US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement: Labor issues

Congressional Research Service | Friday, January 20, 2012

U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement: Labor Issues

Mary Jane Bolle
Specialist in International Trade and Finance

This report examines three labor issues and arguments related to the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CFTA), signed on October 21, 2011 (P.L. 112-42): violence against trade unionists; impunity (accountability for or punishment of the perpetrators); and worker rights protections for Colombians. For general issues relating to the CFTA, see CRS Report RL34470, The U.S.- Colombia Free Trade Agreement: Background and Issues, by M. Angeles Villarreal. For background on Colombia and its political situation and context for the agreement, see CRS Report RL32250, Colombia: Issues for Congress, by June S. Beittel.

Opponents of the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement (CFTA) argued against it on three points: (1) the high rate of violence against trade unionists in Colombia; (2) the lack of adequate punishment for the perpetrators of that violence; and (3) weak Colombian enforcement of International Labor Organization (ILO) core labor standards and Colombia’s labor laws.

Proponents of the agreement argued primarily for the Colombia FTA on the basis of economic and national security benefits. Accordingly, they argued, the CFTA would support increased exports, expand economic growth, create jobs, and open up investment opportunities for the United States. They also argued that it would reinforce the rule of law, spread values of capitalism in Colombia, and anchor hemispheric stability.

Proponents specifically responded to labor complaints of the opponents, that (1) violence against trade unionists has declined dramatically since former President Álvaro Uribe took office in 2002; (2) substantial progress is being made on the impunity issue as the government has undertaken great efforts to find perpetrators and bring them to justice; and (3) the Colombian government is taking steps to improve conditions for workers. The most recent steps are outlined in the “Colombian Action Plan Related to Labor Rights,” released and jointly endorsed by President Obama and Colombian President Juan Manual Santos, on April 7, 2011.

The Colombia FTA, along with FTAs for Panama and South Korea, are the second set of FTAs (after Peru) to have some labor enforcement “teeth.” Labor provisions including the four basic ILO core labor principles are enforceable through the same dispute settlement procedures as for all other provisions (i.e., primarily those for commercial interests.) Opponents argued that under CFTA, only the concepts of core labor principles, and not the details of the ILO conventions behind them, would be enforceable.

Proponents pointed to recent Colombian progress in protecting workers on many fronts. They argued that approval of the FTA and the economic growth in Colombia that would result is the best way to protect Colombia’s trade unionists. They also argued that not passing the agreement would not resolve Colombia’s labor issues. In addition, they argued, the United States could lose jobs through trade diversion as Colombia continues to enter into regional trade agreements with other countries.

Opponents argued that delaying approval of the CFTA further would give Colombia more time to keep improving protections for its workers. In fact, proponents point out, this has occurred in the five years between 2011 when Congress approved the implementing legislation, and 2006, when the agreement was first signed.

source: CRS