Colombia not enforcing U.S. trade deal labor standards -unions

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Colombia has failed to enforce worker protections in a free trade agreement with the United States, U.S. and Colombian labor unions said on Monday, raising questions about similar provisions in the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

File photo of a woman holding a sign protesting the U.S.-Colombian Free Trade Agreement and human rights abuse, in Washington July 11, 2011. REUTERS/Molly Riley

In a complaint filed with a division of the U.S. Labor Department, the unions said threats and acts of violence against trade unionists in Colombia were neither properly investigated nor prosecuted.

The AFL-CIO and four Colombian unions said in the complaint that since the U.S.-Colombian trade deal took effect in 2011, some 99 Colombian workers and worker advocates were killed as they tried to exercise their rights. Six workers were kidnapped, and 955 death threats were received, the complaint said.

The unions, including those representing many of Colombia’s oil workers and farm workers, also said the Colombian government ignored protections for workers who want to unionize and allowed the rampant use of subcontractors in violation of union contracts.

The complaint said the oil and sugar sectors were among the businesses where workers remain oppressed.

“The failure to enforce fundamental labor rights artificially distorts the cost of labor in the oil sector because Colombian companies face different conditions of competition than they would face were the laws effectively enforced,” the unions said in the complaint filed with the Labor Department’s Office of Trade and Labor Affairs.

The free trade deal was to guarantee Colombian workers the right to freely unionize and collectively bargain with employers. The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal has similar provisions but also requires all 12 members, which include Vietnam, Malaysia, Mexico and Peru, to establish minimum wages, working hours and occupational safety requirements.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called the TPP labor provisions negotiated last year a “near carbon copy” of those in the Colombian trade deal and said they, too, would probably fail, driving down wages and standards in the United States

“Four years after the U.S.-Colombia trade deal took effect, anti-union blacklists persist, 99 more worker advocates have been assassinated and employers continue to create obstacles to workers’ right to unionize,” Trumka said in a statement.

He said the U.S. Congress should reject the TPP and “not rely on empty promises that Mexico, Malaysia and Vietnam will eventually protect working people.”

The Colombian Labor Ministry did not immediately respond to calls and messages seeking comment.

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman declined to comment on the specific complaint by the unions. However, he told Reuters in Peru on Monday that while Colombia has made progress on enforcing labor standards, “there still is certainly work to be done.”

However, Froman added that the TPP has stronger protections than the Colombia deal, including minimum wage and safe workplace requirements, as well as specific action plans for Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei that are part of the trade deal itself.

“I think with TPP we’ve gone further than any previous trade agreement,” Froman said.

Reporting by David Lawder in Washington, additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota and Mitra Taj in Lima; Editing by Tom Brown and Richard Borsuk