By Eric Gottwald, International Labor Rights Forum
After five years of struggle, the U.S. Congress passed the U.S. trade promotion agreement with Colombia on October 12th. The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) has opposed the passage of any FTA with Colombia until the Colombian government demonstrates the political will and capacity to make meaningful, lasting improvements to its dismal record on enforcing internationally-recognized, fundamental labor rights.
For over a decade, Colombia has been the world’s most dangerous country to be a trade unionist. According to the Solidarity Center of the AFL-CIO, roughly 4,000 Colombian trade unionists have been murdered in the past 20 years. Fifty one Colombian unionists were murdered in 2010, more than the rest of the world combined. Shockingly, virtually no one is prosecuted or convicted for these crimes, with an impunity rate of approximately 96 percent.
In 2009, the ILRF submitted written comments to the United States Trade Representative outlining a set of labor rights benchmarks that the Colombian government should meet before the U.S. considers the passage of any FTA, including:
- Demonstrate a dramatic and sustained reduction (and eventual elimination) of violence and threats against trade unionists and other human rights defenders.
- Demonstrate a dramatic increase in the rates of investigation and successful prosecution of those who commit acts of violence against trade unionists, including exploring alleged links between paramilitary groups, multinational corporations, and Colombian security forces.
- Enact labor law reforms to bring Colombia in compliance with the 8 ILO Core Conventions it has ratified and close the loopholes in Colombian law that allow employers to use “labor cooperatives,” temporary contracting, and other schemes that undermine Colombian workers’ right to organize and bargain collectively.
In April of 2011, the U.S. and Colombian governments announced the signing of the “Labor Action Plan,” in an effort to address concerns about impunity for labor rights violations in Colombia. While far from a comprehensive reform plan, the Action Plan did create benchmarks in key areas, including hiring additional labor inspectors, enhanced protections for union leaders facing death threats, and closing gaps in Colombian laws that allow employers to use “labor cooperatives” to avoid the legal responsibilities of a direct employment relationship.
Unfortunately, the Administration proceeded as if the signing of the Labor Action Plan was an end in itself, rather than a first-step in a process of evaluating whether the Colombian government can demonstrate a sincere and sustained commitment to improving its labor rights environment. Congress was asked to vote on the TPA just six months after the Action Plan was signed, far too short a time to properly evaluate its impact. In fact, an initial report by a prominent Colombian research organization found that while the government has taken some administrative steps towards formal compliance, there has been little or no visible progress on the ground so far. Since the benefits of the trade agreement were never conditioned on Colombia’s compliance with the Labor Action Plan, the rush to pass the FTA may have removed the only remaining incentive the Colombian government had to make a sustained, meaningful effort to improve working conditions.
Through its programs and legal work, the ILRF has seen first-hand how the government of Colombia has allowed employers to create an environment of hostility towards unions that denies workers the ability to exercise their most basic rights. Since 2003, ILRF has promoted the labor rights of workers in the cut flower industry in Colombia through our Fairness in Flowers Campaign, which has documented severe labor rights violations, including the targeted firings of union leaders, abuse of temporary contracting schemes, firing women when they become pregnant, and exposure to toxic chemicals.
If the Labor Action Plan is to have any meaningful impact for workers, the Obama administration must keep its word to hold the Colombian government accountable for the full implementation of its commitments to protect union leaders, fully investigate and prosecute crimes against unionists, end the abuse of contracting schemes that undermine the right to organize, and dedicate the necessary resources to improve labor rights enforcement. ILRF will continue to work with its partners to support Colombian workers’ struggle for justice and their fundamental right to organize for a better life.