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Decision T-291/09

Year: 2009 (Date of Decision: 29 April, 2009)

Forum, CountryConstitutional Court; Colombia

Standards, RightsNon-discrimination and equal protection of the law; Right to decent work; Right to life; Right to an adequate standard of living

Summary BackgroundA group of waste pickers from the City of Cali filed an appeal of legal protection against several municipal entities which had allegedly violated their rights to work and a decent life through the closure of Navarro waste dump. At the Navarro site, the waste pickers had developed over the course of 30 years the economic activity of recycling to provide a livelihood for themselves and their families.

Traditionally recycling activities in Colombia have been undertaken by extremely poor and marginalized sectors of society. But gradually, as recycling became more profitable, a privatization trend set in with waste management companies dominating the scene. In 2008, Colombia enacted legislation penalizing activities associated with informal waste pickers’ work activities. When the City of Cali privatized its waste management system, at the time of the public bidding process, it disregarded prior orders from the Constitutional Court that public agencies take affirmative actions to guarantee the participation of informal recyclers in the privatization process. It was at this time that the Navarro Landfill in Cali was closed. More than 1000 families that worked in that landfill were not permitted to work in the new landfill that replaced the Navarro Landfill. Although they were assured a social reintegration plan that included opportunities of employment, capacity-building programs, health and education, these commitments were never honoured.

Holding: The Court held that municipal authorities had violated the Navarro waste pickers’ fundamental right to a decent life in connection with the right to work [para. III.9.1.1].

The Court also made clear that the defendant entities established discriminatory laws and policies, which had adversely affected the petitioners [para. III.2].

The Court’s ruling decision

  1. developed the precedent established in earlier cases regarding the rights of informal recyclers during the privatization of waste collection,
  2. suspended the bidding process,
  3. ordered the State to adopt all the necessary measures to assure effective implementation of recyclers’ right to health, education and food,
  4. ordered the State to ensure recyclers’ access to education as well as to other social services,
  5. included recyclers in State Solid Waste Disposal Programs of collection, and recognized them as autonomous solidarity-based entrepreneurs,
  6. created a committee to reform the municipal waste management policy of Cali and integrate the informal recyclers into the formal economy of waste management,
  7. ordered emergency measures to be taken to address the Navarro recyclers’ survival needs and
  8. suspended legal and administrative provisions that were adverse to waste pickers’ trade in Cali [para. IV].

The case emphasized the positive measures the State must undertake towards overcoming the material inequality between groups. The Court stated that “Equality is one of the pillars upon which is based the Colombian State. The Constitution recognizes equality as a principle, a value and as a fundamental right that goes beyond the classical equality formula before the law, used to build a postulate that points towards the realization of conditions of material equality. In that perspective, a central objective in the equality clause is the protection of traditionally discriminated or marginalized groups: on one side, as an abstention mandate or interdiction of discriminatory treatment and, on the other side, as an intervention mandate, through which the State is obliged to carry out actions oriented towards the overcoming of the material inequality faced by such groups” [para. III.3].

Additional Comments: The case explores the State’s duty to respect, protect and fulfil.

Link to Full Case: English translation accessible at:

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