Thursday, November 18, 2004

A New "New Trade Issue" 

"International trade" and "assassination" aren't usually words that are found in the same sentence outside the most fevered dreams of anti-globalization protestors. But take a look at today's NY Times:
Assassination Is an Issue in Trade Talks

As union activists have fallen by the hundreds here, making Colombia the world's most dangerous country for union organizers, their families and those who have dodged assassins' bullets have had little recourse. Practically all killings of union leaders have gone unsolved.

Now, labor rights groups and some members of the United States Congress have promised to do something about the violence and the impunity, using free trade negotiations between Colombia and the Bush administration to prod the government of President Álvaro Uribe to do more to protect union activists and prosecute the killers.

The idea, say labor activists from the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and senior Congressional aides, is to make the issue of violence and impunity as important a component in trade talks as the struggle over agriculture tariffs and intellectual property rights. Its failure to protect union members, the argument goes, gives Colombia an unfair edge over countries that do, like the United States.

"A country should not achieve an unfair comparative advantage by willful omission or noncompliance of labor standards," said Stan Gacek, assistant director of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s international affairs department, which works with unions in other countries. "The issue of rights is not an obstruction to trade, it is absolutely essential to the success of trade."

An American trade official, who spoke on condition that he remain anonymous, says that Colombia is obligated to enforce its own labor laws, which guarantee freedom of association and other labor standards.

"And how do I know someone is denied freedom of association?" he said. The murder of trade unionists, the official said, is a violation of freedom of association. "So clearly violence against trade unionists or impunity for killers is an issue with Colombia, and we've told them that."

The pressure is already having an effect...

Five lawsuits have been filed in American courts accusing companies like Drummond, a coal producer based in Birmingham, Ala., and two bottlers affiliated with Coca-Cola of using paramilitary gunmen to eliminate union organizers. The companies strenuously deny the allegations.

But the lawsuits, filed in American courts under a 215-year-old statute, have put an unwanted spotlight on Colombia's problems and irritated the Bush administration, which argues that they interfere with foreign policy and open multinational companies to sometimes frivolous grievances.

It is just the kind of pressure that union advocates in the United States want to increase, using the trade talks as a way of further prodding the two governments.

"They're looking for levers of pressure," said Michael Shifter, a senior policy analyst who closely follows Colombia for the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington group. "And it's not surprising as the United States begins negotiations with Colombia on a free trade deal that they're going to explore the possibility of using this as a way of increasing pressure."
This is an interesting development. When NAFTA was being negotiated, labor and environmental groups had enough clout in the US Congress to force the question of "side agreements" on these issues to the table, but not enough pull to get them written into the text of NAFTA itself. Presumably the power of labor groups is at a serious low tide right now, so it's tough to believe that there will be any ongoing enforcement mechanism written into a US-Colombia FTA. But what's going on in Colombia is obviously very extreme. It'll be worth watching to see what happens.

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