Blog | Trade

Labor Rights Protections in Trade Deals Don’t Work

This week in St. Louis, the labor movement called for a "New Deal on Trade," which must include labor rules that protect working families, in the United States and in our trading partners. The failure of existing rules has been covered extensively here on this blog and in the news—but in case anyone needs further proof, the U.S. government recently let deadlines on cases of egregious workers' rights abuses in Colombia and Peru pass with little fanfare.

These cases underscore why workers desperately need effective protections in trade agreements, with swift and certain enforcement. Currently, governments have complete discretion over how to respond to labor rights complaints. Our current trade agreements have no deadlines, no criteria for pursuing sanctions, or even any requirement to act at all. When workers join across borders to document abuses, cases are closed without fixing the problem, or drag on for years. Workers often face serious risks to their lives and livelihoods when they come forward. The United States is sending the message that the results are not worth that risk. Unfortunately, the language recently tabled by the U.S. government for NAFTA re-negotiations does nothing to improve these long-standing shortcomings.

In Colombia, workers are being threatened, assaulted and killed with impunity. There is rampant union-busting and the majority of the workforce is stuck in abusive short-term contracts that rob workers of a fair wage and access to workers’ comp and retirement. The AFL-CIO and a coalition of Colombian unions filed a complaint in 2016. The U.S. government refused to invoke formal consultations but did recognize the serious failings in Colombia and made a series of recommendations to bring the country into compliance with labor commitments in the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Meanwhile, Colombia continues to violate workers' rights. Right now, the government is breaking its own laws by forcibly ending a strike at the airline Avianca and calling in scabs to replace workers demanding better treatment.

Last week, the U.S. government was supposed to assess progress toward implementing those recommendations, but no assessment has been released. In addition to the oil and sugar workers’ cases in the complaint, Colombia workers in many sectors face everyday violations of rights. Right now, the Colombian government is violating its own laws by forcing an arbitration well before the legally established deadline.

In 2015, Peruvian unions and the International Labor Rights Forum filed a case demonstrating that the Peruvian government was not enforcing and, in some cases, deliberately weakening labor protections in export sectors. As with Colombia, the U.S. government concluded that labor abuses existed, but opted not to invoke formal consultations. Instead, the U.S. government outlined a series of steps to bring Peru into compliance and committed to following up by June 2017. That deadline elapsed without compliance by the government of Peru and with no action from U.S. officials.

These missed deadlines do not make workers confident that this administration's approach to labor enforcement will be any different than past administrations.

As the AFL-CIO will highlight at its convention this week, working people need a New Deal on trade that includes binding labor commitments with swift and certain enforcement. The time for promises is over. The time for action to protect worker freedoms is now.

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