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Three Years After Colombia Deal, Workers Still Face Violence, Impunity and Unfair Working Conditions

Three years ago today, the U.S.–Colombia Free Trade Agreement entered into force. At the time, many of the same promises that are being thrown around in the Fast Track debate also were being discussed in terms of Colombia—that the trade agreement would promote better labor conditions and create good jobs.

Three years later, we see how empty those promises were. As documented in an April report by Colombia’s Escuela Nacional Sindical, in 2015 alone 20 workers lost their lives trying to stand up for their rights. While the peace process is an important step toward building a better future, there can be no sustainable peace as long as trade unionists and other activists are still attacked, brutalized and killed with impunity. Social protest and organizing have been criminalized, while the perpetrators and intellectual authors of repressive violence remain in impunity. Threats and harassment against trade unionists actually have increased. Colombia continues to be one of the most dangerous places on earth for labor leaders and activists working to achieve social justice.

A lasting peace requires ensuring shared prosperity for the people of Colombia. Unfortunately, workers still do not have access to living wages, safe working conditions and fair contracts. Recent economic growth masks persistently high levels of social inequality, with Colombia ranking third in Latin America after Haiti and Honduras.

As a condition of signing the agreement, Colombia promised to end the widespread “tercerization” of employment—employers using chains of subcontractors or other legal fictions to avoid their responsibility to provide benefits like health care and retirement and prevent workers from organizing. Today, this practice remains rampant, and employers are almost never issued any sort of penalty for flouting the law. In the rare instances where penalties are imposed, they often go uncollected. This makes it unsurprising that only some 1,500 workers have been directly hired in the past three years, while the vast majority of Colombia’s workers remain in subcontracts or other informal arrangements, without rights or security on the job.

When workers try to get justice, which often entails taking on great personal risk, their complaints often are ignored by Colombian authorities. The trade agreement was supposed to result in better investigations, enforcement and oversight, but the United States has not taken any steps to actually enforce the promises Colombia made. As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka observed back in October, “The [Labor Action Plan] was supposed to make real changes for working people—changes that would help them climb the economic ladder. Instead, workers are wondering if the LAP was a cynical ploy to advance a free trade agreement and was never intended to improve their lives.”

Here in the United States, workers also are struggling with high levels of income inequality and precarious employment. The Colombia situation underscores the need for a new trade model and one that puts effective enforcement of labor rights as a priority. Trade deals written by and for corporations have not helped build shared prosperity or sustainable development in either country, and there is no reason to believe the latest round of false promises is going to yield anything different. It’s time to scrap corporate trade deals and promote good jobs, fair wages, access to social services and the ability to safely and effectively exercise fundamental rights for all workers. 

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