The free trade agreement (FTA) with Colombia is one of three such agreements pending before the U.S. Congress. While debate over free trade has featured prominently in this election year, the Colombia FTA has become embroiled in a debate over the protection of labor rights and the Colombian government's success in prosecuting a range of crimes against trade union activists. On February 27, 2008, the Latin American Program, with support from the US-Colombia Business Partnership, convened a panel on Capitol Hill to provide Congress and the public with an informed and balanced discussion of the multiple issues surrounding the pending FTA, including the potential benefits to both the United States and Colombia and such critical issues as labor rights.
Keynote speaker Ambassador Susan Schwab, United States Trade Representative, stated that congressional passage of the FTA with Colombia is a top priority of President Bush. She argued that even though Congress has acted to renew unilateral preferences to Colombia through the Andean Trade Preferences Act, the FTA would ensure reciprocity and equal access to U.S. exporters, especially small and medium-sized businesses, who must now pay 5 to 15 percent, and even as much as 35 percent tariffs on exports to Colombia. Schwab noted that while opponents to the agreement point to Colombia's inability to curb violence against trade unionists, the Uribe administration has made great strides in reducing violence in the country and protecting labor union leaders and other vulnerable groups. She argued that the FTA would provide Colombia with a tool for supporting economic growth, development, and stability in a region of critical interest to U.S. national security. She urged a prompt congressional vote on the FTA, stressing that the way it is handled is widely viewed in the region as the proxy for how the United States treats its friends in Latin America. She urged Congress to schedule a vote on the FTA, and promised to "make every effort to find the formula for cooperation" that would ensure approval.
Colombian Vice-Minister of Labor Andrés Palacio discussed the Uribe administration's recent efforts to address issues of violence, social protection, and labor. He noted that Colombia's unemployment rate has diminished to a single-digit figure – 9 percent--down from 17 percent when President Uribe took office. Since then, the government has worked on labor issues with three goals in mind: to guarantee income stability, to create a platform to develop human capital and formal labor, and to take advantage of market expansion and economic growth to improve labor conditions. Palacio discussed improvements in subsidized health regimes, provisions for workers at risk, and subsidies to workers earning below-minimum wage salaries. He also emphasized a reduction in violence against labor union leaders in Colombia, disputing figures produced by the Escuela Nacional Sindical from Medellín and pointing to a large increase in expenditures on the protection of labor union leaders. Palacio acknowledged, however, a six-year backlog of pending cases involving trade unionists. He also pointed to a recently launched initiative for a Commission for Salary and Trade Union Consensus (Comisión de Concertación Salarial y Gremial.), to address problems in Colombia's compliance with international labor standards and practices, and to which the AFL-CIO has been invited as a member.
Greg Farmer of the U.S.-Colombia Business Partnership and NORTEL cited numerous benefits of passing the FTA with Colombia, arguing that economic growth was the best cure for crime and violence. Like the Peru agreement, he said, the U.S.-Colombia FTA would create jobs in both countries and provide U.S. companies with the same benefits as Colombian exporters receive. He argued that U.S. companies have played a role in the improvement of labor standards in Colombia, noting the multiplier effect of an FTA in developing infrastructure and raising living standards. President Uribe has achieved "remarkable transformations" in the last six years, Farmer said. Noting the 6.8 percent rate of economic growth in 2006, he noted that the appeal of narcotrafficking and paramilitarism would increase if growth were not sustained.
Stanley Gacek of the AFL-CIO pointed out that in spite of a reduction in the number of murders of trade unionists (from 72 in 2006 to 40 in 2007), Colombia is still the most dangerous country in the world for trade union leaders. Gacek called the destruction of trade union organization and collective bargaining "systematic, designed, and concerted," noting that trade union density is at its lowest point in Colombia's industrial history—a mere 4.6 percent of workers. Crushing unionization no longer requires the murder of trade union leaders and activists, he said, as the union movement is effectively crushed. Taking issue with claims made by Minister Palacio, Gacek took issue with the quality of protection for union leaders, claiming that rates of impunity for the material and intellectual authors of violence against unionists are very high. He noted that since President Uribe took office in 2002, 420 trade union leaders have been murdered in Colombia, while over 8,600 cases of violence against union members were registered between 1986 and 2007.
José Luciano Sanín Vázquez of the Escuela Nacional Sindical de Medellín (National Trade Union School in Medellín) elaborated on the state of labor protection and violence against unions in Colombia. Colombia has only limited social protection and other coverage mechanisms for workers, even as most job creation is taking place in the precarious informal sector. New forms of employment (such as associated labor cooperatives) are surfacing in Colombia and, according to Sanín Vázquez, are reducing workers rights. Government practices, judicial paralysis (97 percent of cases involving violence against workers are not prosecuted), and the historic and systematic violence against labor leaders and members makes the functioning of trade unions difficult. Without labor rights, Sanín explained, free trade can be catastrophic, noting that when free enterprise went along with freedom to unionize, Colombia could speak of progress.
Juan Pablo Corlazzoli, former director of the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bogotá, argued that the human rights situation in Colombia needed to be understood in the context of the internal armed conflict. The most egregious violations, he said, were directly related to that conflict. In 2006-07, the international community, including the office of the High Commissioner and the OAS's Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, had produced four human rights reports on Colombia, all of which noted progress in the respect for human rights. He noted that sectors other than trade unionists faced persecution, pointing to the murder of 33 local politicians and candidates for electoral office. Corlazzoli argued that the Colombian government, through its Ministries of Labor and Justice, could do even more to protect labor rights. But he maintained that an FTA could also be a vehicle for advancing economic rights, including by generating of high quality jobs linked to foreign investment. Development and security, he concluded, were dependent on each other as well as on human rights.