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Workers will suffer from weakened Andean Community

IPS, 4 May 2006

Workers Will Suffer from Weakened Andean Community

Humberto Márquez*

CARACAS, May 4 (IPS) - Free trade agreements with the United States and Venezuela’s announced withdrawal from the Andean Community trade bloc will have an impact on workers, the ‘Cinderella’ of decades of integration, said trade unionists and experts in the region consulted by IPS.

The Andean Community is made up of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. But in response to the signing of free trade accords with the United States by Colombia and Peru, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said his country would pull out of the bloc. (Ecuador is also negotiating a free trade deal with Washington).

The free trade treaties "respond to economic and political decisions by the transnational corporations that dominate the world, and we suffer the consequences," said Enrique García Moure, secretary-general of the Latin American Workers’ Confederation (CLAT).

But Caracas’ withdrawal "would appear to be a temperamental decision, which ignores around 60 agreements that govern the Andean Community and because of which Venezuela has better prospects within than outside of the bloc, when it comes to defending its interests," he added.

Chávez, who currently holds the bloc’s rotating presidency, said last month that the free trade agreements with the United States had fatally wounded Andean, and South American, integration. "The Andean Community is dead. Neoliberalism has killed it," said the leftist president, before officially beginning the process of withdrawing his country from the bloc that it joined in 1973.

The Andean Community members have a total population of 125 million and a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of 280 billion dollars, and do 128 billion dollars in trade annually, seven percent of which is among the members of the bloc themselves.

According to Venezuelan trade unionist Froilán Barrios, export companies in the Andean Community employ 460,000 people, including 100,000 people in Venezuela.

"A weakening of the Andean Community would affect workers’ struggles for decent employment, job stability and the right to a guaranteed pension, as sought by the Andean Labour Council. Workers must fight for the bloc’s continued existence," said Jaime Solares, executive secretary of the Central Obrera Boliviana labour federation in Bolivia.

The Andean Labour Council is made up of 16 central trade unions from the bloc’s five member countries.

The Andean Community "is a good client" for soybeans and other products from Bolivia, of which it purchases around 500 million dollars, "although only 42,000 people work in the export sector," said Javier Gómez with the La Paz-based Centre for Labour and Agrarian Development.

Bolivian President Evo Morales joined Chávez in criticising Colombia’s free trade deal with the United States, which he said would hurt Bolivia’s sales of soybeans to Colombia.

But he urged Chávez to reconsider his decision until the situation was discussed by the council of presidents. (Bolivia takes over the rotating presidency in June).

The Andean Labour Council backed Morales’ call for a presidential summit to urgently evaluate the crisis and take measures to overcome it. It also demanded that the Andean Community governments assume the "responsibility" of maintaining unity in the bloc, and the "commitment to relaunch and strengthen the process of Andean integration in the shortest possible timeframe."

But the Labour Council, and the views of trade unions overall, have historically had very little influence on Andean Community decision-making.

The Labour Council "is merely a forum for debate," said Luciano Sanín, director of the National Trade Union School (ENS), a research centre founded in 1982 by academics and trade unionists in the Colombian city of Medellín. "It does not have the ‘teeth’ or the capacity to modify labour policies or regulations. This is something the Andean Community has suffered since it first emerged - it is very weak institutionally."

"The crisis continues, despite our call for support for Morales’ position," said Carlos Ortiz, a representative of Peru’s Confederación General de Trabajadores trade union federation. "But unfortunately, since Hugo Chávez assumed the presidency of the Andean Community, there have been no meetings."

"Our position is that integration is necessary to improve the economic, political and social situation in our countries. Thanks to that, we have begun to advance, and issues like safety and health in the workplace, labour migration, social security and capacity building are being studied by the Andean Labour Council," said Ortiz.

"The dismantling of the Andean Community would hurt existing jobs and the possibilities of generating new employment that could be promoted," said Julio César Bazán, secretary-general of Peru’s Central Única de Trabajadores labour federation.

"This situation has been affected not only by the somewhat expansionist position of Hugo Chávez, but also by the submission to the United States by Colombia, Peru and Ecuador," he added.

"None of the four have made efforts to strengthen regional integration," he declared.

Former Peruvian labour minister Javier Neves said he doubted the Andean Community would disappear.

But he also doubted that the bloc would reach many decisions on labour questions, because only three have been reached so far: on migration, social security, and safety and health in the workplace

Political scientist Angélica Escobar, an adviser to the Confederación General de Trabajadores trade union confederation in Colombia, said "Chávez can’t really believe that you can pull out of the Andean Community just by sending a letter. Such an enormous integration effort should not be undone just like that."

Venezuela "could have followed other strategies, like establishing safeguards to keep U.S. products from reaching that country through the Colombian free trade agreement," said Escobar, who also questioned the supposed benefits that the free trade treaties would bring in terms of employment.

A study by Escobar on the labour impacts of free trade deals in Central America and Mexico "shows that trade liberalisation processes tend to lead to the expansion of informal sector employment, and that the increasing precariousness of employment especially affects women, young people and children."

In the Andean region, she noted, more than 50 percent of women who earn incomes do so in the informal sector of the economy, "and face the daily challenge of combining their work with their domestic responsibilities, coming up with different formulas for home-based work, especially in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru."

And while overall unemployment in the Andean region stands at 24 percent, up to 70 percent of those in the 18 to 24 age group are out of work, "forcing both unskilled and highly-skilled, qualified workers to go out and compete for jobs," said Escobar.

According to García Moure, "in all four subregional integration processes - in the Andean region, the Southern Cone, Central America, and the Caribbean - the biggest deficit is in social questions and labour rights. The declarations that are made always say social considerations will be taken into account. But little progress has been made on that front compared to what has been done in terms of customs and trade issues."

"In that, and in demanding that free trade agreements should have to be approved by the Andean Community, Chávez is right," said García Moure, who hopes that "the progressive governments that have emerged in the region will give more space" to the labour movement.

During the globalisation process, "the correlation of forces has been favourable to transnational corporations, and the labour and social movements are weak today. That is why the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs - social targets agreed by the international community in 2000) are not being met, because the big corporations impose their policies to produce or sell more weapons, cosmetics or luxury homes than food or affordable housing," said the secretary-general of CLAT.

* With additional reporting by Franz Chávez in Bolivia, Constanza Vieira in Colombia and Ángel Páez in Peru.

 source: IPS