The people of Buenaventura, Colombia’s most important Pacific port city, will most likely suffer from the passage of the free trade agreement (FTA) between the United States and Colombia, according to a human rights NGO.
A senior associate for Colombia from the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli, explained that passing the FTA would have devastating effects on the port city. “The FTA may only exacerbate the inequality and poverty in Colombian municipalities like Buenaventura,” said Sanchez.
Sanchez told Colombia Reports that the FTA will “help consolidate a labor structure that is already in place that doesn’t allow people to freely associate and unionize.”
According to the human rights activist, the Colombian Port Authority was privatized in 1994 and replaced by the Regional Port Society of Buenaventura. The private port authority hires workers from individual contractors and associative labor cooperatives (CTA), which allow them to hire workers without offering them contracts or benefits.
While the new private company helped to expand and increase commerce in the ports, it also crushed its employees’ ability to unionize and demand fare wages and working conditions.
“A dockworker, if lucky, could earn between $170 and $226 every two weeks. Most earn about $113, which does not meet the national minimal wage requirements,” Sanchez explained.
The Labor Action Plan, a prerequisite agreement between U.S. President Barack Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, was passed in response to critics of the FTA in an attempt to improve the human rights and labor conditions in Colombia. Sanchez asserted that although the Labor Action Plan forced the Colombian government to ban CTAs, the labor cooperatives simply changed their names and continue to operate.
“Colombia may always have the best laws in the world but when it comes to implementing and enforcing, there are serious issues. There is tremendous impunity, there is still very weak institutions, and there is a general lack of political will to really implement these [changes],” Sanchez maintained.
Sanchez also explained that the FTA would “embolden” illegal armed groups who extort legitimate businesses in exchange for “security” and the safe passage of products. Increasing commerce and trade in these areas would give more opportunities to the illegal armed groups who already ravage port communities.
The senior associate believes that Buenaventura is especially susceptible because of the population’s Afro-Colombian heritage, which she feels makes the population invisible to the government because of racial discrimination.
Sanchez expects that the FTA will most likely pass in the next few weeks, not because of improvements from the Labor Action Plan, but for the American jobs the FTA is expected to create. She argues that passing the FTA will “significantly reduce the leverage” of the U.S. government to improve human rights conditions in Colombia, as has proven true with NAFTA.
“The argument that passing an FTA helps to increase pressure on labor issues and on human rights and displacement concerns just hasn’t proven to be true. Why would Colombia be any different?”