AFL-CIO: No Free Trade With Colombia Until Workers' Rights Are Respected

News from Colombia | on: Monday, 10 March 2008
Original source: March 04, 2008, AFL-CIO

During its convention last week, the U.S. trade union federation, The American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO), released a statement which said they would not support a U.S. government promoted free trade agreement with Colombia because of the repression of Colombia's labour movement. The AFL-CIO union movement represents 10.5 million members.

No Free Trade With Colombia Until Workers' Rights Are Respected

March 04, 2008

San Diego

AFL-CIO Executive Council statement

President George W. Bush has declared that passing a free trade agreement with Colombia this year is one of his top priorities. The secretaries of Commerce, Treasury, State, Agriculture and Labor, as well as the U.S. Trade Representative, have been involved in high-pressure lobbying efforts, including leading delegations to Colombia, meeting with members of Congress and speaking publicly about the merits of the agreement and the supposed dangers of not passing it this year. The Colombian government is reportedly spending $100,000 a month lobbying in the United States for passage of the FTA, while business interests also have spent heavily and spoken out frequently.

The AFL-CIO, together with many respected human rights, development and religious organizations, has spoken out forcefully against rewarding the Colombian government with a free trade agreement at a time when Colombia's labor movement is under attack, both through legal channels and through violence, intimidation and harassment.

Colombia remains the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a union member—39 trade unionists were murdered in 2007, and another five to date in 2008. Of the more than 2,500 murders of trade unionists since 1986, only about 80 cases—around 3 percent—have resulted in convictions. According to a comprehensive report released by Colombia's four national labor centrals and the respected Colombian human rights group, the National Labor School (known by its Spanish acronym, ENS), the majority of the union murders are linked to labor conflicts and are part of "strategic and systematic actions obeying specific interests and seeking to weaken union efforts to demand and defend labor rights."

But beyond the violence and the impunity, Colombian unionists face equally daunting daily legal challenges to their rights to organize and bargain collectively—challenges that threaten the very existence of the Colombian labor movement. Union density in Colombia today is less than 5 percent, and fewer than 1 percent of Colombian workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements—down from 15 percent twenty years ago. Mass firings and privatization of large segments of the public sector have put bargaining rights out of reach for most workers. This is the worst collective bargaining coverage in the western hemisphere – even worse than the United States' dismal record.

In mid-February, Linda Chavez-Thompson, AFL-CIO executive vice president emerita, and Larry Cohen, president of the Communication Workers of America, led a union fact-finding delegation to Bogotá, Colombia. The delegation also included Dan Kovalik, associate general counsel of the United Steelworkers, representing President Leo Gerard. The delegation's objectives were to express solidarity with our union brothers and sisters in Colombia, to help them in their struggle to rebuild their labor movement and protect their rights to organize and bargain collectively and to gather information from all sources on the situation confronting workers and unions in Colombia.

The delegation spent many hours with both leaders and rank-and-file members of Colombian unions, listening to their stories of struggle against unscrupulous employers and often-hostile government bureaucrats. Trade unionists from all over the country and from dozens of sectors—including oil, flowers, health care, education, telecom, taxi drivers, municipal workers, retail, transport and bananas, among others—came to Bogota to share their anger, their frustration and their reality with the AFL-CIO delegation.

The Colombian workers told heart-breaking stories of trying to form unions through legal channels, going through the prescribed steps of holding national assemblies and filing required paperwork, only to be told repeatedly that they had fallen short on ever-shifting and arbitrary criteria. They told of the abuses of the "collective" system, in which employers can declare their workplace a collective, and the employees "owners," thereby depriving workers of the right to unionize. They told of receiving death threats for their union activity and of losing friends, family and colleagues to murder. And they told of mass firings of union leaders and the government's failure to hold law-breaking employers accountable.

A striking common theme was heard from the Colombian unionists who spoke to the AFL-CIO delegation. They all agreed that the six years of the Uribe administration had seen a systematic attack on workers' rights and on unions. "They are not just murdering union leaders," said one unionist. "They are murdering the unions." Others spoke of the slaughter, genocide, extermination and destruction of the union movement by the Uribe government.

During the visit to Bogotá, the delegation had the opportunity to meet with President Uribe and several of his cabinet members, as well as with the attorney general, the Constitutional Court judges, representatives of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and leading members of Congress. The presidents of the four major Colombian labor federations accompanied the AFL-CIO delegation to most of the meetings.

President Uribe argued that his administration had taken extraordinary steps to counter the violence against trade unionists and had devoted substantial new resources to bringing perpetrators of the violence to justice through the allocation of three judges to address labor cases and additional funding to the attorney general's office for investigation and prosecution.

While the AFL-CIO delegation expressed its appreciation for the additional resources the Uribe administration has dedicated to protecting union members and addressing impunity, continued serious concerns remain on several important fronts.

First, one of the three judges assigned to prosecuting labor cases has been removed, without an adequate explanation, leading to questions of whether political influence had led to his removal. This is the same judge who issued a legal ruling finding that officers of the 18th Brigade of the Colombian army had altered the crime scene of slain union leaders by placing guns in their hands to make it look like the victims were members of the guerrilla organization, ELN.

Second, the delegation expressed concerns about continued reports of an increase in extra-judicial murders by the Colombian army, especially in rural areas.

Third, and most troubling, the Colombian government's failure to reform its labor laws to comply with ILO standards and its poor record of enforcing the laws against anti-union discrimination call into question its commitment to genuinely protect the rights of workers to freely form unions and bargain collectively.

The AFL-CIO stands in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Colombia in opposition to violence against trade unionists, for justice and for the rights of workers in both Colombia and the United States to organize and bargain collectively without fear of firing, without fear of retribution and certainly without fear for our safety.

The AFL-CIO remains strongly opposed to the Colombia FTA. Should it come up for a vote this year, we will mobilize the unions and the resources of the federation to defeat it.

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