As Congress returns to work after Labor Day, there will likely be a big push to get new trade agreements, like the one with Colombia, ratified. Proponents of the Colombia agreement are worried that US grain exporters will miss out on opportunities to increase corn, wheat, and soybean exports. To build pressure on Congress to act quickly, their lobbyists are touting the Colombia agreement as a way to create badly needed jobs.
But as the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) points out, if the Colombia agreement turns out to be anything like NAFTA and other trade pacts, more jobs will be lost than gained; furthermore, the impact of the Colombian trade agreement could disrupt the lives of millions of poor Colombians and further destabilize a country that already suffers from plenty of instability. Unions in both countries are opposing the pact because it does nothing to stop the violence against Colombian trade union activists that has become pandemic.
Proponents of the pact say that lower Colombian tariffs will increase export jobs in the US; however, according to EPI, increased imports of cheaply made goods from Colombia will likely offset any gains derived from exports. EPI estimates that imported Colombian goods could displace 127,000 US jobs while exports to Colombia could create 99,000 creating a net loss of 28,000 jobs.
If the impact of the trade deal with Colombia is similar to the impact of NAFTA, it will cause the US trade deficit with Colombia to increase significantly, which will result in the loss of another 55,000 US jobs.
The impact on workers in Colombia will be even greater. Should the pact be ratified, subsidized US grain imports will substantially increase, affecting the lives of small farmers and agricultural workers. Economists Luis Garay Salmanza, Fernando Barberi Gomez, and Ivan Cardona Landinez estimate that cheap grain from the US will cause a 16 percent decline to the income of small Colombian farmers, many of whom are already poor.
The Colombian Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs estimates that the pact if ratified will cause a 35 percent decline in agricultural employment, which is likely to generate social unrest and food insecurity. The poorest of the poor, Afro-Colombians, indigenous peoples, and those who have already been displaced by the country’s ongoing civil war, will bear the brunt of the cost of the pact.
Colombia’s two labor confederations, the United Center for Workers (CUT, the Spanish acronym) and the Confederation of Workers (CTC) oppose the pact because it does nothing to curb the violence against union members that has made Colombia the most dangerous country in the world to be a union member.
More than 2,800 union members have been murdered in Colombia since 1986 as part of a brutal union avoidance strategy practiced by Colombian employers. In the last month, Rafael Tobon Zea, Wilmar Serna, Eduardo Fabian Zuniga, and Luis Medrano Prens, all of whom were either actively organizing a union or were activists in an already existing union, were murdered.
International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) General Secretary Sharan Burrow reports that “as many as 19 trade unionists have already been murdered during 2011” in spite of promises to reduce violence and promote worker rights in the Labor Action Plan signed by the U.S. and Colombia in April 2011.
The violence against Colombian union members makes it harder for unions to operate in Colombia, which lowers wages and invites companies seeking to lower labor costs to move their operations to Colombia, prompting US unions to urge Congress to oppose the pact.
Richard Trumka head of the US AFL-CIO said in a letter to Congress that the AFL-CIO opposed the trade pact with Colombia because the government has not enforced the Labor Action Plan designed to protect Columbian workers’ right to free association and has allowed violence against union members to continue with impunity.
Trumka also said that the pact does not encourage development that benefits workers. Such development “will require a safe and stable society and adequate investment in infrastructure, training, and education as well as the opportunity for workers to meet, organize and engage in collective action to improve pay, benefits, and conditions of employment.”