Integrating informal workers into market reform strategies in Colombia

Country: Colombia
Body: Constitutional Courts
Case number: T-291/09
Year of judgement: 2009
PDF of decision

Recycling activities in Colombia have traditionally been carried out by extremely poor and marginalized sectors of society. Materials are collected from landfills or the streets, transported and sold as recyclable material to intermediary informal warehouses for modest sums. However, over the course of the last decade, recycling became a more lucrative endeavour, and in the absence of the municipal sanitation and recycling infrastructure, waste management companies like the one owned by members of a prominent political family in Colombia began to monopolize the recycling market. In 2008, Colombia passed Law 1259/08, which penalized activities associated with informal recyclers’ work activities, including opening refuse and transporting it in non-mechanical vehicles, citing environmental concerns. Subsequent to this law, the city of Cali privatized its waste management system, and during the bidding public process, prior orders from the Constitutional Court that public agencies take affirmative actions to guarantee the participation of informal recyclers in the privatization process were ignored. During this privatization process, the Navarro Landfill in Cali was closed. The 600 families that worked in that landfill were not permitted to work in the new landfill that replaced the Navarro Landfill. They were promised a social reintegration plan that was never fulfilled.

Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled that the above amounted to a violation of fundamental human rights, including the right to livelihoods, to a life of dignity, and to development. The Court ordered the State to adopt all the necessary measures to assure effective implementation of recyclers’ right, among other things, to be included in State Solid Waste Disposal Programs. The result was that the poor people were integrated into the formal economy of waste management.

This case is an example of bottom-up change driven by public litigation. It is also a landmark case regarding the use of law to reduce structural poverty, developing jurisprudence on the positive steps a State must take to compensate for material inequality between groups. Thus, the decision is significant to a discussion on linking social protection and human rights in the way it highlights the role and types of positive discrimination that State agencies must adopt to protect vulnerable and marginalized groups. Among such positive steps the Court advocates a human rights rather than purely economic approach to public contracts.

Related Principles

Equality and Non-discrimination

Non-discrimination and equality are core elements of the international human rights normative framework. Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that every human being is entitled to all rights and freedoms “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, […]

Social Protection and Human Rights