The US-Colombia Labor Action Plan (LAP) has failed to protect the rights and safety of Colombian workers, according to a joint statement released by labor unions in both countries on the anniversary of its signing.
Enacted three years ago Monday, the LAP was developed in response to congressional critics in the United States who refused to pass the US-Colombian Free Trade Agreement (FTA) due to concerns over widespread labor violations in Colombia and the country’s history of targeted violence against labor organizers.
Improved labor conditions were supposed to be a key element in the implementation of broader free trade. So far, however, the LAP has “failed to produce sustained and meaningful changes in the reality faced by workers,” according to Monday’s statement.
Failures of the LAP
Though a previous statement released by the US government claims that “Colombia has met all of its Action Plan milestones to date,” critics say that the effects of the plan have been superficial rather than structural.
“During the past 3 years of the LAP, 73 trade unionists were assassinated, 31 suffered attempted murders, six were forcibly disappeared and hundreds of others received death threats,” said Gimena Sanchez, a senior associate on Colombia at the Washington Office on Latin America. Unions in the energy sector in particular faced intimidations and death threats during various work stoppages and negotiations last year.
“The LAP was flawed to begin with,” she explained, because Colombia “did not have the legal, political and institutional tools necessary to make sure that it was properly implemented.”
Monday’s statement, signed by the countries’ largest labor bodies — including the United States’ American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and Colombia’s Syndicated Worker’s Union (Union Sindical Obrera) — goes even further, claiming that for both governments, the LAP was never more than a tool to appease critics of the joint free trade agreement.
“The Colombian government seems to have viewed the LAP as principally a way to gain approval of the FTA by the United States Congress,” reads the statement. Once the LAP was signed and the agreement had been passed, neither government took measures to ensure that the goals of the plan were effectively implemented.
Regardless of the original intent, reports indicate that Colombian workers have seen little change in regards to their rights since the LAP was put into effect. Workers continue to “lack social protection and labor rights because employers use illegal forms of hiring,” according to the statement, and are regularly fired for attempting to organize.
The Ministry of Labor, which was created to effectively implement the LAP, has failed in its efforts to address these shortcomings, going so far as to claim that it does not have the authority to force companies to pay fines, according to Sanchez. The government as a whole, moreover, has failed to guarantee the right to organize, or persecute the criminal organizations who target workers and labor rights advocates for intimidation and assassination.
“Actions against perpetrators of threats are minimal if any,” said Sanchez. “Of the 1,007 [investigations opened into incidents], some 47% are in the initial stages. The impunity rate for trade unionist homicides remains 86.6%. The impunity in other abuses against trade unionists is even higher.”
In an independent review conducted by a congressional monitoring group from the United States, Congressman James McGovern said, “We presented a Labor Action Plan in the Congress of the United States to improve the conditions of workers in Colombia, and this clearly has not happened, and I think both governments of both the United States like Colombia must meet what they promised.”
The LAP’s critics claim that a series of structural reforms need to be put into place, on behalf of both the US and Colombian governments, for the plan to effectively work.
The most significant of these is the creation of an independent oversight committee made up of congressional representatives from both countries, who would work with national trade union, labor federations and NGO’s focused on labor rights.
Additionally, both the US and Colombian governments should ensure that fines are levied against companies that violate the agreements of the LAP. US-based companies in particular have a troubling track record with labor issues in Colombia. Many, including the Chiquita Brands International — formerly the United Fruit Company – banana company and the Drummond Company coal giant, had proven ties to armed paramilitary organizations but have faced minimal or non-existant consequences in both countries.
The US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement was signed in November 2006 under then-President George W. Bush. Implementation of the agreement was delayed, however, due to serious concerns regarding violence against Colombian union leaders, and an institutional failure failure to prosecute those responsible for the attacks.
In 2011, Presidents Barack Obama and Juan Manuel Santos launched the Labor Action Plan which promised to improve worker’s rights in Colombia with the assistance of the US government. The agreement was passed by the US Congress in October 2011.
- Interview with Gimena Sanchez (Washington Office on Latin America)
- The US-Colombia Labor Action Plan: Failing on the Ground (US House of Representatives)
- Three Years of Non-Compliance with the Obama-Santos Labor Action Plan (AFL-CIO)