Economy & Trade, Headlines, Human Rights, Labour, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

TRADE: U.S.-Colombia Pact Mired in Row Over Labour Abuses

Charles Davis

WASHINGTON, Mar 3 2008 (IPS) - U.S. President George W. Bush has made the passing of a free trade agreement (FTA) with Colombia one of his administration’s top priorities, arguing that a failure to do so would harm U.S. national security and hurt relations with one of Washington’s few remaining allies in Latin America.

But labour activists and many Democrats in Congress say no agreement should be approved until Colombia takes further steps to improve its poor record on human rights.

Agreed to by the Colombian and United States governments in 2006, the FTA would remove tariffs on more than 80 percent of U.S. goods exported to Colombia. But the agreement has since stalled in the U.S. Congress, where the Democratic leadership has refused to hold a vote on it.

Much of the opposition to the FTA among Democrats is based on Colombia’s position as the world’s leader in violence against organised labour. Since 1991, more than 2,200 trade unionists have been murdered there, largely by right-wing paramilitaries.

“The state of worker rights in Colombia is pretty bad,” said Adam Isacson, an expert on Colombia at the Washington-based Centre for International Policy. “If you’re too active or too vocal, you never know when somebody’s going to decide you’re just a guerilla in civilian’s clothing and try to have you killed,” he told IPS.

Much of the violence stems from the decades-long conflict between the Marxist guerrilla group the FARC and the Colombian government, Isacson added. “In Colombia… it’s been hard to be a peaceful, non-violent reformer or leftist in general in the context of a civil war,” he said. “If you’re a labour leader or a human rights defender or somebody trying to start a left-of-center political party… in the eyes of too many powerful people you are nothing more than a guerilla supporter.”

But backers of the Colombia FTA say that Colombia has made significant strides in combating violence since President Álvaro Uribe came to power in 2002. A “fact sheet” on the FTA recently released by the White House argues that, “In recent years, Colombia’s democratically elected president has taken courageous steps to stop drug traffickers, rein in illegal armed groups, including paramilitaries, and advance the rule of law.”

In 2006, the Colombian government created a special prosecutorial office staffed with more than a dozen prosecutors and 78 investigators to help address the hundreds of unsolved murders of labour activists over the past 20 years. The government has also enrolled more than 1,500 trade unionists in a special protection programme. While on a trip to Washington last May, President Uribe went so far as to say, “There are no assassinations of workers in Colombia.”

Indeed, killings of labour activists have dropped since hitting a peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Yet despite the increased resources and public attention paid to violence against labour, justice has often remained elusive. Since 2002 there have been just 50 convictions in cases involving attacks on organised labour, while at the same time more than 410 trade unionists have been murdered. Overall, 98 percent of cases involving trade unionist murders have gone unsolved, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Labour Education in the Americas Project (USLEAP).

“The current government is trying to show that this anti-union violence is something that belongs to the past, and this data shows us that this is actually something that is current,” said Luciano Vasquez, of the Medellin, Colombia-based labour group Escuela Nacional Sindical.

Speaking in Washington at an event sponsored by the progressive Economic Policy Institute, which opposes the FTA, Vasquez compared the violence against unions to a “genocide” that was deliberately aimed at causing unions to “cease to operate, and cease to play the role that they should play in society”.

Despite the continued violence, Colombia has benefitted from increased trade with the United States over the past several years. Passed by the U.S. Congress in 1991 and recently extended another 10 months, the Andean Trade Preferences Act, under which tariffs on most exports from Colombia coming into the United States are removed, has increased employment and boosted Colombia’s economy. Last year, Colombian exports to the United States totaled nearly 9.4 billion dollars – mostly in the form of crude oil, coal, and flowers – up from less than 3.0 billion dollars when the preferences were first enacted.

But Colombian labour leaders and independent observers say the increased trade has not led to much improvement in the status of workers’ rights. A 2006 U.S. State Department report on Colombia found that “freedom of association [is] limited in practice by threats and acts of violence committed by illegal armed groups” against labour unions, and noted that Colombian NGOs often complain that the government has “arbitrarily detained hundreds of persons, particularly social leaders, labour activists, and human rights defenders”.

Last year, the Cincinnati, Ohio-based fruit giant Chiquita was ordered by a U.S. federal court to pay a 25-million-dollar fine after executives at the company were found to have authorised payments to the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, a violent right-wing paramilitary group linked to labour violence. According to Vasquez, his organisation has found that the Chiquita case may only scrape the surface of the extent to which U.S. corporations have supported violence against organised labour.

“[T]here are other American transnational enterprises, for example Dole and Del Monte, in which we began to see evidence appearing of their links to these paramilitary groups and to anti-union violence,” Vasquez said.

Those links were the focus of a recent trip to Colombia by Rep. William Delahunt, a Massachusetts Democrat. Speaking to IPS, Delahunt would not say whether he discovered anything in Colombia implicating other U.S. corporations. “I really don’t want to disclose that at this point in time… but yes, it was very productive, it was significant,” he said.

Violence directed against unions and the role some U.S. corporations have played in supporting it is an important aspect of the debate over the FTA, say labour activists, but it is far from the only one.

“Even if Colombia had a sterling record on human rights, if there were no assassinations of trade unionists, the Colombia free trade agreement would still be a bad idea,” said Economic Policy Institute global policy director Tony Avirgan.

“These agreements provide for the extension of patents and [intellectual] property rights, particularly in terms of medicines, that go way beyond what’s provided for in the United States,” Avirgan said.

“They should be called corporate rights’ agreements rather than free trade agreements,” he argued. “It’s a misnomer because they’re not much about the exchange of goods, but they are about empowering corporations.”

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