On September 8, President Barack Obama called for movement on the Colombia free trade agreement. In late August, a delegation that included U.S. Representative James McGovern visited Colombia where we met with trade unionists, labor activists and workers from the ports, oil palm, oil and auto sectors. We asked them if the labor rights situation in Colombia had improved since the April 15 launch of the Labor Action Plan between the U.S. and Colombia to merit passage of the FTA.
We were informed that while the Labor Action Plan (LAP) is a good step forward, it has so far only led to formal rather than real changes in labor conditions and protection of trade unionists. Twenty-two trade unionists have been murdered so far in 2011, with ten of them killed after the April 15 announcement of the LAP. Death threats and efforts to discredit labor activists also continue. The rate of impunity in cases of murdered trade unionists remains extremely high at 94 percent. The Protection Program noted in the LAP is very slow in responding to the needs of those it is designed to protect. While a decree to contract the 100 labor inspectors promised in the LAP was expedited, no public information is available on their progress.
The LAP, while flawed and insufficient, attempts to get at changing problematic and systematic labor practices that have been in place in Colombia for the past twenty years. While this is a formal step towards turning around Colombia’s labor rights situation, it is clearly insufficient. The Obama Administration and U.S. Congress should not assume that radical changes in conduct will take place overnight. Nor should they make the mistake of thinking that new laws, decrees and plans translate to immediate protections and safeguards for workers. Rather they should closely monitor the LAP’s implementation and determine whether or not progress has been made by actually tracking the realities faced by workers on the ground. They must also insist that beyond the LAP, broader justice issues that generate violence and impunity in Colombia are addressed. Moving forward on the U.S.-Colombia FTA before the latter takes place would only be an injustice to workers in Colombia.