Row over congressional salaries highlights significant gap with minimum wage.
Colombian members of congress are some of the highest paid in the world in relation to their country’s minimum salary. And while they are currently debating a bill to freeze their pay, an overhaul is unlikely to come quickly. The topic has taken on a personal tone for many citizens, given the fact that these same politicians are debating the proposed tax reforms which, if approved, will hit the country with steep tax increases in 2017.
Colombia’s 268 members of congress currently receive a monthly congressional salary of nearly COP$28 million – approximately 41 minimum wages. This is a higher ratio than the Latin American average, which stands at around 27 minimum wages and much higher than countries such as the United Kingdom or Canada (who receive 4.5, and seven minimum salaries, respectively). In addition, a portion of the salary that members of congress receive is a prima de servicio, or a tax-exempt bonus.
How does Colombia compare to the world?
Salaries of top politicians relative to minimum wages of those countries:
UK – 4.5
Canada – 7.4
Argentina – 10.2
Spain – 20.9
Chile – 37.8
Mexico – 40.1
Colombia – 40.5
Source: Dinero.com, June 2016
The current salary was approved under the Decree 1056 of 2016, approved by President Juan Manuel Santos in June, itself representing a 7.7% wage increase on the previous year. However, since the June increase was approved, there has been opposition to the disparity between congressional salaries and the minimum wage, with 130,000 citizens signing a petition against the increase.
The topic has also attracted criticism from politicians. On November 2, Alianza Verde leader Claudia López and several other politicians proposed modifying Article 187 of the constitution to set a top limit of 25 minimum wages for congress members, and a reduction of current congressional salaries to COP$17 million – around 24 times the minimum wage. However, Lopez’s proposal was rejected by the Senate on November 8.
The counter-bill that did pass the first debate had been proposed by Alfredo Rangel (of the Centro Democrático). It is a more moderate proposal and aims to simply freeze salaries, raising the members of congress’ monthly paycheck based on absolute inflation instead of a percentage. In effect that would be a yearly rise of around COP$80,000 instead COP$2.8 million, states Rangel. Over four years that would reduce a member of congress’ salary to around 32 minimum wages.
Senator López was sceptical, “They promise salary reduction that won’t come true, but in a few months we’re going to see them approving tax reforms.”
What has become clear from the debates is that passing any legislation on this matter will not be simple. While Rangel’s proposal passed the First Commission of the Senate on November 8, there are seven other debates that the proposal must pass before it becomes engrained in the constitution. Three of these debates must take place before the end of December – which many analysts have said is almost impossible, not least because the initiative lacks overall political will.
Besides the obvious reasons for the lack of action from the congress, Colombian law offers further insight into the government’s reticence. As it turns out, no public worker is allowed to earn more than congress members, with the exception of the president. As such, the salary of the country’s public officials depends directly on a trickle down effect that tops out with congress. As Vanguardia put it, “The more the congressman makes, the more their secretary will make”.