Murdered Trade Unionists: The Truth Behind Colombia’s Trade Agreement

Cathy Feingold

Cathy Feingold Director of the International Department, AFL-CIO

Any mention of Latin America has become a synonym of mass migration, autocratic governments and unstable economies. Yet, Colombia continues to shine as the exception. This week marks the seventh anniversary since the United States-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement (TPA) entered into force. It can be argued that during these years this South American nation has become a haven of economic and social stability. Or not.

One only has to look behind all the fanfare and a “parallel reality” appears. Violence in Colombia is still harrowing. From the oil to the sugar to the flower sector, workers and trade unionists report a deterioration of their rights at the workplace, continued labor intermediation that weakens the power of workers, and an increase in the culture of violence and impunity. From January 2016 through April 2019, 681 social leaders and human rights defenders have been murdered; and between 2016 and 2018, 70 trade unionists have been killed. In fact, from the year the TPA went into force until today, 172 trade unionists have been murdered.

When the United States and Colombia began negotiating their trade agreement, we already saw the negative effects of the original NAFTA—from mass migration and a spike in violence in Mexico to widening inequality in the United States. After pressure from labor and human rights organizations, in April 2011, the U.S. and Colombian governments agreed to an “Action Plan Related to Labor Rights” (Labor Action Plan) that outlined specific steps to be taken by the Colombian government within a concrete timeline.

Colombia made commitments, both under the trade agreement and in other global fora, to improve worker rights, end attacks and murders of trade unionists, and bring perpetrators of violence to justice. The country also signed a peace accord with the FARC that committed to ending the conflict and addressing many of the core factors that continue to lead to high levels of inequality and violence.

But despite these ongoing commitments by various Colombian administrations and President Iván Duque Márquez, the situation for Colombian workers and trade unionists continues to deteriorate.  

As a side agreement, the Labor Action Plan had no effective enforcement mechanism, and in May 2016, the AFL-CIO and Colombian unions submitted a complaint under the FTA documenting ongoing egregious violations of the agreement’s labor commitments. Currently, the agreement remains inadequately implemented with new policies like the recently passed National Development Plan that actively undermines its implementation.  

Today is the third anniversary of the submission of the labor complaint, and the AFL-CIO and Colombian unions continue to demand real action toward compliance with all international commitments that include full respect for and implementation of International Labor Organization’s  fundamental rights that are critical to not only securing rights, but the ongoing transition to an inclusive and lasting peace.

In the context of the ongoing peace process, on May 2 the Colombian Congress approved the National Development Plan, a four-year plan that includes changes to labor rights. The plan contradicts many of Colombia’s commitments under free trade agreements with both the United States and Canada and with the European Union, as well as commitments made at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the ILO. It undermines efforts to redress broader problems such as the exclusion and poverty and violence faced by Afro-Colombians, indigenous people and rural workers. Seven years after the trade agreement went into force, neither the Colombian nor U.S. government are in a position to speak of progress.

The ongoing failure to address egregious worker rights violations and violence against trade unionists in Colombia underscores the lack of effective enforcement mechanism in our current trade model. We must inform the current debates around the need to develop a new trade model that creates an effective enforcement mechanism, mandatory monitoring, reporting and assurances that actions will be promptly taken when workers' rights violations occur. Guaranteed funding is needed to ensure monitoring, enforcement and technical assistance happen.

The United States must address the vain attempts by the Colombian government to uphold its commitments outlined in the TPA and ensure that any future trade agreements, including the renegotiated NAFTA, incorporate an effective mechanism that ensures that working families’ lives can benefit from trade.


Reposted from the AFL-CIO

Posted In: Allied Approaches, From AFL-CIO