Washington, DC – As the Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) reached its two-year anniversary today, labor and human rights organizations say the pact’s failure to curtail labor rights abuses in Colombia illustrates the shortcomings of the current labor chapter and side agreements like the “Colombia Labor Action Plan” (LAP).
“It’s time we recognize that promises to Colombia’s workers have been broken,” said James P. Hoffa, general president of the Teamsters. “We must put human rights at the center of our trade policy, not at the fringe. And as violent as things are in Colombia, respect for basic labor rights in countries like Vietnam and Brunei is in many ways even worse. Signing to the TPP before these abuses are adequately addressed would only allow them to continue.”
Before submitting the Colombia FTA for congressional approval, the Obama administration negotiated the Colombia Labor Action Plan (LAP), ostensibly to “protect internationally recognized labor rights, prevent violence against labor leaders, and prosecute the perpetrators of such violence.” According to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative website, “Colombia has met all of its Action Plan milestones to date.”
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In the years since the LAP was unveiled, however, at least 73 Colombian trade unions have been murdered, according to Colombia’s National Union School, a group recognized by the LAP as an authoritative source of monitoring data. Murders are actually on the rise. 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 the more than 3,000 unionist murders occurring from 1977 through the present is 87%, while impunity for anti-union death threats stands at 99.9%.
“Two years into the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, workers there are still literally putting their lives on the line if they seek basic labor rights,” said Communications Workers of America senior director George Kohl. “With this experience — and that of all the other failed trade agreements — we can see the Trans-Pacific Partnership for what it would do: kill American jobs while trampling on workers rights overseas.”
Since TPP negotiations were launched Vietnam was downgraded to the most extreme category of labor rights violators on the US Department of Labor’s annual official listing of countries’ products made with child and forced labor. Vietnam was again one of only 4 countries in the world whose garments appeared on the list for both child labor and forced labor.
These concerns were echoed by the US State Department in its most recent annual country report on human rights practices in Vietnam, which noted that Vietnam’s labor inspectorate had found children working in garment sweatshops in Ho Chi Minch City for up to 12 hours a day, reportedly, in some cases, in forced labor situations.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) Better Work Vietnam factory inspection program reported persistent problems with fire safety hazards in garment factories, with more than 40% of factories inspected found to have blocked fire exits even the third time they were inspected for this issue (on their first inspection, 70% of factories had this hazard).
Abusive treatment by foreign export factory managers continues to be a serious problem as well. This year workers have walked off the job in multiple factories over harsh policies on access to toilets, with one factory that produces athletic bags (golf bags, etc.) keeping toilets locked the entire day, except for 1 hour in the morning and 1 hour in the afternoon, even then only letting 3 workers at a time from each 100 worker production line use the toilets — and fining workers several hours pay for spending too many minutes in the washrooms. Workers reportedly struck after “many female workers cried to beg to use the restrooms, but security guards did not allow them.”
“It’s outrageous that our government can enact policies that protect the rights of corporations, but not those of human beings,” said Arthur Stamoulis, executive director of Citizens Trade Campaign. “The failures of the Colombia Labor Action Plan illustrate just how important it is to make meeting basic labor rights standards a prerequisite for joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other pending trade deals. The time to get other countries to improve their labor standards is before a trade pact with the United States is signed, not after.”