By Ed Mattos, Intern, International Labor Rights Forum
It was very hot at noontime on July 11. That did not deter a few hundred opponents of the proposed US – Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) from gathering in Lafayette Park in Washington, DC and energetically denouncing the agreement and the attempts to push it through the US Congress. Among those speaking out were environmentalists, Presbyterians, Colombian and US unionists, and representatives of the indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations. Each of them described how the proposed FTA would do harm. Increased US investment in the extraction of oil, gas, and minerals would deprive indigenous people of their traditional homes; ecological consequences would be disastrous and permanent. Many questioned why the US Congress and President Obama wanted to reward Colombia’s dismal record on labor rights and the unpunished assassinations of trade union leaders.
Despite the heat, the demonstrators were ready to march to the nearby White House and let the President know how they felt. They carried 51 black “coffins” representing the number of Colombian unionists murdered in 2010. Accompanied by drummers and buglers, the crowd marched and chanted their way to the fence surrounding the White House. There were Teamsters, Steelworkers, members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees [AFSCME] and Service Employees International Union [SEIU], and at least one Ironworker. The coffins were laid on the sidewalk nearest the presidential mansion as curious tourists watched and learned about the issues. As the crowd chanted, “Fair Trade not Free Trade”, US Park Police moved to arrest those who had decided to non-violently disobey their order to disburse. All of the demonstrators remained to show support for those arrested and ensure that they were not harmed.
The police van bearing their arrested comrades drove away while the rest of the demonstrators talked about future actions. It was a hot day and a good day.
On June 10 Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos signed into law legislation intended to compensate Colombian citizens victimized by the military – and paramilitary - campaign against the rebel FARC organization. This new law, opposed by Santos’s predecessor Alvaro Uribe, has been seen as an attempt to overcome US congressional opposition to the free trade pact. On June 2, Daniel Wilkinson referenced the new “Victims Law” in the New York Review of Books, giving the final assessment:
By returning stolen lands and allowing parapolitics investigations to advance unhindered, Santos could undercut the power of the new "hybrid elite," who remained far more loyal to Uribe than to him. And progress on both would put him in a much better position to win the prize that had eluded his predecessor: ratification of the FTA.” [“Parapolitics” is a term used to describe the organizations established by members of the paramilitary to acquire the land of their victims through influencing government officials.]
The agreement, of course, was the result of negotiations between Uribe’s administration and that of George W. Bush. Opposition to ratification of the agreement has mostly been fueled by the issue of human rights in Colombia, where more than 2800 trade union leaders have been murdered since 1986. Additionally, Colombian organizations such as the Colombian Action Network Regarding Free Trade [RECALCA] have pointed out that there are significant domestic economic consequences. For example, small farmers would be at a disadvantage if their produce has to compete with cheaper imports from subsidized US agriculture, the same effect that NAFTA had on Mexican farmers. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in May that placing the Colombian FTA before Congress for a ratification vote would be a “strategic blunder” which could affect union support for President Obama in 2012.
In a further development reported on the US Trade Representative website: "United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk announced that Colombia has met the milestones slated for completion by June 15, 2011, under the agreed Action Plan Related to Labor Rights."
Clearly, the “strategic blunder” is gaining momentum. The Action Plan has been criticized as requiring a tepid response to an egregious issue. It was roundly denounced in May of last year by the Colombian Central Union of Workers [CUT]. The firmly entrenched animosity toward labor rights “cannot be resolved through statements of good intentions” said the CUT, which reaffirmed its opposition to the FTA.
A report issued in May 2011 by the Colombian National Trade Union School [ENS] analyzed labor statistics released by the National Administrative Department of Statistics [DANE] of Colombia. While not directly critical of the proposed FTA, the report points out that increased Direct Foreign Investment in Colombia has not provided a concomitant increase in jobs.
For many in the US, it is difficult to understand the issues because of the unfamiliarity with the structure of labor in Colombia. Colombian labor law provides protections for workers directly employed by the employer. However, much employment in Colombia is informal – akin to US “independent contractors” – or is provided through labor “cooperatives” which are legal but not subject to labor law protections. Union membership among Colombian workers is only about 4%, with less than 2% covered by collective bargaining agreements. In addition, the substantial presence of illegal drug production and distribution renders many areas of the country beyond the reach of labor law enforcement. Though illegal by statute, child labor is commonplace.
While the Obama – Santos Action Plan and the controversy occasioned by the proposed FTA have led to some improvement in security for Colombian unionists, there remains much progress to be made. Prosecution and punishment of the perpetrators of anti-union crimes has been uneven with many of those convicted in absentia remaining at-large. There are many who fear that passage of the US – Colombia free trade pact will cause labor law enforcement to once again be deemphasized in Colombia, especially if Santos leaves the Presidency.
Until Colombia’s trade unionists are in a much stronger position, there should be no consideration of such an agreement. As it currently stands, the Colombia FTA is seriously flawed. Because it promotes “free” trade rather than fair trade, there are several organizations which are bringing pressure to bear on US legislators to not ratify the agreement. In addition to the US labor movement there are human rights and environmental groups that are waging continuing campaigns against ratification through public demonstrations and other means. Opposition to all pending free trade agreements can be registered online. The Latin American Working Group [LAWG] has an online petition to stop the US-Colombia FTA.