Although in recent years the government of Colombia has made great efforts to reduce the power of armed organizations and modernize its economy, it has made little progress in addressing the needs of workers and their unions. While it is no longer on the verge of becoming a “failed state,” Colombia remains the most dangerous country in the world for unionists according to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Approximately 3,000 Colombian trade unionists have been murdered since 1986—with the vast majority of cases still unsolved and the vast majority of perpetrators (those who ordered the killings and those who carried them out) still unpunished.
Against a backdrop of more than a quarter century of violence against unionists and human rights defenders and an apparent lack of interest or ability to defend workers’ fundamental labor rights, including the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining, in April 2011, the United States and Colombia negotiated the Labor Action Plan to forge a path forward for the long-stalled U.S.-Colombia FTA.
Though the Labor Action Plan included some important measures that Colombian unions and the AFL-CIO have been demanding for years, its scope was too limited: It fully resolved neither the grave violations of union freedoms nor the continuing violence and threats against unionists and human rights defenders. In addition, there was no specific provision in the Labor Action Plan requiring Colombia to establish a sustained, meaningful and measurable record of enforcement of any of the commitments prior to a congressional vote on or official entry-into-force of the trade agreement.
Although President Barack Obama and United States Trade Representative (USTR) Ron Kirk announced on April 15, 2012, that the government of Colombia had taken “important steps to fulfill the Action Plan Related to Labor Rights” and that the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement would enter into force a month later, the AFL-CIO believes much work remains to be done to ensure that workers in Colombia can exercise their rights without putting their lives at risk.
Unfortunately, although new laws and directives are in place, the government of Colombia has not yet met its obligations. While there is good news concerning stepped-up protection for workers by the new protection unit (the UNP) and the change from indirect to direct employment at the supermarkets Carrefour and Éxito and the textile producer Fabricato, these changes have not yet penetrated the culture of general business practice and affect only a tiny fraction of the workforce. Too many workers are still denied their rights.
Workers across the economy, including in the five priority sectors identified by the Labor Action Plan (palm, sugar, mines, ports and flowers), continue to experience the following on a regular basis:
The AFL-CIO has gathered evidence about Labor Action Plan implementation from Colombian workers and their unions, human rights advocates, the U.S. government, the government of Colombia and other interested civil society organizations. It leads to a disappointing, inevitable conclusion: Colombians still cannot exercise their basic rights to free expression, free association or collective bargaining.
To improve the situation for Colombian working families, the U.S. government must devote even more attention, effort and resources to Colombian labor rights. Otherwise, it sends the message that workers are on their own simply because the trade agreement has gone into force. When workers in Colombia cannot freely exercise their rights, it hurts workers everywhere. An injury to one is an injury to all.
While Colombian Minister of Labor Rafael Pardo has voiced a strong commitment to change, he cannot, of course, create change overnight, singlehandedly or smoothly. The effort to modernize the Colombian economy’s approach to labor relations will require a change in culture, to one of respect for workers’ rights. This is why the AFL-CIO and its Colombian counterparts, the CUT, CTC and CGT, jointly opposed the announcement that the Labor Action Plan had made sufficient progress to allow the trade agreement to enter into force.
Colombian workers continue to face grave obstacles as they work to better their lives—and prematurely withdrawing the scrutiny of the U.S. government could lead to backsliding on the progress that has been made, and a violent backlash against those who continue to act as leaders for their communities. Workers who have attempted to exercise their rights under the Labor Action Plan already have reported increased threats—particularly in the priority sectors of palm and sugar.
What has not yet been accomplished for Colombian workers is not forever out of reach. The Labor Action Plan gave Colombian working families hope—for some, it was the first ray of hope they had experienced in years. Failure to accomplish a monumental task does not represent permanent failure. What Colombian workers cannot afford, however, is abandonment at this critical time.
The U.S. and Colombian governments must commit the considerable resources and intense political will necessary to make the promised changes come to fruition. The implementation of the U.S.-Colombia FTA must not be the end of the story on Colombian labor rights, but only the beginning.
The AFL-CIO, and our labor union and nongovernment organization partners, will continue to monitor the situation and provide support, resources and guidance wherever possible. But we cannot do it alone. The U.S. government must ensure that the promises it made to benefit Colombian workers are realized.
Thanks - Your submission was sent!