May 27, 2024

U.S. and Colombia Near Trade Pact

Senior administration officials hailed what they called an action plan in which Colombia promised to expand its protection program for union leaders and to enforce its labor laws more vigorously, in part by hiring 480 more labor inspectors over four years.

A senior administration official said that Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, would be in Washington on Thursday to meet with President Obama and to announce the agreement.

Under the deal, the Colombian government said it would provide more protection to labor advocates, including shop stewards, union organizers and bargaining committee members. It also agreed to eliminate its current backlog of risk assessments of union leaders and members who have requested protection.

And it agreed to revise its plan to relocate and protect teachers who are considered at high risk of violence.

In addition, Colombia said it would enact, by June 15, tougher measures to criminalize actions that affect workers’ rights, including threats. And it directed the national police to assign 95 investigators, no later than this December, to support prosecutors handling cases involving crimes against union members.

Labor unions in the United States have long fought to block approval of the free trade agreement with Colombia, asserting that the country has done too little to protect union leaders and advocates — more than 3,000 of whom have been killed in the last three decades. Colombian officials said they have significantly reduced the killings.

Concerned about the killings and in the face of union pressures, many Democratic lawmakers have opposed a pact with Colombia and have pushed for changes, while many Republicans have urged that it be approved without further adjustments.

In a conference call on Wednesday, a senior administration official said the Santos government had adopted the action plan after intense talks with the Obama administration.

“The plan significantly expands the protections of labor leaders and organizers,” the official said. “It bolsters efforts to punish those who have perpetrated violence against union members, and we think substantially strengthens their laws and enforcement.”

Administration officials said now that Colombia has adopted the action plan, the administration hopes to sit down with Congressional leaders to discuss how to move forward with stalled free trade agreements with not just Colombia, but also South Korea and Panama. In addition, officials said they hoped to tie approval of the Colombia agreement to renewal of Trade Adjustment Assistance, which expired in February. That program, sidetracked by Republican opposition, provides aid to workers who lose their jobs because of trade.

Administration officials voiced confidence that the trade pact would increase American exports to Colombia, now $12 billion a year, by $1 billion a year.

The official said the agreement would “help preserve what is a very important market in Central and South America and help support job creation, which is still the President’s No. 1 agenda.”

A spokeswoman with the A.F.L.-C.I.O. said the labor federation was studying the agreement and was not ready to comment.

Under the pact, more than 80 percent of American consumer and industrial goods would become duty free immediately, with the remainde having duties phased out over 10 years. Regarding agricultural goods, more than half of American products will become duty free, with duties ending for the remainder over 15 years.

The United States Chamber of Commerce hailed the Colombia deal, saying officials would work with the White House and Congress to secure approval of the three pending trade agreements.

“Presidents Obama and Santos showed courage and pragmatism in striking this accord,” Thomas J. Donohue, the chamber’s president, said. “This proves the United States can still lead on trade.”

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