Miguel Ruiz Herrera
San José, Costa Rica
The initial legal framework for the regulation of employment in Costa Rica was
influenced by liberalism prevailing in the nineteenth century, limiting the
participation of the government to policing the fulfillment of law and order, and
leaving production relationships to the free will of the parties.
In 1820, the first coffee exports signaled the establishment of a free trade model
in Costa Rica, and the surge of incipient capitalism based on the exportation of
agricultural products. Coffee became the country's most relevant export product,
consolidating a legal and institutional organization of liberal and democratic
characteristics based on a regimen of individual freedoms. The population at the
time was comprised of two unequal sectors -- a small group of land owners and
a larger group of farmers, most of them also owning land. Very few were
The Civil Code was enacted in 1885. It regulated, among others, the contract for
services in the domestic, agricultural, commercial, and industrial sectors. This
placed the employer and employee in equal footing, recognizing the autonomy
of will as the base of their contract. A series of organizations for farmers, blue
collar workers, artisans, and students were established during the era of
liberalism. These organizations pioneered in the quest for social rights.
The subsequent establishment of the new railroad linking the central valley with
the Atlantic coast and the arrival to Costa Rica of banana-producing companies
began a process of social separation, resulting in substantial consequences for
the labor sector.
In 1891, Pope Leon XIII issued the encyclical Rerum Novarum, promoting the
workers' right to freely organize themselves for their benefit. However, it was
not until the twentieth century that the first unions started to appear and
introduced relevant changes.
The 1917 Constitution established the obligation to harmonize relationships
between employers and employees based on the principles of justice, the
protection of workers and improvement of their economic situation, and
assistance to workers in case of sickness, aging, or accidents. However, it was