Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Trade Deals: US-Colombia FTA Ratified, but Will It Help Colombian Workers?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Trade Deals: US-Colombia FTA Ratified, but Will It Help Colombian Workers?

Article excerpt

Trade deals with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea were ratified last night. Progress to protect Colombian trade union members has been made, but the murder rate of Colombian workers remains high.

The United States Congress last night ratified a long-debated free trade agreement (FTA) with Colombia, five years after it was originally signed by President George W. Bush.

The long delay in ratification, initially supported by the Obama administration and Democrats in both houses of Congress who were pressured by US-based human rights and labor groups to insist the Colombian government provide more workers' rights protections, led to some steps to improve labor rights in Colombia, one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a trade union member.

But now rights advocates and Colombian workers fear the chance to consolidate the modest gains made while the FTA was stalled will soon be lost due to lack of pressure.

"We have forfeited an important lever," says Rep. Jim McGovern (D) of Massachusetts, one of the most vocal opponents in the US Congress to the Colombia FTA. "I'm worried that all these commitments will fall by the wayside."

Changing the discourse

The Colombia-US FTA was signed in 2006 by then-Presidents George W. Bush and Alvaro Uribe, but the pact got caught up in the changing political winds of the time in Washington and was never brought up for a vote until this week, after President Obama sent it to Congress Oct. 4.

Human rights and labor groups, both in the US and abroad, seized on the opportunity afforded by the trade standoff to shine the spotlight on the dire situation of Colombia's organized workers, and demand action from the Colombian government before a trade pact could be approved.

Under the pressure of international rights and labor groups, Colombia reassessed its labor practices and the security situation of union members who are routinely murdered and targeted by death threats. The debate made a "direct link between human rights and trade," says Jose Luciano Sanin, president of the National Labor School (ENS), a group based in Colombia's second-largest city of Medellin.

Dan Kovalik, a lawyer with the United Steelworkers Union and one of the most prominent defenders of Colombian workers in the United States, said, "We feel the work we've done on this issue has changed the discourse. At least it put the killing of union members front and center."

In 2006 as the FTA was being negotiated, the Colombian government created a special sub-unit of the prosecutor's office dedicated to investigating the more than 2,900 killings of union members since 1986 - an average one every three days.

"Delaying ratification of the FTA led to some positive actions, such as the creation of a special team of prosecutors to investigate trade unionist killings," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, director for the Americas of Human Rights Watch. …

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