Fair Trade? Not With Colombia
By all accounts, Colombia is one of the world's worst abusers of workers and their unions. Yet President Obama has just signed a Free Trade Agreement with Columbian President Juan Manuel Santos.
The agreement, set to go into effect May 15, will align the United States with a nation in which working people have very few of the basic labor rights long granted U.S. workers.
In fact, trying to exercise those rights in Colombia can be fatal. Two-dozen Colombian labor leaders and organizers were killed during the past year.
The U.S.-Colombia trade agreement was supposed to implement an "Action Plan on Labor Rights" that the two nations agreed to in 2011. The plan was designed to "protect internationally recognized labor rights, prevent violence against labor leaders, and prosecute the perpetrators of such violence" in Colombia.
Violence continues, however, as does the anti-union actions of the Colombian government and Colombian employers. Colombian union leaders noted in a joint statement that though the action plan calls for some badly needed reforms, it does not address many others also needed. That includes combating the serious violations of labor and human rights that continue to plague Colombia.
Many workers, for example, are prevented from exercising the two most important of all labor rights – the right to collective bargaining and to free association. The labor leaders said the government has done very little to prosecute the employers who deny those rights and other fundamental rights of workers.
"Labor activists and other human rights defenders remain subject to threats and violence, including murder, when they stand up to fight for their rights," the leaders concluded.
As now written, the leaders said, the Colombia Free Trade Agreement "perpetuates a destructive economic model that expands the rights and privileges of big business and multinational corporations at the expense of workers, consumers and the environment."
Other trade agreements that have followed that basic model have "historically benefitted a small minority of business interests, while leaving workers, families and communities behind."
Key U.S. labor leaders also have denounced the U.S.-Colombia trade agreement, even though it was championed by President Obama, who generally gets high marks from labor's establishment, as he should.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka saw Obama's signing of the agreement as "deeply disappointing and troubling. We regret that the administration has placed commercial interests above the interests of workers and their trade unions."
That is, the administration thinks the returns U.S. businesses and the economy generally gain from trading with Colombia are more important than protecting Colombian workers from exploitation by rejecting deals with businesses that violate the workers' rights.
Trumka and the Colombian union leaders want a new trade agreement with lofty but reachable goals of creating jobs on a widespread scale, boosting economic development and raising the standard of living in both the United States and Colombia.
Workers would be guaranteed stronger protections. But more than that, Trumka and the Colombian leaders would add provisions "to ensure a healthy environment, safe food and production, and the ability to regulate financial and other markets to avoid crises like that of 2008."
That would be fair trade as well as free trade –– a vital, necessary fair and free trade agreement that would benefit millions of people on both sides of the agreement.
Dick Meister is a San Francisco writer who has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.net.