Unions reject Colombia trade deal, Republicans make it ‘top priority’

U.S. unions on Monday protested the free trade agreement (FTA) with Colombia submitted by President Obama, while Republicans said the deal’s ratification is “top priority.”

The union Communication Workers of America (CWA) issued a press release immediately following the U.S. president’s announcement calling the FTA “flawed” and criticizing Colombia’s “abusive work system.”

CWA Communications Director Candice Johnson said, “The Colombia Free Trade Agreement moves our global economy in the wrong direction by, in effect, endorsing an economic and legal system intended to block workers’ collective bargaining rights and workplace protections. It must not be approved.”

According to the CWA, “The critical issue that must be addressed in Colombia is how work is organized to prevent workers from forming unions.”

The press release highlights how Colombian workers struggle to organize and bargain collectively due to continued violence against unionists and because of Colombia’s system of worker “cooperatives”, known as CTAs, which allow companies to contract workers as casual labor without providing them benefits.

These issues were addressed in the Labor Action Plan agreed between the U.S. and Colombian governments earlier in the year. However, the union said, “the Obama administration’s plan lacks accountability and the ability to enforce its call for workers’ rights.”

U.S. union federation AFL-CIO called on members to contact their representatives to “tell Congress we need jobs. Not unfair trade agreements.”

U.S. unions and human rights NGOs have long been vocal in calling for the FTA to not be passed until Colombia’s human rights record improves.

The plan however, is receiving firm support from U.S. politicians across the political divide.

In the U.S, Congress’ House Speaker, John Boehner (R-OH) announced passing the Colombian FTA, along with similar deals with Panama and South Korea, was a “top priority.”

The deals had previously been held up by disputes over the inclusion of a retraining program for workers displaced by trade.

Boehner said, “While the delay was unacceptably long and likely cost jobs, I am pleased the Obama Administration has finally done its part and sent these important trade pacts to Congress.”

He added, “I look forward to seeing them passed, as well as beginning the important task of working with the administration to further expand America’s trade agenda.”

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos thanked Obama for approving the long-stalled treaty.

Colombia and the U.S. signed the FTA in 2006. However, despite efforts from then-President George W. Bush to push it through before the end of his term, Bush’s Democratic opponents blocked the bill, citing concerns over Colombia’s human rights record.

Since assuming power in 2008, President Obama has said he will push for approval of the CPTA as long as Colombia offers concrete proof of improvements in its human rights and labor record.

Earlier this year, the U.S. and Colombia agreed a Labor Action Plan to address concerns over assassinations, violence and intimidation against unionists and abuse of workers.

While it has been broadly welcomed, the plan has come under criticism from unions and human rights groups for failing to alter the situation on the ground.

The CPTA has also been delayed by partisan political squabbling in the U.S, most recently over the inclusion of a retraining program for workers displaced by trade.

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