A free trade agreement (FTA) between Colombia and the United States is continued to be held up because Colombia is not updating its labor laws and shows no improvement in its human and labor rights record, says America’s largest union, AFL-CIO, one of the chief opponents to the FTA.
According to Jeff Vogt, Global Economic Policy Specialist of the AFL-CIO, Colombia has yet to bring its labor code up to international standards in order to protect the rights of workers.
In a conversation with Colombia Reports, Vogt explained that “the lack of respect for fundamental worker rights in Colombia is manifested in the amount of violence against trade unionists and impunity towards those that afflict the violence.”
What the Colombian labor code lacks, Vogt explained, are protections for workers to “freely associate, to strike, and to use cooperatives” to protect their fundamental human rights as workers.
“Colombian laws are simply not aligned with international (labor) laws, and several international organizations have made similar complaints against the Colombian labor code.”
The FTA, as Vogt noted, requires that Colombia must pass laws that are consistent with international standards, and “Colombia is not there.” More so, Vogt claimed, Colombia is “not even enforcing the laws that they do currently have” on their books.
Human rights concerns
The second main point holding up the passing of the FTA is the issue of human rights. Vogt admits that Colombia has made vast improvements in decreasing the annual amount of trade unionists murdered, but explains that this is still not enough; Colombia was the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists in 2009.
“I think nobody will argue, we saw peaks of violence against unionists in some years being as high as 200 killed per year. Now we are at 48 killed in 2009. That is certainly a decrease, but we are still talking about 48 people being killed for being union activists! In addition, that does not even take into account the amount of death threats received. People focus on assassinations because it’s such a horrendous crime, but we hear all kinds of stories about people receiving death threats. For example, a group of workers are considering filing papers in order to form a union, they receive a call threatening them and their family if they move forward with the filing.”
These types of incidents are rampant, Vogt explained, and are “not reported in the body count.” The effect of this, Vogt argued, is that it prevents unions from even forming in the first place.
The US government is not the only one demanding Colombia to improve its labor laws and human rights record in order to move forward with an FTA. Canada and the European Union are also putting pressure on Colombia to take concrete steps to address its internal problems.
In addition to problems associated with the amount of violence and human rights abuses, Colombia also fails to effectively prosecute those responsible for the crimes. According to Vogt, “Many of those that are prosecuted are material authors, not those that plan the crimes. In addition, many of those that are being prosecuted are being tried in absentia, and they are not in state custody.”
Economically speaking, Vogt argued that the passage of the FTA would have little, if any, effect on GDP.
On the U.S. side, Vogt explained that each FTA must be accompanied by a study from the International Trade Commission, a federal agency that provides trade policy advice to the government, in order to analyze the impacts of a potential FTA agreement.
Normally, Vogt noted, the Commission makes extremely inflated projections. “If you look at past projects and what they predicted, you will see that they usually never materialize.”
In the Trade Commission’s study on the Colombian FTA, Vogt explained that they are “only predicting a 0.05% increase in US gross domestic product, and almost no job creation.”
“As far as having this be a silver bullet as to our job crisis, its obviously not.”
On the other side, the FTA could be detrimental to a lot of industries in Colombia, Vogt argued. Flooding the Colombian market with duty-free US agricultural products could put a lot of rural Colombians out of work, as they would not be able to compete with the heavily subsidized and powerful American agricultural industry. “In some regions, this could force some people into the drug trade,” as it would be the only crop they would be able to grow for a profit.
There are also fears that the light machinery and manufacturing industry wouldn’t be able to hold up to US competitors if the FTA is passed.
The US-Colombian FTA was originally signed under former President George W. Bush in 2006. It was shortly thereafter passed by the Colombian congress, but remains in limbo in the US, with President Barack Obama having yet to send it to congress for passing.
Many democratic Congressman in the US remain against its passage, citing various reasons ranging from human rights, labor codes, and economic reasons. The AFL-CIO strongly opposes the FTA with Colombia. The AFL-CIO, or the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, has over 11 million members.