Free trade pact yields few gains for Colombian workers

WASHINGTON – One year after implementation of the controversial U.S.-Colombian “free trade agreement” and its Labor Action Plan (LAP) attachment, workers’ rights in the troubled Latin American nation have improved on paper, but very little on the ground, three top Colombian unionists say.

In a July 24 panel discussion at the AFL-CIO and in visits with U.S. lawmakers who insisted on writing the worker rights agreement, the three added that while the new Colombian government pushed through almost three-fourths of the promised legal reforms, a culture of impunity and non-enforcement of workers’ rights has yet to change.

As a result, even since the FTA officially began, there have been 485 violent incidents against unionists in Colombia, long wracked by a civil war.  They include 28 murders, bringing the death toll of unionists there to 2,921 in 26 years.  The latest murder, in April, was of Daniel Aguirre, one of the union negotiators of the LAP.

“It is easier to form an armed group than to form a labor union” in Colombia, commented one of the local union leaders, Miguel Conde.

 The situation in Colombia is important to U.S. workers, explained AFL-CIO panelist Celeste Drake.  “What we are unable to do about labor rights” in both countries “has been because of our corporate-directed trade policies,” she said.  “The only way Colombian workers gain the benefits of exercising fundamental workers’ rights is if the Labor Action Plan is fully implemented.”

But it isn’t, say Drake, Gimena Sanchez of the Washington Office on Latin America or the three union leaders.  The human rights group co-hosted the session.  Along with the AFL-CIO, it released reports on workers rights in Colombia.

And now that the U.S.-Colombia FTA has begun, there is little leverage for Colombia to improve its workers’ rights record, unless the U.S. pushes, panelists said.

“President Obama and (Colombian President) Santos clearly delivered for the multi-nationals and commercial interests, but now they must deliver for labor and the human rights community,” Sanchez said.  But Colombian workers face huge problems:

  • Individual labor contracts, which so-called “cooperatives” signed with workers in key industries that benefit from the FTA – including bananas, palm oil and ports – were outlawed. Firms changed the names of the contracts to “benefits agreements” and

Colombian officials have not enforced the law against them.  The contracts ban workers from organizing, and strip them of basic benefits, including wages and health care.  As a result, according to both the Colombians and the Communications Workers – one of two U.S. unions, with the Steelworkers, that has taken the lead in the fight over Colombian labor rights – only about 4% of Colombia’s workers are unionized.

 · Threats against unionists and their families continue and the government has been lax about providing promised protection.  Conde, general secretary of the Puerto Wilches local of the palm oil workers, said he and his colleagues must frequently move, and often they and their families fear to venture outdoors. 

“There has been no government response” to worker demands, as authorized by the Colombian LAP, for protection, he said. “But the companies have responded with reprisals and firings on various (palm oil) plantations.”

  • Companies manipulated Colombian law over decades to deprive workers of basic rights. In one outstanding case, said Jose Luciano Sanin Vasquez, director of the National Trade Union School in Medellin, Colombian law, even before 1995, barred subcontracting and deprivation of rights from workers at the national airline, Avianca.

Nonetheless, the carrier, which depends heavily on traffic with the U.S., evaded the law and has lowered union density there from 90% in that year to 20% now.

  • Afro-Colombians, who work primarily in sugar cane, are even more exploited than other workers, said Jhonsson Torres, a sugar cane union leader. Those workers were also treated as subcontractors. His union staged a 2-month strike of such workers several months ago, wining concessions – but not abolition of the individual contracts, even though Colombian law presumably now outlaws them.
  • The country’s labor minister wants to enforce the law, but faces a culture of inertia in his own ministry, huge resistance from the multi-nationals and general apathy, said Sanin Vasquez. Colombia’s government is more interested in reaping the benefits of the U.S.-Colombia FTA than in enforcing its worker rights conditions, he added.
  • Crimes against the unionists, including the murders, are not investigated, and perpetrators go unpunished, all three Colombian union leaders said. The sole exceptions are when former members of Right Wing paramilitaries, on trial for their roles in the nation’s long-running civil war, confess to murders of union leaders.
  • Obama lost leverage and made a huge mistake when he declared, at a summit of international leaders, that the FTA could now be implemented. Instead, the three said, he should press Colombia to live up to its commitments on worker rights.

Photo: Public Citizen // CC 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.