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Pacific trade opponents urge skepticism on labor promises

Critics of the TPP say trade pacts have a poor record of improving working conditions around the world

In August of last year, Edith Santos, a Colombian trade union leader in the petroleum industry, was working in her office in the municipality of Acacias, Meta state, when she was shot twice in the chest by gunmen on a motorbike, according to local news reports.

The union Santos led believes that she was assassinated because of her affiliation with a labor organization—an all too common occurrence in Colombia, according to Escuela Nacional Sindical, Colombia’s National Union School. In a report released this April, ENS estimates that since Colombia entered into a free trade agreement with the United States in 2012, including specific labor provisions intended to improve safety and conditions for workers, there have been 105 union activists assassinated as well as 1,933 acts of violence and 1,337 death threats against workers.

Critics of President Obama’s push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership said that the poor record of free trade agreements when it comes to effectively raising labor standards among the United States’ trading partners is another reason to be skeptical of the president’s latest assurances that the TPP will be the “most progressive trade deal in history.” And it’s the latest line of attack that opponents of the 12-country trade agreement have lobbed against Obama’s free trade agenda.

Democratic and Republican administrations pushing trade deals have long argued that free trade gives the United States leverage to improve conditions for workers around the world, which in turn helps American workers compete. Obama has made a similar claim in lobbying for the TPP.

“When you look at a country like Vietnam, under this agreement, Vietnam would actually, for the first time, have to raise its labor standards,” he said earlier this month in a speech at Nike headquarters. “It would have to set a minimum wage. It would have to pass safe workplace laws to protect its workers. It would even have to protect workers’ freedom to form unions for the very first time. That would make a difference.  That helps to level the playing field and it would be good for the workers in Vietnam, even as it helps make sure that they’re not undercutting competition here in the United States.”

But Colombia has hardly moved toward such a level playing field, said Diogenes Orjuela Garcia, Secretary of International Relations of Central Unitaria de Trabajadores, a federation of trade unions, despite similar vows.

Garcia said little progress has been made on achieving the goals outlined in the 2011 Labor Action Plan, finalized in conjunction with the Colombia free trade pact, which promised to bolster the safety of union workers and crack down on employers who interfere with workers’ ability to collectively bargain.

“There has not been one business owner or management that has been prosecuted under this law despite the egregious behavior that has continued in this realm,” Garcia said. “There has not been the will by the government to investigate these murders that has continued for unionists and today we continue to see threats and attacks and murders and assassinations.”

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, noted during a Senate Finance Committee in late April that the U.S. Trade Representative’s office has said privately that assassinations of union members don’t even constitute a labor violation under the free trade agreements that the United States has entered.

“We were told by the USTR general counsel that murdering a trade unionist doesn’t violate these standards, that perpetuating violence against a trade unionist doesn’t violate these agreements,” Trumka said. “Excuse me if I don’t accept that standard.”

Moreover, TPP opponents and some labor experts say the situation in Colombia is the rule rather than the exception.

The office of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. released a report this week documenting various labor enforcement failures under trade pacts. The study found that of the 20 countries that the United States had entered into treaties with, 11 have been found to have systemic problems with child labor and other labor-related human rights abuses.

As examples, the report cited continued violence against union members in Guatemala, the use of forced labor, including the victims of human trafficking, in Peru and the pervasive child labor used in the cultivation of coffee and sugarcane in El Salvador. 

“Again and again, proponents of free trade agreements claim that this time, a new trade agreement has strong and meaningful protections. Again and again those protections prove unable to stop the worst abuses,” the report stated. “Lack of enforcement by both Democratic and Republican presidents and other flaws with the treaties have allowed countries with weaker laws and standards and widespread labor and environment abuses to undermine treaty provisions.”

The Government Accountability Office came to a similar conclusion when looking at the United States’ record of labor enforcement, noting in a 2013 study that the Department of Labor, charged with investigating labor abuses in trading partners, had accepted only five complaints since 2008 and that the analysis of those claims was often handicapped by months of delays. Thus far, Guatemala is the only country to have entered into an arbitration process with the U.S. government, six years after an initial labor complaint was filed.

“To date, there has been no punitive actions,” said Cathy Feingold, director of international affairs for the AFL-CIO.

Feingold said the whole system of enforcement is broken when the U.S. rewards countries with market access in the United States before they make tangible improvements for workers. Feingold noted that four countries that are a party to the TPP will be in violation of international labor laws immediately.

“You need to get things changed before market access is granted because it doesn’t happen otherwise,” she said. “These labor-actions plans — they’re ineffective if they’re not attached to anything enforceable and if there’s not real funding to make them work. That’s the situation we’re in right now.”

The USTR’s office has argued, however, that while not all labor issues are immediately addressed in trading partners, conditions do tend to improve for workers after free trade agreements are signed. In the Colombian example, a report by the USTR documented the increased resources being devoted to protect union workers and prosecute those who threaten them. The report also noted that murders of unionists have actually dropped since the country entered into a free trade agreement, from an average of 100 a year from 2000 to 2010 to 28 per year from 2010 to 2014.

Trade proponents also point to the wider economic benefits for workers.

“There has been movement in the direction of a consensus that trade can contribute to growth and to poverty alleviation and I think most people would point to China as an example where the export-led economy was a big part of their growth model,” said Kimberly Elliott, a senior fellow at the Center for Global development. “But it’s not something you can generalize about — it depends on the institutions in a country.”

Still, Feingold said those benefits mean little if workers aren’t offered fundamental protections.

“Because the labor-rights piece isn’t addressed, the benefits are not distributed,” she said. “The notion that these trade programs can benefit poor workers can’t happen unless they’re bargaining collectively and working and living in a safe place.”

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