Colombian union leaders say killings continue

WASHINGTON (PAI) — Three years after it was added as a side pact to the controversial U.S.-Colombia “free trade” pact, the Labor Action Plan designed to improve workers’ lot and their rights in the Latin American country is a failure, three Colombian union leaders and a top AFL-CIO official say. And that’s putting it mildly.

In an April 7 press conference, hosted by the AFL-CIO and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a human rights organization, Diogenes Orjuela García, International Director of the CUT Labor Federation, Rosa Flerez, General Secretary of the CTC Labor Federation, and Daniel Hawkins, Research Director of Colombia’s National Union School, described a pattern of continuing killings, violence and threats against Colombian unionists.

And, alongside it, there is still no accountability: Neither Colombian right-wing paramilitaries who carry out the crimes nor their sponsoring companies – including multi-nationals such as Coca Cola – are brought to justice.

“The plan is a piece of paper. There’s nothing enforceable,” AFL-CIO International Affairs Director Cathy Feingold told Press Associates Union News Service afterwards.

“Union members are seen as an obstacle by the extreme right,” Garcia commented.

The continuing violence in Colombia, where more than 3,000 unionists have been murdered since 1986 – including 73 since the free trade pact took effect on April 7, 2011 – is important to U.S. unionists, said Feingold. Besides 31 murdered unionists in 2013 alone, there were 60 “disappearances” and more than 1,000 threats.

One is that just the sheer amount of violence against unionists is chilling, she said. A second is the lack of an enforceable labor rights plan in that free trade pact – and the lack of political will in either Colombia or the U.S. to address the issue – is a red flag for similar such labor rights plans in other “free trade” treaties, notably the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

“Let’s learn from this lesson” from the Colombian failure “and have something that can actually be enforced” in future trade pacts, Feingold said.

The U.S. is negotiating the TPP with 11 other Pacific Rim nations. Some also lack worker rights, though none has the scale of killings and intimidation of Colombia. The Democratic Obama administration refuses to write enforceable worker rights into the TPP, other trade pacts, or the “fast-track” law it demands to help push pacts through.

The speakers, and reports both the federation and WOLA released, document the holes in the Colombian Labor Action Plan (LAP). They include:

Government denial

“In many of the murder cases, the government says it (the murder) was not because they’re union members,” Garcia said. In fact, the reports note, in many cases, the Colombian government wrongly labeled the murdered unionists as members of the long-running groups of armed rebels in the country.

“There have been 1,544 cases investigated from 1988-2013, and in only 66 has anyone been found guilty,” Hawkins said. “And it’s not just the killings. It’s threats so the person no longer wants to work as a union man.”

Colombian inaction

The report documents how the Colombian government has hired 586 temporary labor inspectors, given them ill-defined duties and put them to work on administrative cases, not enforcement of internationally agreed-upon worker rights. Colombia agreed to those rights as part of the LAP. And there have been no prosecutions of murderers of unionists since the LAP was signed.

The Colombian government viewed the LAP, which congressional Democrats forced the GOP Bush government to accept as their price for the U.S.-Colombia pact, as needed to get the pact through Capitol Hill. Colombia’s government has partially implemented seven of the LAP’s 37 action recommendations and ignored the rest.

Phony contracts

The report and the speakers said a system of “cooperative” Colombian labor contracts, which stripped workers of their rights, was supposed to be abolished. It has been eliminated in many cases, Hawkins said. But it’s been replaced by a similar contract system, sponsored by the government, and negotiated between Colombia’s Labor Ministry and the companies, with no worker input.

Colombia cites those several hundred contracts, many of them in the public health sector, as evidence that it’s allowing unionization. The contracts are similar to the “company union” pacts prevalent in the U.S. before they were outlawed by the 1935 National Labor Relations Act,.

U.S. inaction

With a few exceptions, Congress has not called the Obama administration on the carpet for its lack of effort in pushing Colombia to implement the LAP’s provisions, or for its lack of effort in pushing U.S. corporations active in Colombia to abide by the worker rights they agreed to when the LAP was inserted in the pact.

“We’ve put pressure on the U.S. government to put pressure on U.S. corporations” and the Colombian government, “and we’ve seen nothing,” Feingold said.

The U.S. has sent millions of dollars – at least $47 million – to Colombia’s aid to implement the Labor Action Plan, but with no accountability. “Where are the results?” asked WOLA’s senior associate for Colombia, Gimena Sanchez.

Despite the problems, the Colombian union leaders agreed with the AFL-CIO the LAP should stand, but enforcement and accountability must back it. That includes establishing a special independent panel with the power to require progress reports every six months and to order changes. It also would extend U.S.-Colombian talks on LAP implementation, now scheduled to end this November, for another four years.

Photo: Ecopetrol workers protesting lack of sick leave were attacked by police. Colombian CUT website.




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.