Washington – Two months after a free-trade agreement between the United States and Colombia went into effect, workers and activists are warning that US-stipulated labour reforms have not been fully implemented and have yet to result in promised improvements in the lives of workers.
“We ask President (Barack) Obama to push for more guarantees for Colombian workers,” Miguel Conde, with Sintrainagro, a union representing workers on palm-oil plantations, said here on Tuesday. “In Colombia, it is easier to form an armed group than a trade union… because we still have no guarantees from the government.”
Colombia today is the most dangerous place in the world to be a member of a trade union.
Further, those gathered Tuesday at the Washington headquarters of the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of trade unions in the US, warned that much of a year-old labour agreement, meant to pave the way for the free-trade agreement (FTA), was in certain respects making things even more difficult for labour organisers in Colombia.
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The FTA, although stridently opposed by a spectrum of workers and rights activists, was originally signed in late 2006 but was only passed by the US Congress in October 2011. One of Washington’s prerequisites for the deal was the implementation of a 37-point Labour Action Plan (LAP), aimed at improving decades’ worth of labour rights abuses in Colombia.
According to a new report by the AFL-CIO, of those 37 points, at least nine have yet to be adopted, while the implementation of several others “can be regarded as partial or insufficient”.
The FTA came into full effect in mid-May, though only after President Barack Obama claimed, in April, that the Colombian government had already met its LAP-related commitments – just a year into what was expected to be a four-year plan.
“What happened since then is a surge in reprisals against almost all of the trade unions and labour activists that really believed in the Labour Action Plan,” Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, a rights advocate at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a watchdog group, said at the report’s launch.
This included the April 27 killing of Daniel Aguirre, a labour leader who had helped to organise Colombia’s sugarcane workers. According to Sánchez-Garzoli, 34 Colombian trade unionists have been killed since the LAP was implemented, including 11 this year alone.
Further, such figures do not capture an ongoing campaign of intimidation. According to José Luciano Sanín Vásquez, executive director of the National Trade Union School, in Medellin, Colombia, since the LAP began more than 2,900 acts of violence and 1,500 assaults have taken place, aimed at workers and labour activists.
The Colombian government dismisses such numbers as simply part of a half-century of paramilitary violence that has dogged the country.
This is in part correct, says Vásquez, but it misses the crux of the matter: as paramilitary violence has wound down in Colombia in recent years, former rebel groups have been hired by companies to provide thuggish repression of trade unions.
Tolerated, condoned, promoted
While many have been critical of certain parts of the LAP – including that it does not cover public-sector workers – those gathered here on Tuesday were quick to note the agreement’s promise if it were fully implemented.
“We think the LAP is a very positive step forward and, if properly applied, would radically change a situation that’s been systematically problematic for the past 20 years in Colombia,” WOLA’s Sánchez-Garzoli says.
But the recent spike in anti-labour violence has forced a slowdown in progress on the LAP, Jhonsson Torres, a founding member of the sugarcane union Sinal Corteros and former colleague of Daniel Aguirre, said Tuesday.
More critical is a continuing lack of political will. “Even if the different sectors want to implement the Labour Action Plan, they can’t do it,” Torres said in Spanish. “In places where the government has complied with the LAP, it has only been because they’ve been forced to do so due to strikes and other actions.”
Others point to broader issues. “There is no reason to believe that top officials are not making sincere efforts to make a change,” cautions Celeste Drake, a trade policy expert with AFL-CIO.
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“The problem is these changes cannot simply be made by people with good intentions at the top. It’s a culture within the government and throughout Colombia that for years has tolerated, condoned, promoted intolerance to the exercise of worker rights.”
Citing eyewitness reports, Drake says that government ineffectiveness and corruption is leading to hesitancy in reporting labour-rights infringements, for fear that an employer – or a paramilitary group – will be notified.
Workers and activists repeatedly reference the government’s stubbornness or inability to offer judicial or even informational responses to trade unions’ LAP-related queries and requests for justice and security.
At Tuesday’s meeting, when a representative from the Colombian Embassy in Washington noted that officials were taking note of the recent allegations of violence against labour organisers, participants responded that it was unfortunate that workers needed to come all the way to the United States to get an official response.
The Colombian business community, meanwhile, is hesitant to make LAP-instigated pro-labour changes, for multiple reasons.
“Most businessmen still think that (these reforms) won’t progress, that soon we’ll be back where we were a year ago,” says Vásquez, speaking in Spanish. “For that reason, this part of the political message needs to reach the public in all areas of the country.”
Drake, Sánchez-Garzoli and others are urging that financial and technical assistance for building up such a culture of trust come in part from the US government.
“Obama and (Colombian President Juan Manuel) Santos have clearly delivered for the multinational companies and commercial interests,” Sánchez-Garzoli says.
“That’s fine. However, they must also keep their promises to the labour and human rights community. This is a matter of US legislation as well, including specific protections for trade unions.”
While many observers have been frustrated that an opportunity for a broader public debate in Colombia on labour issues has so far been missed, there remains optimism over the unique opportunity to continue organising around the LAP in the years to come.
“The Labour Action Plan, imperfect though it may be, provides hope for the future,” Drake says.
“There are now themes that workers can point to and say, ‘This is now what I’ve been promised by my government. This is what we are going to hold the government up to’.”
A version of this article first appeared on Inter Press Service (IPS).