Colombian senator: U.S.-backed labor rights plan a flop

WASHINGTON – The labor action plan for workers’ rights added to the controversial U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement is failing, a Colombian senator and union leaders are telling their U.S. colleagues. The U.S. should start enforcing it, they add.

Otherwise, U.S. and Colombian workers will both be the losers, they said.

From Feb. 11-13, Colombian Sen. Alexander Lopez Maya and three top leaders of Colombia’s oil workers union – Cesar Liza, German Osman and union president Rodolfo Vecino Acevedo – brought their message to the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees. Leaders of other Colombian unions accompanied them.

The group discussed workers’ rights with pro-worker lawmakers, the State and Labor Departments, the U.S. Trade Representative, the Agency for International Development and Colombia’s Embassy. The U.S. agencies are involved with Colombia.

The AFL-CIO and SEIU promised to take up the Colombian workers’ cause again with U.S. officials and lobby for enforcement of the side pact, Lopez Maya said in a telephone interview with Press Associates Union News Service.

The Steelworkers sponsored the Columbians’ trip to the U.S., along with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a top human rights group. Steelworkers Associate General Counsel Daniel Kovalik raised the same issues in a Feb. 12 letter to lawmakers, citing the murder of three Colombian union leaders so far this year.

Those three are added to 19 murders last year and 3,000 since 1980, said Lopez Maya. The number of death threats against unionists and their families has increased, he added. The carnage has made Colombia the most dangerous nation in the world for unionists. It’s also one of the least unionized, with only four percent organized.

Few perpetrators have been brought to trial, but right-wing paramilitaries have confessed to 450 of the killings, Lopez Maya added. But they did so to Colombia’s Truth and Justice Commission.  The testimony gains them lesser jail sentences. “And we still don’t know who ordered the unionists’ murders,” Lopez Maya said.

U.S. unions, notably the Steelworkers and the Communications Workers, led the domestic opposition to the U.S.-Colombia FTA, which George Bush negotiated. The Obama administration, under pressure from U.S. unions and some congressional Democrats, forced addition of the labor action plan that the Colombian senanator and unions say is not being taken seriously by the government or by corporations.

The murders and death threats are not the whole story. The Colombian government still puts obstacles in the way of workers who want to unionize, even though current president Eduardo de los Santos has pledged to protect worker rights.

One notorious “cooperative” subcontract system of hiring workers – which prevented workers from organizing under Colombian law – was dumped, Acevedo said. It was replaced by an equivalent system, where the hiring firms were “simplified stock companies,” which then sign up workers.

Under Colombian law, Lopez Maya explained, that still prevents the workers from unionizing, because such stock companies are exempt from laws requiring respect for organizing rights and because workers are not directly hired by the port, factory, or other enterprise.

And while last year’s hunger strike by eight GM Colombia workers outside the U.S. embassy finally drew a response from the ambassador, there’s been no actual remedial action on the complaints of the workers. The GM workers cited lack of pay and repression of workers’ rights.

The oil workers’ union, the port workers union and the sugar cane workers have been particularly repressed, Lopez Maya adds. Police were called to break up oil workers’ organizing in Cartagena, the main export terminal. Oil workers who expressed interest in unionizing were immediately and summarily fired. And when Lopez Maya tried to enter the port to address workers, a YouTube video shows police driving him off.

A memo from Union Portuaria, via WOLA, describes employer intransigence in bargaining and dominance of the temp hiring firms. “In 2012, more than 1,000 workers were fired from their port jobs” for seeking to unionize or meeting with organizers, it says.  “In addition, around 600 workers had their salaries reduced by the Port Authority.”

The Colombians renewed their campaign for enforcement of the FTA’s labor side pact this year following a one-year hiatus, Lopez Maya added. “We’ll ask the Hill to start work on enforcing the Labor Action Plan. We understand that last year, because of the U.S. election, its priority fell through. Now that he [Obama] is in his second term, we want him to make it a priority,” Lopez Maya said.

The U.S. can enforce the labor pact by formal complaints to a joint panel, saying Colombia fails to follow the pact’s commitments. But past U.S. complaints to such panels, covering other Latin American nations, have gone nowhere. So Lopez Maya and the unionists will return to publicity: His Colombian Senate committee will hold a hearing in April on workers’ rights – and he wants U.S. unions to send representatives and delegations to again reveal and report on the situation in Colombia.

Image: Women carry signs demanding negotiations to end violence against workers in Colombia. Luis Gomez // CC BY-ND 2.0


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.