Following Meeting With Colombian Vice President, Brown Presses Trade Representative On Labor Rights Violations

Brown to United States Trade Representative: Administration’s Response to Guatemalan Labor Rights Violation Will Set Precedent for Action on Violations in Other Trade Agreements

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Following a meeting with Colombian Vice President Angelino Garzon, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) sent a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk requesting information on how the Obama Administration plans to handle labor rights violations in nations with which the United States has a trade agreement.

“Before we can consider any free trade agreement with Colombia, Congress must receive assurances from this Administration that it will indeed enforce labor laws in our free trade agreements and set a no-tolerance policy when it comes to labor-related threats and violence,” Brown said. “Colombia leads the world in labor rights violations, with thousands of murders and death threats directed at union members and leaders.”   

“I had a constructive meeting with Vice President Garzon. It’s clear that the Colombian government is taking the issues of violence and intimidation against labor and human rights leaders seriously,” Brown continued. “However, I remain concerned over the failure to bring the perpetrators of these heinous crimes to justice and the lack of reforms in Colombia’s legal processes. This is an issue that requires a sustained effort, and I pledge my support to assist the Colombian government and people in any way.”

Last summer, the Obama Administration filed a labor complaint against the government of Guatemala under the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) in response to well-documented violations of labor rights.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) has identified numerous ways in which Colombia’s labor laws fall short of the core labor standards, the minimum set of rights to be guaranteed by all countries regardless of level of development.  Colombia has made little progress passing the laws necessary to comply with these international norms.  Between 1986 and 2010, 2,850 trade unionists were murdered, including 731 union leaders. Additionally, in Colombia, there were to 276 attempted murders, 218 forced disappearances, and at least 4,935 death threats against trade unionists because of union activity in that same time period.

The full letter to Ambassador Kirk is below.

Ambassador Ron Kirk

United States Trade Representative

600 17th Street NW

Washington, DC 20508

Dear Ambassador Kirk:

I write to you today regarding the labor rights enforcement case the Obama Administration filed against Guatemala under the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA). I was encouraged by the July 30 announcement that the United States would seek to use the labor chapter of DR-CAFTA to remedy well-documented violations of labor rights. Given the consultations commenced more than five months ago, I hope USTR is in a position to determine whether the Guatemalan government has taken appropriate measures to remedy its failures to enforce Guatemalan labor law.

The U.S. government has actually been engaged in informal government-to-government discussions with the Government of Guatemala since the Labor Department issued a report in January 2009. In that report, it found systemic weaknesses in the Government of Guatemala’s enforcement of its labor laws and raised concerns about labor-related violence. If, after requesting formal consultations under DR-CAFTA, it is found Guatemala has not taken appropriate steps, I encourage the Administration to elevate the complaint by requesting a meeting of the agreement’s Free Trade Commission and to proceed to arbitration if the serious matters raised in the complaint remain unresolved.

The Administration has also raised concerns about the Guatemalan government’s response to the use of violence and threats of violence related to the exercise of labor rights.  However, it is not clear how the Administration is approaching the issue of violence against trade unionists in the context of the formal complaint regarding Guatemala’s obligations under Chapter 16 of DR-CAFTA. Therefore, I request a written response, including a detailed action plan, on how it will attempt to address this issue within the DR-CAFTA labor chapter.

A thorough understanding of how the Administration can address this issue through DR-CAFTA will inform how such an issue can be approached in future trade agreements, including the proposed U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. While Colombia has taken steps towards decreasing the violence directed towards trade unionists, Colombia still leads the world in the number of trade unionists murdered annually, with preliminary reports showing at least 42 murders in 2010, and hundreds of additional threats, assaults, and uses of intimidation.

Thank you for your attention to this matter, and I look forward to your response.

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