The US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement affects how we understand and defend trade unionism in the most dangerous country to engage in trade union activities.
The Colombia-US Free Trade Agreement (FTA) signed in 2006 during the Bush administration, was protested by President Obama and many other Democrats as far back as 2008, “because the violence against unions in Colombia would make a mockery of the very labor protections that we have insisted be included in these kinds of agreements.” Under the current US administration the conditions for ratification are simple: either the Colombian government takes direct action to safeguard the lives of trade unionists and strengthens its judicial system as to enforce workers rights or the treaty will not pass in Congress.
Ratification should go beyond meeting these conditions. Less people are joining trade unions than they were before Uribe’s administration, fewer trade unions are being allowed to form, legislation has changed labor laws and conditions, and informal work has increased. These are symptomatic of a prevalent anti-unionist climate. The impact the FTA would have in trade unionism should not be exclusively measured by violence against trade unionists but should take into account the impact of said violence, namely the dangers in defending workers rights and the erosion of the right of freedom of association.
As Demos points out in its latest report on the FTA, the agreement has no actual clauses to protect workers rights and their right to freedom of association. Moreover, the commonly held view in Colombia, as expressed by the ‘National Development Plan’ (Plan de Desarrollo Nacional) is that private enterprise is the main source of development. Many Colombia officials interpret the Development Plan and FTA as relieving the state of its responsibility to uphold workers’ rights by transferring accountability to the private sector.
It’s important to understand the problematic state of labor rights in Colombia. For example, under the current administration, deaths of trade unionists have decreased by 80%, however according to the International Trade Union Confederation’s (ITUC) annual report, Colombia accounted for 60% of the murders on trade union activists in 2009, which is more than any other country. The University of the Andes published a study arguing that Colombia has become safer for trade unionism, showing a decline of violence against trade unionists and alleges the violence isn’t systematic. However, by emphasizing on violence and death threats as sole indicators for violence against trade unionists, it is presumed the anti-trade union climate is an effect rather than a cause for the violence, which makes it not only systematic, but neglects to address the decline in trade unions, trade unionists and the impact this has on the development of decent work conditions, living wage, pensions and workers rights.
Only 4.5% of the working population in Colombia is unionized. 60% of the Colombian working population is in the informal sector, and their rights are unprotected. Women earn 23 to 30% less than men, and are more likely to be unemployed. According to Demos, the 2002 labor reform embodied in Law 789 extended daytime working hours, reduced overtime pay, and decreased severance payments, leaving workers laboring under precarious working conditions. All of the abovementioned issues could be addressed through active trade unions that represent workers’ interests and defend workers’ rights.
Further stigmatizing the labor movement in Colombia, President Uribe has equated their leaders and rights campaigners with the guerrilla, ‘the intellectual wing of the FARC’. The stigmatization has led to low levels of union organization and increases in other forms of violence and oppression such as threats, wire tapings, and forced displacement, used to suppress union activity. The United States has the opportunity to use the bargaining power of future trade benefits as incentive for Colombia to promote a culture of respect for labor rights, improve enforcement of labor laws, and end the impunity with which labor rights violations and assassinations of trade unionists occur.
It‘s urgent we continue to focus the grave condition of labor rights and unionism in Colombia, rather than accept the status quo as satisfactory. On June 5th 2010 Hernan Abadia Ordoñez Dorado, member of the ASEINPEC Trade Union was murdered by an unknown assailant. However, only two days later, on June 7th, the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) removed Colombia from their list of countries to be examined for failure to comply with international standards for workers conditions. After years leading the charts being the most dangerous country to organize in the workplace, and the current government’s death toll of 527 trade unionists over 8 years, it seems as though Colombia has been pardoned and overlooked without an explanation from the ILO’s press officer Von Rohland. As a consequence Bill Clinton announced during his visit to Colombia that ‘questions about working rights are no longer an issue’ and that the US Congress is likely to approve of the treaty. Saying that working rights are no longer an issue five days after a trade unionist was killed raises questions about the international community’s standards and how they should be addressed so as conditions are improved for workers and their rights in Colombia.
In spite of what seems to be good news for Uribe’s administration, reticence prevails in the current US administration, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton still showed concern over violence against trade unionists even though she manifested commitment with the FTA as ‘the government’s number one priority in the region’. US Trade Representative Ron Kirk also expressed the government’s desire to sign the FTA but was hesitant pending the results of the fact finding to “identify what additional steps the Colombian government, with US support, could take to ensure fundamental labor rights can be fully exercised. The doors are still open to make an argument for not only the reduction of trade union violence but the protection of those outside it, the active promotion of trade unionism in order to ensure the FTA has positive rather than negative effects on Colombia’s development and its working class.
According to both the US and Colombian governments promises to create jobs and promote development, however, according to the United Nations and civil society organizations the FTA will have negative effects on Colombian rural community as subsidized products from the US will swamp the Colombian markets. The poorest of the country may not only be out of work but their purchasing power may decrease, putting in danger the economy and the already vulnerable situation small farmers find themselves due to their physical and political location between the interests of paramilitaries, guerrilla groups, the drug trade and the state.
The FTA itself must be reformed. Currently, as Demos demonstrated in he above-mentioned report, the agreement merely regulates employer-employee relations. Employers are not directly responsible for violence against trade unionists, impunity prevails. The judiciary has not punished violence against trade unions enough to deter assailants. The situation of violence and impunity reinforces the anti-union culture in Colombia and further deters people from engaging in trade union activities, especially in the private sector. The state has deemed strikes illegal because they are detrimental to the ‘national interest’. Under the 2002 labor reform law 789, ‘a company is allowed to divide its production units, prohibiting labor relations between them, and in result prohibiting the formation of a single union per workplace, the expansion of an existing union, or collective bargaining as a single unit’.
We must look beyond the agreement. Even after reading the fine print it’s what is between the lines, the livelihoods of working people and the generations to come that have to be carefully analyzed and addressed.
If the FTA is leveraged as a means to improve protections for workers’ rights in Colombia, it must also address the rights of non-unionized workers and the result of years of violence against unionists in Colombia by actively promoting trade unionism as the best measure to improve workplace conditions. For what good is it that trade unionist violence decreases if fewer people are actually in trade unions? And they don’t have a living wage, decent working conditions and job security? Why even use the political leverage of the US-Colombia free trade agreement if the result will worsen the already alarming situation for workers and labor organization?