Colombian labor unions say their plight is being overshadowed by trade deal with U.S.

Union leaders Monday accused the government of failing to implement a program that was supposed to protect the lives and rights of workers in the run-up to the free trade agreement with the United States.

During a news conference, some of Colombia’s largest labor groups said key parts of the 37-point Labor Action Plan, or LAP, had either been ignored or never fully implemented.

The report comes as Colombia still faces serious anti-union violence. In 2013, 26 union members were killed and 13 more experienced attempts on their lives, the National Union School said. During the three years the LAP has been in effect, there have been 73 slayings of union workers and 953 death threats, the group said.

The United States and Colombia signed the LAP in 2011 as a way to woo U.S. congressional leaders who were withholding their support for the trade agreement over concerns about labor violence. A year after the action plan was inked, the trade deal, which had languished in Congress for six years, was finally ratified.

Luis Alejandro Pedraza, president of Colombia’s 630,000-member Central Workers Union, or CUT, said it was a mistake for the United States to approve the trade deal without verifying that the action plan was being implemented.

“It’s clear that the Labor Action Plan was a pretext by Colombia to feign interest in solving these problems and open the way for the [Free Trade Agreement],” he said.

While union-worker deaths grab the headlines, the action plan aimed at deeper problems, including cracking down on the use of temporary, or contractual, hiring practices, which deny workers basic rights; and anti-union labor agreements.

The Ministry of Labor, which was created as a result of the action plan, disagrees with that assessment. Over the weekend, Labor Minister Rafael Pardo provided his own report about the Labor Action Plan. He said that despite a few persistent problems, the “country has made significant progress” in making workers’ rights “what they should be.”

Pardo said the plan had pulled more workers into the formal labor force, increased on-site inspections and had reduced union-crime impunity. As a result of the plan, he said, 100 police officers have been tasked to work exclusively on anti-union violence, he said.

The debate comes as Colombia prepares to mark the second anniversary of its free-trade agreement with the United States next month.

For Colombia, the deal has brought mixed results. From 2012 to 2013, Colombian exports to the United States declined 15.3 percent to $18.5 billion, while U.S. imports to Colombia were up 14.7 percent to $16.3 billion.

Local officials say it is too soon to judge the trade deal, and point to other measures of success. U.S. investment in Colombia, for example, has grown 17.6 percent to $2.26 billion since the FTA was signed and about 1,069 Colombian businesses have become first-time exporters to the United States, the Ministry of Finance said.

The issue comes at a tricky time for President Juan Manuel Santos, who faces reelection May 25 amid tepid poll numbers. The free trade agreement, which was approved on his watch, has become a line of attack for some of his rivals.

And farmers, who went on strike in August demanding that it and other trade deals be scrapped, have threatened to take to the streets again.

What union leaders are asking for, however, is more modest. Among their demands is that the Labor Action Plan be extended for an additional four years; that an independent committee, including lawmakers from both countries, be formed to monitor its implementation; and that the Colombian government issue a complete report on the plan and submit it for public discussion.

But Pedraza said labor unions may have little recourse but to strike.

“We have serious disagreements with the government,” he said. “We cannot allow the country to be run by plutocrats.”

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