COVER/Dave Jamieson

Violence Hangs Over Colombia Trade Deal

Colombian labor leaders say government assurances won't stop the murder of labor organizers

As US lawmakers inch closer to enacting a long-stalled free trade agreement with Colombia, the deal’s proponents have cited the safer atmosphere for Colombian union leaders and workers as a primary reason for finally pushing the deal through.

But for Juan Cambindo, a Colombian sugar cane worker and union leader, the news of significant progress has come as a great surprise. Like many other Colombians, Cambindo says he has had his life threatened because of union ties. He first learned of his new and improved lot while watching television.

“The United States was talking about how our situation has gotten better,” Cambindo, who visited Washington last week to voice his opposition to the deal, told through a translator. “But that’s not true. Our situation continues to be bad, and it’s getting worse.”

Colombia remains by far the world’s most dangerous country for union leaders and members. Nearly 3,000 activists have been murdered there in the last 25 years, with convictions resulting in a paltry 6% of the cases. According to the non-profit labor rights group US Labor Education in the Americas Project, 51 Colombian unionists were killed last year and 338 received death threats. The country generally accounts for about half of the unionist murders worldwide these days.

Prodded by American labor groups, some Democrats have voiced concern over the bloodshed and managed to hold up the trade agreement since President Bush ratified it in 2007, alongside similar deals struck with Panama and South Korea. All three agreements have yet to gain Congressional approval, but President Obama, who opposed the Colombia deal in 2008, has tweaked them and indicated that he wants them to move forward. The House is expected to vote on the deals before the August recess.

Progress in the Colombia deal has come primarily in the form of a labor “action plan” agreed upon by the White House and Colombian leaders in April. The Colombian government agreed to a timeline by which they would take measures to protect unionists and step up the investigation and prosecution of trade-related violence. Last month US Trade Rep. Ron Kirk praised the Colombians for so far meeting their milestones.

And yet many Colombian labor leaders deride the plan as ineffectual and ultimately unenforceable, noting that it isn’t tied directly to the trade agreement. Nor does the plan require that the number of assassinations actually be reduced.

“It does not have any legal teeth,” Carlos Olaya, research director for the Colombian trade union SINALTRAINAL, told HuffPost. “It has no connection to any Colombian legislation.”

Olaya isn’t worried that the trade agreement will merely ignore the plight of Colombia’s low-wage agricultural workers — he’s worried that it will make it much worse. Like some economists and global trade experts, Olaya expects to see workers displaced and smaller operations swallowed up as multinational companies take on a larger footprint in his country. Olaya also anticipates more subcontracting in Colombian industries — an already-prevalent practice that leaves workers with few benefits and little recourse when it comes to wages and working conditions.

“It doesn’t favor our people in Colombia or in the United States,” Olaya says of workers and the trade deal. “The people that it does favor are multinationals and large investors.” Todd Tucker, research director at Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch (, a nonprofit watchdog group opposed to the deal, says that many workers in the sugar cane industry will likely find themselves without work, perhaps having to resort to Colombia’s robust drug trade to support their families.

“There’s already a scarcity of legal, safe work in Colombia, and we’ll see some of the smaller-scale farming enterprises plowed under,” says Tucker. “What we’re likely to see ... is an increase in displacement in the agricultural communities. They’re going to face some stark choices.”

The concerns of Colombia’s workers have been pitted against American business interests like the US Chamber of Commerce, which claims that 380,000 American jobs depend on the trade deals with Colombia and Korea being put into action. Caterpillar, in particular, has lobbied hard on the issue, since the company supplies construction equipment to much of Colombia’s mining industry and would benefit greatly from the removal of tariffs. Republicans and the White House, too, have deemed the trade agreements to be crucial economic generators for the US.

But Robert Scott, the director of trade research at the Economic Policy Institute, says the economic boon has been wildly overstated. The trade deals with Colombia and Korea will in fact kill more than 200,000 American jobs through outsourcing in the first seven years after the plan is enacted, Scott says. Although he expects American exports to increase due to the agreements, he says American imports will increase at a much greater rate, widening the country’s already significant trade deficit.

“The only people who benefit are the top 10 or the top 1% who run or manage multinationals,” says Scott. “They get very wealthy from outsourcing.” So far, the most vocal opposition to the trade deals has come from a small band of House Democrats that includes California Rep. George Miller, who last week on the House floor called the agreements “ill-conceived and ill-timed,” adding that they would do “nothing to create jobs.” Miller also went on to say that the labor action plan between the US and Colombia has significant gaps, and that the US is failing in its duty to promote the rights of workers.

“Due to the lack of benchmarks for progress, Colombia could still have a record year of assassinations and the action plan would be declared a success,” Miller said.

The plan’s lack of yardsticks is also what troubles Jose Hugo Yanini, a Colombian union steward who works as a general helper in the services industry and has been negotiating over his union’s new collective bargaining agreement.

On the night of June 15 — the day Colombia was most recently praised for meeting benchmarks on its action plan — Yanini says he received an anonymous threat by telephone. Somebody called Yanini’s home and told his wife that if he didn’t shut his mouth “we’ll cut out his tongue.” The threat, Yanini told HuffPost, has changed his life. “I don’t leave my house in the same way anymore. I’m always looking around and worried.”

As for the labor action plan and a safer Colombia, “I haven’t seen any improvement in my labor situation,” Yanini said. “I haven’t seen any improvement in my life as a worker.”

Dave Jamieson is workplace reporter for, where this appeared. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2011

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