Representative Sander Levin, Chairperson of the House Ways and Mean
Committee, last week gave a speech at the National Press Club where he
discussed the problems with the Colombia FTA, among other things. As is well documented, the lack of strong labor
rights protections in trade agreements promotes the export of dirt cheap goods
(made with dirt cheap labor) to the U.S.
from our FTA partners, which suppresses wages and destroys jobs in the United States. Rep. Levin, though, examined a less-discussed
consequence of weak worker protections: low
wages hurt the U.S.
on the export side of the equation, too, since workers in our FTA partner
countries are not paid enough to purchase U.S.-made goods, so our exports
At the National Press Club, Levin said:
I want to say a word about Colombia….With
and this was the battle we had over CAFTA. Latin American countries in too many
cases, essentially, have these deep disparities in terms of income and
opportunity. You can't grow middle classes under those circumstances. Middle
classes are the ones who buy our goods basically.
So there's a basic point in worker rights and environmental
issues, worker rights, it's not because anybody is standing up for any particular
interest group in this country. We're standing up for our businesses and
workers and for the workers in other countries who need to be part of the mix
in order to buy our goods….
I went onto Colombia
myself as I did when I went to China
myself, went to the CAFTA countries myself to see firsthand what the conditions
I met with people who work in the sugar industry. There,
essentially workers are totally deprived of their ability to be participants
and have a say. They've set up these so-called cooperatives that are essentially
dummy outfits and workers go from cooperative to cooperative being paid for by
some entity, unable to be able to be a major part of the economy. That has to
be fixed for their good and our good.
I fully understand the importance of opening up the
Colombian market. I fully understand that for our workers, our businesses and
workers. But we need to have trade agreements that essentially reflect our values
and in the case of workers, basic international labor values.
Rep. Levin is right to be deeply concerned about the
inequality in Colombia. According to the CIA, Colombia has the
9th highest Gini index in the world. (The Gini index is the
most commonly used measure of the gap between the rich and the poor. It is a number between 0 and 100, with higher
numbers indicating greater inequality.) And
the inequality is getting worse over time – in 1996 Colombia’s Gini index was 53.8, but
by 2008 it had jumped to 58.5. In comparison, the United States, which ranks as the
42nd most unequal society, has a Gini index of 45.0.
Another way of looking at inequality in Colombia is the
share of income that goes to the poorest 10 percent of the population and the
richest 10 percent of the population. In
the poorest 10 percent earn only 0.8 percent of all income, while the richest
10 percent earn 45.0 percent of all income.
By not protecting workers’ rights and allowing the violent suppression
of unions, the government of Colombia
has allowed its society to become incredibly unequal, preventing the
development of a middle class that could buy U.S. goods and boost our economy.