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U.S.-Colombia Deal on Labour Rights Met with Scepticism

Aprille Muscara*

WASHINGTON, Apr 6 2011 (IPS) - On the eve of a meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos here on Thursday, the White House announced that a deal has been reached on key labour issues upholding the countries’ stalled bilateral trade pact.

Largely hailed by Republican lawmakers, the preliminary details of the deal, dubbed an “Action Plan for Labour Rights”, were received sceptically by some Democrat representatives, while labour and rights groups noted that they lacked breadth, depth, and accountability measures.

The U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was negotiated under the last George W. Bush administration and has been log-jammed in the pipeline since due to serious concerns about the South American country’s lax labour laws, history of violence against union leaders, and shaky human rights record.

“Trade union and labour rights violations are taking place within a broader context that is not addressed by this action plan,” Gimena Sanchez, an Andean expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, told IPS.

“That context includes a continued internal armed conflict, re-grouped and reconstituted paramilitarism that operate throughout the country, and alarming impunity on labour and all other human rights cases,” she explained.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the House of Representatives, who favour the FTA’s boost of U.S. exports and creation of domestic jobs, have been pushing for the Colombia pact to be approved in a batch along with the also pending Panama and South Korea agreements, ostensibly to fast-track the deals, as the latter has been pegged a priority by the White House.

“Free Trade Agreements like this one have huge potential to help American ranchers, farmers and manufactures grow and create jobs by expanding into foreign markets,” said Republican Max Baucus in a statement reacting to the Colombia agreement on Wednesday.

“The administration should immediately begin working with Congress on the implementing legislation so the president can submit and Congress can approve the agreement in the coming months,” he urged.

Republicans have set a desired date of Jul. 1 for the pacts to be introduced into Congress, while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in January that the Colombia FTA would be sent to lawmakers “this year”.

The deal announced on Wednesday, and expected to be formally approved during the presidents’ meeting on Thursday, seems to somewhat smooth the pact’s still bumpy path toward passage, but a concrete timeline for the Colombian trade agreement remains unclear.

A possible clue lies in the particulars of the labour deal released thus far (the full action plan has yet to be made public); namely, in a set of dated benchmarks that the Colombian government will pledge to meet.

“President Obama insisted that a number of serious and immediate labour concerns be addressed before he would be willing to send the Agreement to Congress,” the fact sheets said. “Successful implementation of key elements of the Action Plan will be a precondition for the Agreement to enter into effect.”

The targets include steps to protect the safety and rights of workers, union leaders, and labour activists, with “due dates” set as early as Apr. 22 and one as late as December of this year.

Given that almost all of the published benchmarks must be met by July, rights groups are concerned about the rapid timeframe for the listed reforms and their feasibility.

“The concern we have is that you just won’t know if any of these steps will actually reduce violence against trade unionists because it moves far too quickly for anyone to actually evaluate and ensure that these steps are carried out,” Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Washington- based Latin America Working Group, told IPS.

“These are very fundamental changes and I don’t think that the Colombian government, even with goodwill, can carry this out that quickly,” she continued.

Six House Democrats – Representatives Jim McGovern, George Miller, Rosa DeLauro, Mike Michaud, Linda Sanchez, and Jan Schakowsky – echoed these timeline concerns in their reaction to the announced action plan on Wednesday.

“While we welcome these initiatives, we are particularly concerned that we will not have time to determine whether they have been fully carried out – let alone resulted in a dramatic decrease of violence against unionists, increased ability by Colombian workers to exercise their rights to organise and bargain collectively, and a breaking of the culture of impunity that has so characterised justice and the rule of law in Colombia,” they said.

And once the FTA finally enters into force, Haugaard noted, there is no clear mechanism for or guarantee of follow-up, as the targets listed in the action plan are not tied to the trade pact itself.

Ultimately, rights groups argue, the action plan does not go far enough in addressing the systemic problems that underlie the labour violence, impunity, and human rights violations in Colombia.

“Unless significant steps are taken to address the impunity and illegal armed groups prior to movement on the agreement, we are likely to see deterioration in labour and human rights once the FTA is implemented,” Sanchez told IPS.

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