At the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, US President Barack Obama announced approval of Colombia’s supposed progress in protecting labor rights, allowing the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement to take effect next month. US trade representative Ron Kirk said at a Cartagena press conference that the agreement provides “an opportunity to help stand up for the rights of workers… This is a significant milestone.” Kirk said Colombia has taken a number of important steps to implement the “labor action plan” that was a prerequisite for putting the trade deal into place. The plan included enforcing laws recognizing the rights of workers to organize and prosecuting past cases of violence against labor leaders. “We believe this is an historic step in the development of our relationship with Colombia,” Kirk said.
But Colombian union leaders continue to criticize ongoing violence against their members, and impunity for the attackers. Thirty trade unionists were killed last year, and four so far this year, according to Colombia’s National Union School. While this is down from 51 killed in 2010, a Human Rights Watch report from last October showed “virtually no progress” on prosecutions for past crimes against trade unionists.
AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka delivered a harsh condemnation of the move: “Rather than insisting that the Colombian government honor its promises to Colombia’s working class, our government signaled with today’s decision that a little improvement is good enough. If a little improvement were good enough, women might still be fighting for the right to vote, and our workplaces would be filled with children. Premature certification of the Labor Action Plan undermines the early signs of progress that have been achieved for Colombian workers—and could prevent further progress.”
Colombian labor leaders were insisted that right-wing paramilitaries continue to terrorize their ranks. “They continue to kill union workers, the labor cooperative model still exists, laborers continue to be exploited and there is still 95% impunity for cases of violence against trade unionists,” the secretary general of Colombia’s National Union of Food Workers (SINALTRAINAL), Edgar Paez, told Colombia Reports.
In a 2008 campaign speech, Barack Obama said he would oppose the Colombia FTA “because violence against unions in Colombia would make a mockery of the very labor protections that we have insisted be included in these kinds of agreements.”
Under the terms of the trade pact, more than 80% of industrial and manufactured products exported from the US and Colombia will immediately become duty free. More than half of US agricultural exports to Colombia will also become duty free. US exports to Colombia have quadrupled in the last 10 years, reaching $14 billion in 2011. (FireDogLake, Colombia Reports, April 16; Colombia Reports, Bloomberg, WSJ, April 15)