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Report Critical of Colombian Labor Rights

Calls on Obama administration to crack down.

WASHINGTON — A report released by Reps. George Miller (D., Calif.) and James McGovern (D., Mass.) on Tuesday accused the Colombian government of failing to implement a labor action plan, considered the linchpin to Congressional approval of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement in 2011.

The report called on the South American country to improve the situation on the ground. The lawmakers also pressed the Obama administration to step up pressure on Colombia and separately to include binding labor rights language in a much larger trade agreement under negotiation — the Trans-Pacific Partnership between the U.S. and 11 countries.

The Obama administration reached a key agreement on labor provisions with Colombia in April 2011, aimed at providing broader protections for labor leaders and union organizing. The labor pact helped break a four-year impasse in Congress on the free-trade agreement between the U.S. and Colombia, which passed later that year. While Colombia is not a large apparel and textile supplier to the U.S., combined imports rose 6 percent to $261 million for the year ended Aug. 31.

The new report by Miller and McGovern — “The U.S-Colombia Labor Action Plan: Failing on the Ground” — charges that violence against trade unionists has escalated in the past two years. “Despite the LAP, murders and threats against union members and harmful subcontracting persist in Colombia largely unabated,” said the report, noting that 22 trade unionists were murdered for union involvement in 2012, while about 413 threats against trade unionists were documented. “Because of the fear of violence or employer retaliation associated with organizing or joining a union and the prevalence of antiunion and antiworker prejudice, only four percent of Colombian workers are union members.”

Miller and McGovern, who visited Colombia in August, heard testimony from 50 people and met with workers, union leaders and labor lawyers over several days. Among the key findings highlighted in the report were that subcontracting is still pervasive, despite a commitment to crack down on the practice; the Colombian government has failed to collect fines for violations, leading to continued “flagrant violations,” and workers are still subjected to retaliation for trying to form a union. The report also stated that more than 90 percent of cases of violence against trade unionists do not result in conviction.

The lawmakers made several recommendations to the Congressional Monitoring Group on Labor Rights in Colombia, including urging the Colombian government to strengthen its inspection system by expanding the capacity of trained inspectors to assess fines, fully investigate alleged violence and address gaps that exist in protection mechanisms for trade unionists, labor activists and human rights advocates.

They also called on the Obama administration to advocate more for labor rights in Colombia, undertake its own independent investigations and include a binding agreement with Vietnam and other TPP countries with weak labor protections that links their participation in TPP to “measurable labor rights improvement.”