Levin Floor Statement in Opposition to Colombia Free Trade Agreement

Oct 12, 2011 Issues: Trade

Ways and Means Ranking Member Sander Levin (D-MI) today delivered the following floor statement in opposition of the Colombia free trade agreement:

Free trade agreements set the terms of competition between nations. It's more than about the mathematical flow of goods. The conditions for workers in the countries we trade with are fundamental to that competition.  

“Workers in Colombia have long been without basic labor rights.  More than any other democracy on the globe, there have been extreme levels of violence against workers and their leaders. There’s been a near-universal lack of justice for murders of union activists. And there have been extensive flaws in Colombian labor law and practice.

“These conditions – and the insistence of Democrats that they be fully and effectively addressed – are what held up consideration of the Colombia FTA.

“What has been long overdue was work on these conditions, and there wasn't by the Bush or the Uribe administrations. Yes, it's taken five years, because most of those years were taken up by inaction by the Bush administration and by the administration prior to President Santos.

“Earlier this year an Action Plan on Labor Rights was negotiated between the U.S. and Colombian governments and included commitments and deadlines for Colombia to address issues of worker rights, violence and impunity.

“Regretfully, some key obligations have not been met in a meaningful way.  One troubling example:

“Colombian employers have a history of using sham cooperatives and other contract relationships to camouflage true employment relationships and thereby thwart worker efforts to organize.  The International Labor Organization has long identified this type of practice as among the most serious problems facing Colombian workers. In Colombia only workers who are directly employed can form a union and collectively bargain.  

“Colombia committed to stop such abuses in the Action Plan. It passed far-reaching legislation and proposed effective regulations.  

“But unfortunately, it then backed away.

“Through loopholes in the law, it allowed Colombian employers, including a major beverage company and palm oil producers, to begin converting cooperatives to other contract forms to continue denying workers their basic rights.

“Privately, we Democrats in the House, pushed the Colombians for months to try to stem this problematic shift. But even a clarification it issued on the eve of the markup last week – after public pressure had been brought to bear – fell short.

“This problem highlights precisely why it was vital to link the Action Plan to the FTA we are voting on today. But very regrettably, the Republicans blocked any reference to the Labor Action Plan in the implementation bill and unfortunately the administration acquiesced.

“Explicitly linking the Action Plan to entry into force of the Colombia FTA was necessary as a vital step to ensure effective, meaningful implementation of the Action Plan.  Without such a linkage, we have no leverage to ensure that Colombia lives up to the commitments it has made, and it provides no context and meaning for the enforcement of the FTA worker rights standard in the future.

“I also want to emphasize, it provides no context and meaning for the enforcement of the FTA workers' rights standards in the future. The language in the FTA is the basic international worker rights language. It is general in its provision. It has to be given meaning and the Action Plan would help to give it meaning if in the future action needed to be taken under the dispute settlement system. So when there's no linkage between the implementation bill and the action plan, it takes away the context for future action.

“Other obligations under the Action Plan haven’t been meaningfully met. Despite minimal requirements set in the Action Plan, Colombian employers continue to use direct negotiations with workers – referred to as “collective pacts” -- to thwart workers from organizing. I saw firsthand the use of those collective packs when I was in Colombia when I was on one of my three visits.

“Another pervasive problem was highlighted earlier this month by Human Rights Watch, the problem of in investigating and prosecuting union murders, even those cases designated as priorities. Colombia authorities obtained just six convictions of 195 union murders that occurred in the four-plus years leading up to May 2011.

“And, notwithstanding clear commitments under the Action Plan to improve this situation through reforms in investigative policies and methods, Colombia did not take the first step to do this – namely, the publication of an analysis of closed union murder cases – until the eve of the markup, even though the Action Plan called for its completion on July 15. Even with this, it is clear that additional leverage is necessary.  Interviews by Human Rights Watch with Colombian prosecutors reveal that there has been no clear direction to implement the new policies and methods, as committed to under the Action Plan.

“I wish I could stand here today and say that Colombia had fully implemented the commitments under the Action Plan to date and vitally that the legislation incorporated the Action Plan and conditioned the FTA’s entry into force on its effective implementation.

“I cannot in good conscience do so. Therefore I urge my colleagues to oppose the Colombia free trade agreement.