- Pending Free Trade Agreements to be taken up by the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday.
- Tentative deal struck on labor program issues.
Labor concerns have continuously dogged the trade deals. During the lengthy debate over the FTAs, Democrats have pointed out Colombia has, at best, a spotty record with labor rights.
During a May House hearing, U.S. Trade Ambassador Ron Kirk claimed various controversies and human rights concerns associated with the Colombia FTA had been properly addressed through intensive work resulting in an “action plan.” The plan focuses on Colombian labor rights and outlines a number of steps the government of Colombia has agreed it will undertake.
The action plan, said Kirk, “significantly expands the protection for labor leaders and union organizers. It bolsters efforts to hold accountable and punish those who have perpetrated violence against union members. And it makes a number of important steps to strengthen labor laws and enforcement.”
At the time, Kirk also made it clear if the deals aren’t passed an already unpopular Congress will be at fault and the Obama administration will not shoulder the blame. “We think it’s important that we make a covenant to American workers. We’re concerned … that the American public has lost faith with Congress with regard to trade policy. They know we get excited about passing FTAs but they don’t believe we’ll enforce them – we think we have a good record on that. But they’re really concerned that we’ll stand up for the rights of workers and the environment and take care of American workers.”
Kirk also admitted a skeptical U.S. public must have “confidence we’re not doing ‘trade and away’” with the FTAs. “A lot of people believe (that). They know we get great consumptive benefits: cheaper food, fresher products, cheaper computers. But, right now, Americans are concerned about jobs and want to make sure we’re not doing a trade agreement with another country that doesn’t respect (labor) … and we encourage (U.S.) businesses to move production elsewhere.”
More than an hour into the May hearing, Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern spoke at length about what passing the Colombia FTA could mean for that nation’s poorest. “Most of the violence and conflict happens in the countryside. It primarily affects rural communities and small farmers. In the United States, we take great pride in supporting our small farmers. We should also be concerned for Colombia’s small producers and how the Colombia FTA might affect them.
“The most definitive study on this matter estimates that small-scale producers of Colombia would lose around 16 percent of their net income from agriculture under the Colombia FTA. For those who produce products that will directly compete with U.S. agriculture imports, they’ll likely experience a fall of between 48 percent and 70 percent in their net agricultural income.”
Those unconcerned with such predictions “should care because it means these people are likely to lose their land and join the ranks of the displaced in the growing urban poor. Colombia is only second to Sudan in terms of the number of internally displaced people.”
On Tuesday, the Obama administration said the current Colombian government has demonstrated “a remarkable commitment to human rights reform.” Further “the standard has never been a complete absence of violence. We think any death is one too many. But what we sought was a balance that would allow the United States to reap the economic benefits of Colombia through this FTA, which are almost 100 percent in our favor. ... We struck a good balance.”
Still, why make a deal in such an environment? Numbers tell the tale: in 2010, U.S. exports in goods to Colombia amounted to $12 billion. Under an FTA, the International Trade Commission predicted that would expand by another $1 billion. The White House claims that under the FTA, over 80 percent of U.S. exports of consumer and industrial products would become duty-free immediately. The remaining tariffs will be phased out over 10 years.