The imminent passage of the Colombia-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA) will halt progress on the Andean nation’s appalling workers’ rights record, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) said Tuesday.
Gimena Sanchez, WOLA’s senior associate for Colombia, told Colombia Reports the final approval of the FTA would “significantly reduce the political leverage of the U.S. government to really change things for labor rights conditions in Colombia.”
U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to announce that Colombia has met the labor rights conditions required for final approval of the FTA at the upcoming Summit of the Americas, despite ongoing violence against unionists in the country. Since January 2012, four union members have been killed across the country, while dozens were murdered in 2011- Colombian unions say 51, the government says 30.
The Labor Action Plan, signed in April 2011 as part of FTA negotiations, stipulated that Colombia take measures against the threatening and killing of unionists, prosecute those suspected of violating workers’ rights, and combat the exploitation of laborers. The agreement allowed for the U.S. Congress to approve the FTA, the passage of which has been delayed since 2006 over human and labor rights concerns.
Sanchez warned it would be premature for Washington to announce a victory for labor rights in Colombia, saying “we are very concerned that there would be this idea that Colombia has complied so soon when the plan hasn’t been given enough time to actually be implemented properly and secondly when there are great violations to the plan going on currently.”
According to Sanchez, the Colombian government has failed to comply with the agreement and should be given more time to implement change. She cited the ongoing violence against union workers and continued use of third party contracting by major companies.
Private companies hire workers from individual contractors and associative labor cooperatives, which allows them to hire workers without offering contracts or benefits, crushing employees’ ability to unionize and demand fare wages and working conditions.
Sanchez asserted that although the Labor Action Plan forced the Colombian government to ban third party contractors, the labor cooperatives continue to operate under different titles.
She also noted that newly-established Ministry of Labor had not been in operation long enough to impact major changes. She estimates that at least another nine months are needed for proper implementation of the plan.
When asked how the government should proceed to protect labor rights, Sanchez emphasized the responsibility of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to “stand up to companies and tell them that Colombia is serious about making these changes.”
She also stressed the need to target high impunity for those suspected of crimes against unionists. “The first thing the Colombian government really needs to address is the 94% impunity issue when it comes to trade unionist violence. It needs to get a list together and implement sanctions and prosecute those responsible, not just the direct author of the crime, but those behind it as well,” she said.
Bolder efforts must be taken to dismantle paramilitary groups that continue to operate and threaten workers, as well as to ensure that the plan is implemented according to the agreement, she said.
According to Sanchez, “only about 100 of the 480 labor inspectors required in the agreement are in place currently.” She urged not only that these inspectors be put in place, but that the government ensures they are well-trained and advocating on behalf of workers’ rights, guaranteeing that disputes are dealt with properly.
“The plan itself is very good and if it’s achieved it would be a very positive thing for workers and it would also be a positive thing for US and Colombian businesses as it would allow for a more even playing field between the two countries in terms of the competition and so forth,” Sanchez told Colombia Reports.
In February the Obama administration said Colombia had still not complied with the Labor Action Plan — but his expected comments will signal that concerns have been assuaged.
If the FTA goes through as intended, it is estimated that “the tariff reductions in the agreement will expand exports of US goods alone by more than $1.1 billion,” and will “increase U.S. GDP by $2.5 billion,” according to the Office of the United States Trade Representative.
The Summit of the Americas will take place in Cartagena April 14 and 15.