca to ‘refrain from setting conditions … involving discrimination against unionised personnel.’