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Although the administration of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has abandoned the heated, anti-union rhetoric of his predecessor and has engaged in apparently good-faith efforts to improve the environment for working men and women, Colombia remains the most dangerous place in the world for union members, with 27 labor activists assassinated between Jan. 1 and Dec. 7, 2011, after 51 similar murders in 2010. These murders are part of a terror campaign against all who speak out against the status quo in Colombia—a campaign to silence Afro-Colombian rights, indigenous rights and land rights activists, and other (including priests) who work for justice, equality and respect for all Colombians. 

Before sending the Colombia FTA to Congress for a vote, President Obama and President Santos negotiated a Labor Action Plan that contains several meaningful provisions Colombian trade unions have long fought for and which the AFL-CIO supports. Unfortunately the plan is incomplete and contains serious flaws, including:

  • The lack of specific requirements that Colombia fully implement the legal and policy changes it promised to make under the plan.  “It is important to have new tools, such as increased enforcement personnel and the availability of stiffer penalties, but we need to make sure they are being used and are effective,” says AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.
  • Because the Labor Action Plan is not part of the trade agreement, some of its provisions will likely be difficult to enforce if the government of Colombia fails to fully comply with plan commitments.
  • The Labor Action Plan falls short in reforming Colombia’s labor law in several areas.  For example, it fails to fully address ILO concerns regarding collective pacts and essential public services.  It also fails to include commitments on collective bargaining in the public sector and collective bargaining over pensions.

In October 2011, shortly before the Congressional vote, the AFL-CIO published a report documenting Colombia’s ineffective implementation of the Labor Action Plan.  Despite  evidence that the situation in Colombia had improved little, the Republican-led Congress voted to approve the pact before Colombia had demonstrated substantial progress toward protecting workers’ lives and ensuring their fundamental labor rights.

The AFL-CIO will continue to work to oppose “entry into force” of the agreement until Colombia’s workers are satisfied that their own government is protecting their lives and their rights.  Part of that work includes closely monitoring the situation, and asking the US government to work with the Colombian government when workers are in danger or unable to exercise their rights.  In early November, the AFl-CIO worked closely with allies in Congress to stop what was shaping up to be a violent government crackdown on peace strikers in the palm oil sector.  Although violence was a averted and a plan to inspect the palm plantations for illegal employer behavior put in place, close monitoring will continue to be required to ensure that workers can safely organize and act collectively to achieve better wages and working conditions. 

The AFL-CIO is also working to create new trade goals, with rules that would promote decent work and raise the standard of living for workers around the world.  Trade agreements should ensure they benefit the 99 percent, not just the 1 percent. 

New trade goals should not be patterned after the Colombia FTA, which will enhance the rights and privileges of corporations at the expense of workers, consumers and the environment. They must include strong and effective ways to protect workers and the environment, as well as fair rules on investment, services, and regulation that don’t provide perverse incentives to ship jobs offshore or promote trade in dangerous products. 

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