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Colombia; United States: Free Trade Agreement and Labor Issues

(Aug. 4, 2011) The United States and Colombia have negotiated a free trade agreement (FTA) whose ratification has been pending in the U.S. Congress since 2006. The suspended ratification of this FTA with Colombia can be attributed in some degree to political opposition from unions and human rights groups. The opposition is fundamentally based on concerns about that country's serious, ongoing violation of human and labor rights. (Sergio Gómez Maseri, Obama Comprometido a mover TLC con Colombia, Panamá y Corea, PORTAFOLIO.CO (July 22, 2011).

In order to overcome this obstacle and move forward the process of ratification of the trade instrument, on April 7, 2011, the Obama administration and Colombian President Juan Manual Santos had agreed upon the Colombian Action Plan Related to Labor Rights to respond to the pressure from workers and the human rights sector. The Action Plan aims at improving the legal framework and enforcement of labor laws in Colombia. Even though the plan does include some commendable improvements, such as legal reforms to prevent abuses and anti-union activities, labor advocates fear that it is just a disguise for a deal designed to benefit business to the detriment of workers. (Michelle Chen, Embattled Colombian Unionists Rally Against 'Free Trade,' IN THESE TIMES (July 12, 2011).)

Moreover, labor and human rights groups in both countries insist that the plan is gravely flawed, not only because it fails to address Colombia's serious and widespread violation of labor and human rights, but also because it fails to include any benchmarks for achieving a reduction in the number of assassinations of trade union members or even for realizing an increase in the number of prosecutions of such crimes. (Sergio Gómez Maseri, En Colombia Matan a Plena Luz del Día: Congresista de EE.UU, PORTAFOLIO.CO (July 14, 2011); Colombia Free Trade Agreement Is an Affront to Human Dignity, CITIZENS TRADE CAMPAIGN (Apr. 14, 2011).)

One of the alleged major problems with the Action Plan is the fact that it is not a legally binding document. It provides no mechanism to secure compliance with its requirements once the FTA is implemented. In addition, it has been stated that the Action Plan fails to address economic and agricultural aspects of the FTA that would affect the economic livelihood in conflict regions of Colombia, exacerbating the already serious problems there of internal displacement, illicit drug production, the presence of illegal armed groups, and forced migration. (Id.)

Despite all the objections, the FTA has been readied for submission to the U.S. Congress for ratification in Congress. (U.S. Senate Committee Approves Colombia FTA, COLOMBIA REPORTS (July 7, 2011).) However, its final approval now depends on the extension of the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), a program aimed at retraining workers who lose their jobs due to foreign trade. This issue will apparently be addressed in the Congress after its August recess. (U.S. Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration, Trade Adjustment Assistance Fact Sheet U.S. Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration website (last visited Aug. 2, 2011); En Septiembre, EE.UU. enviaría al Congreso el TLC con Colombia, EL TIEMPO (July 21, 2011).)