US President Barack Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on April 7 agreed to a deal on the Andean country’s appalling labor conditions, clearing the way for the pending Free Trade Agreement. “This is going to be a win for the US,” Obama said while speaking in the Oval Office with Santos. The plan sets out a timeline for Colombia to address concerns about violence against union members, with Bogotá agreeing to “dramatically expand” protection for workers by April 22, come up with a plan by May 20 to build up the capacity of its regional judicial offices, and revise its criminal code by mid-June to make threats against workers’ rights punishable by up to five years imprisonment. The action plan is considered a “precondition” for the trade agreement to go into effect, though some of those measures are expected to be taken after congress acts on the FTA.
Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI), the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, said the plan doesn’t go far enough. Teamsters President Jim Hoffa also expressed “very real concerns” that the plan won’t be enforceable. The Teamsters became the third major union to come out against the labor deal, following statements by the AFL-CIO and United Steelworkers that they remain opposed to the Colombia FTA. (Dow Jones, April 8)
A statement from the Latin America Working Group states: “A fair and humane trade agreement cannot be implemented in an environment in which union leaders are assassinated, the land rights of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities and small-scale farmers are consistently undermined, and millions of people have been violently robbed of their homes.”
Colombia remains the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist. The statement recalled that on the campaign trail in 2008, Obama promised to not support an FTA with Colombia until conditions improved. “They haven’t. There were 52 trade unionists killed the year he made his promise and 51 killed in 2010. Now we must hold him to his word.”
The statement notes that the FTA “would encourage more large-scale agricultural, mining and other resource extraction projects that would push many Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities off their ancestral lands and into greater poverty.” Colombia currently has the largest displacement crisis in the world, even greater than that of Sudan, with 5.2 million people living in desperate conditions after being violently evicted from their lands. (Change.org, April 4)