Colombia, South Korea Free-Trade Agreements Moving Toward Completion

A free-trade agreement between the United States and Colombia has taken a giant step forward.

President Barack Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos met in Washington, D.C., on April 7 to put forward an action plan that would strengthen labor rights in Colombia, an issue that had stalled the pact, signed in 2006, because Colombia has one of the highest murder rates of labor leaders.

With that matter resolved, U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady (R–Texas), head of the House Committee on Ways and Means’ Trade Subcommittee, said he would like all three pending free-trade agreements with Colombia, South Korea and Panama to be considered by Congress by July 1.

The labor plan with Colombia would expand by April 22 the scope of its existing program to provide protection for labor activists and workers trying to organize a union. It also requires that Colombia’s criminal code be reformed by June 15 to criminalize actions that violate workers’ rights, including threats against labor organizers. By December, 95 full-time judicial police investigators must be assigned to help prosecutors handle cases of crimes against union members and speed up prosecution.

The United States noted that violence against labor unionists has dropped from 194 homicides in 2001 to approximately 51 in 2010. But that hasn’t satisfied U.S. labor leaders, who still are against the U.S.-Colombia free-trade pact.

The United Steelworkers said it remains opposed to the Colombia trade pact.

“The fact is, despite the newly negotiated ’Action Plan,’ the situation in Colombia has not changed and, therefore, should not be rewarded with a free-trade agreement,” said USW President Leo W. Gerard in a statement.

Teamsters President Jim Hoffa also expressed concerns that the plan won’t be enforceable. “Signing a trade agreement with Colombia before it has shown the necessary improvement in labor laws and protections would be premature,” he said in a statement.

The White House said a free-trade agreement with Colombia will boost U.S. exports to that country by $1.1 billion and increase the U.S. gross domestic product by $2.5 billion. In 2010, U.S. exports to Colombia totaled $12 billion, with $123.7 million of that in textiles and apparel. Last year, the United States imported nearly $292 million in textiles and apparel from Colombia, with tariffs reaching as high as 32 percent.

A free-trade agreement will make 80 percent of goods traded free of duty, with remaining tariffs phased out over 10 years.

Hurdles to a free-trade agreement with South Korea were removed late last year when differences were resolved over non-tariff barriers affecting the U.S. auto industry. —Deborah Belgum