Colombian labor leader seeks trade pact delay

WASHINGTON (PAI) – Congress should delay the proposed U.S.-Colombia “free trade” agreement until a key Colombian law that leads to workers’ oppression changes and law enforcement there improves, a top Colombian union leader says.

In a Jan. 19 session at the Washington Office on Latin America, Javier Marrugo, president of the Union Portuaria, the nation’s port workers union, explained those workers handle 95 percent of cargoes to be imported and exported under the trade deal and that Colombian labor law is written to let so-called “cooperatives” ruthlessly exploit workers.

Marrugo’s visit was sponsored by the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center.

Port workers, most of whom are Afro-Colombian, have suffered reprisals, fear for their safety and face indiscriminate firings for even thinking of joining the union, Marrugo said. Some do not even earn Colombia’s minimum wage.

Most work under repeated four-month contracts signed with the cooperatives’ middlemen. The pacts, by Colombian labor law, prevent unionization and deny the workers basic benefits, Marrugo added.

Given those conditions, Congress should refuse to even consider the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement until conditions change, Marrugo said..

U.S. unions, led by the Communications Workers and Steel Workers, are strong advocates of Colombian workers’ rights and outspoken foes of both the FTA and the exploitative cooperatives. The cooperatives are often run by relatives of business owners, in the ports and elsewhere.

The Colombian law allowing such cooperative arrangements is so widespread and covers so many workers, says CWA President Larry Cohen, that Colombia is the only nation in the Western Hemisphere with a lower unionization rate than the U.S.

The AFL-CIO has campaigned against the U.S.-Colombia FTA, citing the Latin American nation’s paramilitaries and their murderous record – thousands of deaths in the past decade – against unionists. Colombia has long been the most dangerous nation on the globe for union members. Most of the murders are unsolved.

In response, past Democratic-run Congresses pigeonholed the U.S.-Colombia FTA, despite an aggressive business campaign for it and other “free trade” treaties. This Congress, with a GOP-run House, may be more susceptible to business lobbying.

Conditions may change in Colombia, Marrugo said. The new elected government there is more committed to workers’ rights. New vice president Angelino Garzon is a former union member and journalist who has already spoken out for changing the law establishing the cooperatives. Garzon will visit Washington Jan. 26 to discuss workers’ rights and the FTA, among other issues.

Marrugo said there is already legislation before the Colombian Congress to curb the exploitative cooperatives. But even so, he warned, the U.S. Congress should not act on the FTA until Colombia actually changes its law and improves its enforcement.

The Afro-Colombians, who are concentrated in the ports, sugar cane fields and banana plantations, are particularly vulnerable, he added.

Photo: Demonstrators bleed and shout after being attacked by police at the Labor Day march in Cali, Colombia, May 1, 2010. Christian Escobar Mora/AP



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.