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April 07, 2014

Colombia's Anti-Union Violence Remains Rampant after Three Years of the FTA-Enabling Labor Action Plan

Three years ago, the Obama administration signed a Labor Action Plan (LAP) with the Colombian government, promising that it would help rectify rampant labor rights abuses in Colombia, a country in which more than 3,000 unionists have been murdered since 1977.

Six months after its announcement, the LAP served as a fig leaf for the controversial Colombia “free trade” agreement (FTA), enabling the deal’s passage in the U.S. Congress. Trying to fend off criticism for pitting U.S. workers against Colombian workers who faced widespread labor abuses, the few Democratic members of Congress who voted for the deal pointed to the LAP as a solution to Colombia's labor rights crisis.  

Unions and congressional labor rights defenders in Colombia and the United States warned at the time of the FTA’s passage that the LAP would fail to alter the on-the-ground reality of anti-union repression. 

Sadly, they were right. 

In the three years since the LAP was unveiled, 73 Colombian unionists have been murdered, according to a report released today by Colombia’s National Union School, a group recognized by the LAP as an authoritative source of monitoring data. There were four more unionist murders in 2013 than in 2012.

Colombia’s workers have also endured 31 murder attempts and 953 death threats since the LAP was announced.  These crimes have not resulted in any captures, trials, or convictions. The overall impunity rate for unionist murders from 1977 through the present is 87%, while impunity for anti-union death threats stands at 99.9%. 

Colombia’s unions and the National Union School conclude that the decision to sign the LAP “was taken by the Colombian government as a step toward unfreezing the FTA with the United States rather than as an institutional mechanism to promote real protection of the labor and union rights that Colombian workers have lacked for so long.”

The same, unfortunately, could probably be said about some members of the U.S. Congress who were more interested in the LAP’s ability to provide political cover for the polemical Colombia FTA than its ability to provide relief to Colombia’s repressed workers.

Other members of Congress who supported the LAP with a sincere desire to improve the labor rights situation in Colombia (despite warnings from on-the-ground experts that the LAP would fail to do so) must feel betrayed by the administration officials who promised the LAP would herald such improvement.

Now the administration is making similar promises in pushing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a sweeping deal with 11 Pacific Rim countries, including Vietnam.  While Vietnam does not share Colombia's history of widespread unionist murders, workers in Vietnam are prohibited from forming independent unions and are paid an average minimum wage of 52 cents per hour. And Vietnam's apparel industry, which could gain greater access to the U.S. market through the TPP, relies on forced labor and child labor.  

Administration officials are arguing, as they did in pushing the LAP and the Colombia FTA, that the TPP will provide an opportunity to curb labor rights abuses in Vietnam. Will the members of Congress who supported the ill-fated LAP once again buy into such promises?  Or will they heed the lesson of the ongoing repression faced by Colombia's workers?  

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