From the TUC

Should we get excited about the European Parliament’s Road Map on Colombia?

15 Jun 2012, by Guest in International, Uncategorized

Colombia shouldn’t be rewarded with an EU trade deal while trade unionists there continue to face extreme levels of assassination, threats, assault and intimidation. That’s the message at the heart of the long campaign waged by unions across Europe, and backed by our Colombian colleagues, against the negotiations for an EU-Colombia free trade agreement.

The European Parliament might approve the trade deal later this year but the campaign has had an impact: the International Trade Committee of the Parliament (INTA) has just passed a resolution which calls for a “transparent and binding road map” aimed at “safeguarding human rights, enhancing and improving trade unionists’ rights and protecting the environment” in Colombia and Peru.  But will another piece of paper out of Brussels make a jot of difference to those living in the world’s most dangerous place to be a trade unionist?

Importantly the proposed Road Map will require “steps to end impunity… for crimes committed in Colombia”. At least 2,921 trade unionists have been murdered in Colombia since 1986 – and thousands more human rights defenders – but according to the UNDP the murderers got away with it in 94.4% of those cases.

The US government put in place its own “Labor Action Plan” last year which has led to an increase in the number of investigators and investigations into crimes against trade unionists. But this hasn’t budged levels of impunity (e.g. no one has been prosecuted for the 30 trade unionists murdered last year). Part of the problem is that the US plan and now this EU proposal don’t address a key source of the violence – armed groups, many of which continue the legacy of the notorious paramilitary organisations infamous for targeting organised labour.  The other problem is that the US plan never judged Colombia by results. So they might have employed 100 more inspectors, but without a plan, proper investigation methods and the political will to reduce impunity progress has elusive.

So it’s encouraging that the proposed EU Road Map should have “clear, time-bound and results-based targets” for impunity, among others (although bizarrely, the Road Map is missing targets on stopping violence in the first place).

Another key action the Road Map will require is: “the elimination of the use of cooperatives, collective pacts or other measures that have the purpose or effect of denying workers their trade union rights or the benefits of a direct employment relationship.”

Colombia’s industrial relation system has given employers every excuse to undermine trade unions, collective bargaining agreements, and direct employment relationships through notorious subcontracting arrangements. Again, measures taken under the US plan to address this have either been unforced, or have caused companies to use new types of intermediaries such as “simplified stock companies” to deny workers their rights.The EU Road Map has to learn from and address these failures.

The overall effect of this extreme violence and legal trickery continues to makes it “virtually impossible to freely organize unions” concludes the Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS) the widely respected labour rights organisation, in its highly critical review of one year anniversary of the US Labor Action Plan. From being one of the strongest trade union movements in Latin America in the 1980s, union density has collapsed to just four percent of the workforce.

For the Road Map to have any chance of tackling this appalling situation, the Colombian government should be required the meet all the targets under the plan before any trade agreement comes into effect. This is the only way to build up the political pressure needed for change. Unfortunately the INTA resolution falls short in this regard.

Secondly, Colombian trade unions, by being in the firing line – often literally – are best placed to know what’s needs to be done. They must have a key role in the design, implementation and evaluation of the Road Map. Sadly, this hasn’t happened under the US action plan and is another key reason why it hasn’t delivered.

The Road Map might have some effect but the TUC isn’t changing its opposition to the EU-Colombia trade deal. We’d only start that discussion once we see a dramatic and sustained decrease in the extreme violence and union busting in the country. We’re not holding our breath.

Nevertheless this “Road Map” approach of the Parliament could be an improvement on how Brussels currently approaches trade and labour standards. To date, labour rights commitments in EU trade deals have changed little on the ground. This is because they’re nearly always non-binding. Even where they are, the European Commission just isn’t interested in holding trading partners to account. But now the Parliament can use its new powers under the Lisbon treaty, to require binding action plans on labour rights be fully met before trade negotiations can even begin (if only this was the case in Colombia). With the Commission getting ready to start trade negotiations Georgia, another serial labour rights abuser, now’s the chance for the Parliament to  put forward a Road Map with more teeth than this one on Colombia.