Trade deals: US-Colombia FTA ratified, but will it help Colombian workers?

Trade deals with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea were ratified last night. Progress to protect Colombian trade union members has been made, but the murder rate of Colombian workers remains high.

Jose Miguel Gomez/Reuters
A worker loads a bag of coffee beans in a warehouse at Almacafe in Armenia city, Quindio province, Colombia. While the US certified that Colombia had complied with a majority of the measures stipulated in the FTA plan, labor leaders in Colombia say there has been little change on the ground.

The United States Congress last night ratified a long-debated free trade agreement (FTA) with Colombia, five years after it was originally signed by President George W. Bush.

The long delay in ratification, initially supported by the Obama administration and Democrats in both houses of Congress who were pressured by US-based human rights and labor groups to insist the Colombian government provide more workers' rights protections, led to some steps to improve labor rights in Colombia, one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a trade union member.

But now rights advocates and Colombian workers fear the chance to consolidate the modest gains made while the FTA was stalled will soon be lost due to lack of pressure.

"We have forfeited an important lever," says Rep. Jim McGovern (D) of Massachusetts, one of the most vocal opponents in the US Congress to the Colombia FTA. "I'm worried that all these commitments will fall by the wayside."

Changing the discourse

The Colombia-US FTA was signed in 2006 by then-Presidents George W. Bush and Álvaro Uribe, but the pact got caught up in the changing political winds of the time in Washington and was never brought up for a vote until this week, after President Obama sent it to Congress Oct. 4.

Human rights and labor groups, both in the US and abroad, seized on the opportunity afforded by the trade standoff to shine the spotlight on the dire situation of Colombia’s organized workers, and demand action from the Colombian government before a trade pact could be approved.

Under the pressure of international rights and labor groups, Colombia reassessed its labor practices and the security situation of union members who are routinely murdered and targeted by death threats. The debate made a “direct link between human rights and trade,” says José Luciano Sanín, president of the National Labor School (ENS), a group based in Colombia's second-largest city of Medellín.

Dan Kovalik, a lawyer with the United Steelworkers Union and one of the most prominent defenders of Colombian workers in the United States, said, “We feel the work we’ve done on this issue has changed the discourse. At least it put the killing of union members front and center.”

In 2006 as the FTA was being negotiated, the Colombian government created a special sub-unit of the prosecutor’s office dedicated to investigating the more than 2,900 killings of union members since 1986 – an average one every three days.

“Delaying ratification of the FTA led to some positive actions, such as the creation of a special team of prosecutors to investigate trade unionist killings,” said José Miguel Vivanco, director for the Americas of Human Rights Watch. “But given that impunity remains the norm for these cases, the country still has a long way to go before Colombia can be considered safe for trade union activity.”

Although overall killings are down in Colombia, the country remains a highly dangerous place for trade unionists. The ENS reports that in 2010 there were 51 killings of union members, 22 homicide attempts, and 397 threats. So far this year 23 have been killed, according to ENS statistics.

In a letter to Colombian Attorney General Viviane Morales this month, Human Rights Watch said a main reason for the ongoing violence is the “chronic lack of accountability for cases of anti-union violence.” While applauding the convictions in 185 cases of unionists murdered, the rights group noted that this represents less than 10 percent of the recorded killings in the past 25 years.

'Nothing's happened' in Colombia

In a final push to win convince US lawmakers to approve the trade deal, President Obama and Juan Manuel Santos in April signed a nine-point “labor action plan” that aims to address issues surrounding restrictions on collective bargaining, sub-contracting labor models that critics say strip workers of labor rights, and the continued security threats faced by union members.

But while the US certified that Colombia had complied with a majority of the measures stipulated in the plan, labor leaders in Colombia say there has been little change on the ground.

“The Labor Action Plan created many expectations for change, which have yet to materialize,” the ENS said in a recent report.

“Nothing’s happened,” says Oscar Suarez, a leader of the Sintrabrinks union of workers at the US-based Brinks Security, as he marched through the streets of Bogotá in a labor protest Oct. 7. “Ten years ago our union had 455 members, today we have 110 because of the subcontracting and anti-union environment. None of that has changed.”

“If with all the pressure so little has changed, what’s it going to be like without the pressure?” says. Mr. Sanín.

On the floor of the House, Democratic representatives argued that not enough progress has been made to reward Colombia with a trade agreement but they lost out to a bipartisan majority that voted 262-167 to approve it. The measure was approved 66-33 in the Senate.

But activists have not given up on pressing for more progress. “The struggle continues,” said Mr. Kovalik, who said the US labor movement, a major supporter of Mr. Obama in his 2008 campaign, could still try to apply pressure for more progress in Colombia during the implementation phase of the trade pact. And since Obama is up for reelection next year, “We’re going to have a hell of a lot of leverage,” he said.

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