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Agreement on Workers’ Rights and Protections Clears Way for Colombia Free Trade Agreement

President Obama’s trade representative announced today an agreement with Colombia that will allow them to move forward on a free trade agreement. House Republicans had been demanding free trade pacts with Colombia and Panama as a condition for passing an already-negotiated FTA with South Korea.

The Colombia deal was always going to be tricky, because of Colombia’s murderous attitude toward union organizers, and Obama’s public statements on that on the campaign trail. Under the agreement, described in this fact sheet, the Colombian government has agreed to prevent violence against labor organizers, and prosecute perpetrators of past violence. They will build up a protection program for organizers and workers, and criminalize any threats or interference with collective bargaining, with a prison term of up to five years. The Colombian police will employ 95 full-time investigators to work on prosecutions of prior crimes against union members. In addition (from the document):

The Colombian government will:

• Accelerate the effective date from July 2013 to June 2011 of legal provisions, which include significant fines, to prohibit the misuse of cooperatives and other employment relationships that undermine workers’ rights. Legislative action is expected by May 31.

• Issue regulations by June 15 that implement the 2010 cooperatives law, clarify earlier cooperatives laws, and ensure coherence among these laws. The regulations will also include significant fines for companies that violate cooperatives laws and refuse to create and maintain direct employment relationships with affected workers.

• Double the labor inspectorate by hiring 480 new labor inspectors over four years, including 100 new hires in 2011.

• Dedicate 100 labor inspectors exclusively to address abuse of cooperatives to deny workers’ rights by the end of 2012. Preventive inspections will begin immediately in the following priority sectors: palm oil, sugar, mines, ports, and flowers.

• Conduct an outreach program, starting in June 2011, to inform workers of their rights under the relevant laws and the remedies available to them to enforce recognition of a direct employment relationship.

• Improve, by June 15, inspection and enforcement to prevent the use of temporary service agencies to circumvent workers’ rights.

• Launch, by June 15, a robust enforcement regime to detect and prosecute the use of collective pacts to undermine the right to organize and bargain collectively and will conduct a public awareness campaign. The amendment to the Criminal Code referred to above will make it a crime, punishable by imprisonment, to offer a collective pact to non-union workers that is superior to terms for union workers.

• Seek the advice and assistance of the International Labor Organization (ILO) to implement and enforce these measures.

This all sounds fine, and the free trade pact has some additional provisions on workers’ rights that had been agreed on back in 2007. But all of these commitments really depend on enforcement. The laws on the books have already been violated, after all.

Colombia is a small deal from the perspective of global trade, but a big deal from the perspective of workers’ rights, because the country is one of the worst offenders in the world. Given the history in Colombia, I don’t think they should be taken at their word.

More here and here.

UPDATE: Missed that Michael Whitney already got to this.

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David Dayen

David Dayen