Labor Action and Inaction in Colombia Free Trade Deal

As the media swarmed over the scandal surrounding the Secret Service's alleged carousing with prostitutes in Colombia, another questionable financial transaction slipped quietly through the backdoor of hemispheric diplomacy.

As the media swarmed over the scandal surrounding the Secret Service's alleged carousing with prostitutes in Colombia, another questionable financial transaction slipped quietly through the backdoor of hemispheric diplomacy.

While officials convened at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena earlier this month, the White House put the finishing touches on another free trade agreement, aimed at liberalizing markets in Colombia and the U.S. The deal has faced vocal resistance from labor and human rights groups in both countries, who argue that the agreement would effectively condone violence against activists and economic oppression. But for the governments looking to build economic ties, the fears raised by civil society groups were just background noise. The Obama administration tried to put the lid on the opposition by tacking on labor policies to address anti-labor violence and other abuses.

Now officials have tacked onto the deal a Labor Action Plan, which, at least on paper, promotes fairer labor practices and stronger protections for workers and unions. The White House has certified Colombia's compliance with the plan--a condition of sealing the trade agreement, which is set to go into effect in May. Human rights and labor activists are not impressed, pointing to dozens of recent murders of trade unionists and other union-busting actions, along with ingrained weaknesses in Colombia's political system that foster corporate and government impunity.

Historian Greg Grandin spoke on Democracy Now! about the gap between what activists demanded and what they got:

The human rights community, the labor community in the United States has been asking the Obama administration to basically build into any free trade agreement a number of guarantees. One, they wanted to see real change on the ground, before they went forward--say, a three-year period where there would be no murders, no executions of trade unionists. The White House refused that. They asked for a mechanism built into the trade agreement that would void the treaty if executions started to rise again. The White House refused to do that.

Though the Colombian government has recently taken some steps to reform its labor regulations, such as passing protective legislation, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) said in a statement:

While the number of trade unionists killed has gone down ... the security climate and death threats against them has not changed. This leaves the possibility that the number of murders and attacks could flare up once the FTA moves forward....

The Ministry is not even intervening to implement the International Labor Organization's (ILO) recommendations as mandated by the Labor Action Plan. The case of 51 fired public sector workers of EMCALI is just one of many examples. Rather than implement the ILO's March 2012 recommendations to rehire the workers, authorities proceeded to evict the workers who held a hunger strike in Cali last week. These victims of Colombia's unjust labor practices, all of whom have been unemployed since 2004 since they were blacklisted for standing up for labor rights, are not even permitted to protest.

This climate of suppression is particularly harmful to Afro-Colombian communities, who face extreme discrimination. According to WOLA, the overtures toward reform in the government ring hollow to scores of Afro-Colombian port workers in Turbo, who were fired after trying to unionize last fall: "Those workers were given an ultimatum--sign a letter stating they will not affiliate with a trade union or enjoy unemployment." In a January letter to the Labor Minister, advocates complained, "they are denying the fired workers of their contractual rights, withholding their salaries, and forcing them to undress in order to inspect them."

Nonetheless, the letter cites a provision of the Labor Action Plan in its petition to authorities, suggesting that Plan could enable some workers to redress grievances if actually implemented. But there seems to be little political will to actually put those rules into effect in the factories and the fields, where communities are already besieged by economic turmoil, civil conflict, and rural impoverishment.

Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli, an advocate with WOLA, told In These Times,

If the LAP is fully and properly applied (this does not formally form part of the FTA) it will lead to great improvements. However, the Obama Administration chose to sacrifice the one great opportunity it had to really change things in Colombia by declaring an early victory.

Sanchez-Garzoli added that while labor provisions similar to the Labor Action Plan were attached to the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), a precursor to the Colombia deal, but have failed to provide meaningful recourse for workers. In the long run, she said, the Colombia pact "will make it even harder for workers to organize."

Washington's green light for the Labor Action Plan isn't the end of the story. Countervailing forces against neoliberal trade measures like the Colombia agreement, and other policies like the drug war, are gathering momentum across the hemisphere.

The growing militancy of left, indigenous and environmental movements in Latin America, together with growing backlash in the U.S. against corporate impunity, present alternative platforms that place the protection of workers and the environment over free-market politics. While the Labor Action Plan of the Washington Consensus might remain mostly on paper, pro-labor action at the grassroots is rolling on, with or without official approval.

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