Vale Coal Colombia has been violating the Labor Action Plan between the United States and Colombia, a requisite of the pending free trade agreement, through threats and reprisals against unionists in the northern department of Cesar, according to U.S. trade union United Steelworkers (USW).
In a letter to Vale Coal Colombia President Zenaldo Olivera, as well as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and several top U.S. officials, USW’s International President Leo W. Gerard lambasted recent retaliations against trade unionists at Vale’s El Hatillo coal mine in Cesar department.
Colombian trade union Sintramienergetica informed USW that workers at the mine organized a union in early June but that the company “unlawfully refused to recognize and bargain with that union” and “immediately proceeded to take reprisals against the workers in retaliation for their union support.”
Gerard also pointed out that “the majority of the workers at El Hatillo are not employed directly by the company but rather through so-called ‘bolsas de trabajo,'” allowing them to be deprived of “a wide range of rights.” This would appear to violate the Labor Action Plan signed by U.S. President Barack Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on April 7, 2011.
The Labor Action Plan signals part of the criteria to which Colombia must comply in order to advance the long-stalled FTA with the United States. The plan is primarily focused upon ensuring the rights and protection of workers and trade unionists. One of the provisions requires the Colombian government to prevent the misuse of cooperatives in ways such as those claimed by Sintramienergetica and USW.
Vale Coal Colombia, a branch of the Australia-based coal company Vale Coal, apparently sent supervisors to hold “daily ‘security meetings,’ as well as individual meetings in which they have threatened workers with dismissal if they do not renounce the union. These same supervisors have told employees quite ominously that nothing good will come of the union and that the union will bring ruin to themselves and their families,” Gerard wrote.
On June 12, the superintendent of the mine allegedly locked union leader Mario Prado “in his office and made a series of threats against him,” as well as blaming him for the firing of several fellow employees, which Gerard claimed was the cause for Prado being rushed to hospital with symptoms of a heart attack.
U.S. and Colombian labor unions remain firmly opposed to the FTA, primarily on the grounds of continuing human rights violations and a lack of protection for Colombian trade unionists and employees.
Although the FTA remains stalled in the U.S., Trade Representative Ron Kirk stated Monday that the White House expects to send the agreement to Congress before the August recess. On June 14 Kirk commended the Colombian progress regarding long-standing concerns about workers’ rights and anti-union violence.
“We are pleased that Colombia is meeting its commitments,” he said.
Despite reports of ongoing human rights violations and anti-union violence, coupled with strong opposition from Colombian and U.S. labor unions, the FTA is likely to be passed this year due to the steps that Colombia is outwardly taking to address the problems, rather than for any immediate impact.
Domestic Republican pressure is also a key factor, given their control of Congress, with Senator Orrin Hatch responding to Colombia’s reported progress by stating that “the Obama Administration has lost another excuse to delay the implementation of these vital trade pacts.”