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U.S. Job Creation Ignores Colombian Human Rights

No question about it, the economy is on everyone’s mind. President Barack Obama presented his plan for getting the country back on track in a jobs speech two weeks ago, in an effort to show his strength and fire, offer some encouragement to the unemployed, and offer solutions that would appeal to both Democrats and Republicans. One of the steps Obama pushed for included passing stalled free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea.

Free trade agreements are supposed to be good for business and the economy. They create and meet demand by getting our goods out in the market. Increased demand internationally for American products leads to more manufacturing and agriculture, leading to jobs. We need people to manufacture parts, assemble goods, pack them, drive trucks, load shipping containers, transport them overseas, etc.

Sounds like there’s a lot in it for us, right? It’s a foolproof plan to put Americans back to work. I am all in favor of putting Americans back to work. I (like everyone) know too many smart, talented, and driven un- and under-employed people who literally cannot find work in their field.

But it is not as simple as that. Besides the fact that there is also no guarantee all of these trade-driven jobs will be created in the U.S (a reason that U.S. labor unions oppose them), the wider implications of the free trade agreements, particularly with Colombia, must be taken into consideration. Human rights questions are the biggest concern. 

The FTA between the U.S. and Colombia was signed in 2006 but has not been ratified by Congress due to human rights concerns. Since then, the administrations of both countries have changed, but each still advocates for official adoption.

Among many human rights violations present, Colombia is one of the most dangerous places in the world for workers to unionize, and anti-union violence is rampant. Since 1986, over 2,800 trade unionists were reported killed. In 2010, 51 murders were reported. The country’s armed groups (who have been engaged in conflict for over 40 years and are also entwined with the legitimate government) target unionizers who threaten the power structure and demand fair wages and safe workplaces, among other things.

Human Rights Watch advocates for the U.S. to use this opportunity to demand stricter human rights laws in Colombia, and in April, the two countries presented an “action plan” to make strides on the human rights front. But requesting the attorney general’s office to step up its game on prosecuting anti-union crimes is easier said than done in a country with widespread governmental corruption and a justice system incapable of actually delivering justice.

And what may be good for American jobs may not be so good for Colombian ones — agriculture is a large part of the Colombian economy and cheaper U.S. imports could put many Colombian farms out of business. Subsidized U.S. agricultural exports, particularly grains, mean Colombian farmers will be unable to compete with the American goods in their own domestic market.

Members of Congress who have been blocking the passage of the FTA are likely to receive significant pressure to pass the Colombian agreement or risk being seen as anti-job creation. It is tempting just to think about ourselves in this situation. Free trade agreements mean more jobs, and we need more jobs.

But we must not sacrifice this important opportunity to continue putting pressure on the Colombian government to increase human rights enforcement and take real steps to protect workers’ rights to unionize (despite the irony of pro-union support coming from a country where unions have also come under attack recently). We must also consider the economic impact of our trading policies on a country where 45.5% of the population already lives below the poverty line. Congress has refused to pass the Colombian FTA until the human rights situation is addressed, and it must continue to hold out despite domestic pressure to approve the agreement.

Photo Credit: momentcaptured1

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