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Colombia Trade Deal Finalized Over Protests From Labor, Human Rights Groups

Labor and human rights groups in both countries argue that the agreement would effectively condone violence against activists and economic oppression.

The following article first appeared at Working In These Times , the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive In These Times ' weekly updates .

As the media swarmed over the scandal surrounding the Secret Service’s alleged carousing with prostitutes in Colombia, another questionable financial transaction slipped quietly through the backdoor of hemispheric diplomacy.

While officials convened at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena earlier this month, the White House  put the finishing touches on another free trade agreement, aimed at liberalizing markets in Colombia and the U.S. The deal has faced vocal resistance from labor and human rights groups in both countries, who argue that the agreement would effectively condone violence against activists and economic oppression. But for the governments looking to build economic ties, the fears raised by civil society groups were just background noise. The Obama administration tried to put the lid on the opposition by tacking on labor policies to address anti-labor violence and other abuses.

Now officials have tacked onto the deal a  Labor Action Plan, which, at least on paper, promotes fairer labor practices and stronger protections for workers and unions. The White House has certified Colombia’s compliance with the plan—a condition of sealing the trade agreement, which is set to go into effect in May. Human rights and labor activists are not impressed, pointing to  dozens of recent murders of trade unionists and other  union-busting actions, along with ingrained  weaknesses in Colombia's political system that foster corporate and government impunity.

Historian Greg Grandin  spoke on  Democracy Now! about the gap between what activists demanded and what they got:

The human rights community, the labor community in the United States has been asking the Obama administration to basically build into any free trade agreement a number of guarantees. One, they wanted to see real change on the ground, before they went forward—say, a three-year period where there would be no murders, no executions of trade unionists. The White House refused that. They asked for a mechanism built into the trade agreement that would void the treaty if executions started to rise again. The White House refused to do that.

Though the Colombian government has recently taken some steps to reform its labor regulations, such as passing protective legislation, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)  said in a statement

While the number of trade unionists killed has gone down … the security climate and death threats against them has not changed. This leaves the possibility that the number of murders and attacks could flare up once the FTA moves forward....

The Ministry is not even intervening to implement the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) recommendations as mandated by the Labor Action Plan. The case of 51 fired public sector workers of EMCALI is just one of many examples. Rather than implement the ILO’s March 2012 recommendations to rehire the workers, authorities proceeded to evict the workers who held a hunger strike in Cali last week. These victims of Colombia’s unjust labor practices, all of whom have been unemployed since 2004 since they were blacklisted for standing up for labor rights, are not even permitted to protest.

This climate of suppression is particularly harmful to Afro-Colombian communities, who face extreme discrimination.  According to WOLA, the overtures toward reform in the government ring hollow to scores of Afro-Colombian port workers in Turbo, who were fired after trying to unionize last fall: “Those workers were given an ultimatum—sign a letter stating they will not affiliate with a trade union or enjoy unemployment.” In a January  letter to the Labor Minister, advocates complained, “they are denying the fired workers of their contractual rights, withholding their salaries, and forcing them to undress in order to inspect them.”

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