Obama’s “Labor Action Plan” for Colombia Woefully Inadequate; Doesn’t Require Reduction in Violence

The U.S. and Colombian governments have agreed to a “Labor Action Plan” that is intended to pave the way for a vote on the long-pending Colombia-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The FTA was signed in November 2006 but has since been stalled, largely due to concerns about violence against trade unionists and accompanying impunity. While the Plan contains some important measures, it falls far short of what the Colombian and U.S. labor movements, USLEAP, and other worker rights supporters consider necessary as a precondition for a vote on the Colombia FTA. Most distressing, the Plan does not require any concrete progress to reduce violence or address impunity before implementation of the Colombia FTA.

Effective implementation of the Labor Rights Action Plan, initialed by Deputy USTR Miriam Sapiro and Colombian Ambassador Gabriel Silva on April 7, the day before a meeting between President Barack Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, would nonetheless represent meaningful advances for worker rights in Colombia. The Plan outlines a number of important measures requested by Colombian unions, including steps to strengthen the prosecution of perpetrators of violence against trade unions and increase protection of threatened trade unionists, reigning in the use of cooperatives and contract labor that skirt the ability to form unions, and criminalizing anti-union behavior. The Plan would also reestablish the Colombian Ministry of Labor, which was eliminated under former President Álvaro Uribe and whose functions had been subsumed under the Ministry of Social Protection.

However, the Labor Plan does not address other key worker rights issues for the Colombian trade union movement, including allowing for industry-wide unions and using International Labor Organization standards to define “essential services” that are subject to strike prohibitions. The Plan also does not address other ways in which Colombian law falls short of standards established by the ILO, and it allows some restrictions on unionization to continue. Currently, the rate of unionized workers in Colombia is 3.5%; only 70,000 people out of 20 million are part of collective bargaining agreements, one of the lowest percentages in the world.

The three most serious critiques of the Plan are that it: (1) does not require an actual reduction in violence against trade unionists or advances on impunity, (2) is limited only to labor issues and does not address a wide range of other concerns, including human rights violations, militarization, impact on agriculture, internal displacement and the rights of Afro-Colombians, and (3) provides no way to ensure compliance once the Colombia FTA is implemented. Consequently, prominent labor and human rights groups have joined leading Colombian trade union organizations in denouncing the agreement as woefully inadequate as a sufficient condition for approval of the FTA.

Violence and Impunity

A range of voices, from The New York Times to Candidate Obama to worker rights advocates, have long argued that there should be a reduction in violence before moving forward the Colombia FTA. Most recently, on March 17 six leading members of Congress sent President Obama a letter that called for a “dramatic and sustained” decrease in the number of murders and violence against trade unionists, with an indication that the trend will continue, a “zero tolerance” policy on extrajudicial killings by Colombia’s military and other state actors, and a multi-year national campaign to “promote the legitimacy of union organizations in Colombian society,” among other benchmarks.

Yet there is nothing in the Plan or any accompanying Administration statement that requires a reduction of violence as a precondition to approving the FTA. On the contrary, the Administration has made clear that it wants a vote before the end of the year, i.e. before giving the anti-violence aspects of the Labor Action Plan time to see if they are effective. Theoretically, the same number of unionists could be killed with the Plan as without it. Fifty-one unionists were murdered in Colombia in 2010, leading the world in the number of deaths, and 6 unionists have been killed thus far in 2011, including 2 the week before the Plan was released. The victims were threatened by the Colombian military right before their deaths.

The national press and many members of Congress have accepted the mantra that there has been a “recent” reduction in violence against trade unionists, even though the facts show otherwise. USLEAP has prepared a one-page set of graphics that has been widely circulated on Capitol Hill. While there has been a reduction in trade union murders over the last decade, there has been no reduction since the agreement was signed in late 2006.

Non-Labor Issues

The Plan, designed to address concerns about the pending free trade agreement, does not respond to any concerns regarding non-labor issues. For example, outside of cases of anti-union violence, the Plan does not address other human rights violations perpetrated by the Colombian government. More than 3,000 people have reportedly been murdered by the Colombian armed forces, and few of the perpetrators have been brought to justice. There has been an increase in attacks and threats directed towards community leaders and human rights defenders in the last 6 months. Most fundamentally, as Human Rights Watch, the Washington Office on Latin America and others have pointed out, the agreement does not address the underlying conditions that are responsible for causing violence, including the dismantling of paramilitary and armed groups.

Another area of concern is that the Plan does not address the economic and humanitarian implications for the passage of a Colombian FTA. For example, the Colombian government itself anticipates a 35% decline in agricultural employment. Without jobs, farmers may be forced to migrate to the city or turn to illicit crop production, perpetuating violence and the drug trade. Afro-Colombians and indigenous groups, which have faced increasing persecution and displacement, would be most severely affected by the loss of agricultural employment and increased violence, further continuing the cycle of oppression.

Post-FTA Compliance?

Because the Labor Action Plan is separate from the actual Free Trade Agreement, it is not clear how the U.S. can ensure compliance with the Plan once the U.S. and Colombian Congresses ratify the agreement. Past experience with FTAs has revealed that U.S. leverage is significantly reduced once an FTA is implemented. This of particular concern with respect to violence and impunity, as the U.S. Trade Representative has yet to declare that the murder of a trade unionist is a worker rights violation subject to purview of FTAs.


Prior to the release of the Plan, the Obama Administration had reportedly been negotiating with the Colombian government a series of steps that it would need to take before the Administration would bring the FTA to a vote, and then another series of steps that it would need to take before the actual implementation of the FTA. The Labor Action Plan includes three primary sets of dates: steps to be taken by April 22, steps to be taken by June 15, 2011, and steps to be taken by December 15, 2011. This suggests that the Administration may bring the FTA to Congress after June 15, with implementation set for December if steps in the Labor Plan are completed.

Intense Republican Pressure

The Obama Administration has been facing significant pressure from the Republicans to pass the pending trade agreements with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia by June 2011. Among other strategies to force a vote on the three FTAs, Republicans refused to renew both the Andean Trade Preference Agreement (ATPA), which provides duty-free treatment to goods from Andean countries, and Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), which provides job training and economic assistance to U.S. workers dislocated by trade. While the Administration has resisted calls to bundle the three agreements together, its willingness to move forward an FTA with Colombia, the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists with the highest number of internally displaced people, is disheartening.

Wide Opposition

Numerous human rights groups and labor unions have come out against the Labor Action Plan as a sufficient precondition for passing the Colombia FTA, including the United Steelworkers, the AFL-CIO, SEIU, Teamsters, Human Rights Watch, the Latin America Working Group, the Washington Office on Latin America, the Sierra Club, TransAfrica, and USLEAP. Many, of course, also reject the basic economic model on which Bush-era FTAs are based.

U.S. congressional leaders, including Representatives Jim McGovern (D-MA), George Miller (D-CA), Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Mike Michaud (D-ME), Linda Sanchez (D-CA), and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), among others, have also released statements denouncing the agreement as adequate. The White House Office of the Press Secretary release of statements of support for the Colombian FTA included only pro-business groups like the American Soybean Association, the Corn Refiners Association, and the National Association of Manufacturers.

The two largest Colombian unions, the United Center of Workers (CUT) and the Confederation of Workers (CTC), have come out strongly in opposition to the agreement to move forward the FTA on the basis of the Labor Rights Action Plan, although the Colombian government failed to make a copy of the Plan available to its own citizens. The document is now being translated into Spanish for Colombian trade unions and NGOs.

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