Representative Sander Levin, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said he would oppose a trade agreement with Colombia because provisions on labor protections there won’t be included in the legislation.
Levin said that the administration of President Barack Obama acquiesced to demands from Republicans not to mention a negotiated action plan on workers’ rights in legislation that is required to adopt the Colombia agreement.
The rights of workers “deserve to be focused on, and not shunted aside,” Levin, of Michigan, said today at a news conference in Washington. “Refusal to refer to the Action Plan on workers’ rights is a fatal flaw.”
Levin’s endorsement of prior trade agreements, including a pact with Peru, helped garner bipartisan majorities in Congress to pass the accords. In 2005 he was among leaders of the opposition to the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which passed by a two-vote margin and 15 Democratic votes.
Obama administration officials told Levin that references to the labor agreement won’t be part of the legislation to enact the deal, he said today. The measure hasn’t been submitted to Congress or made public.
“The president is committed to ensuring that the Action Plan is fully implemented,” Nkenge Harmon, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, said in an e-mail. “We are eager to see Congress seize the job-supporting opportunities offered by these agreements.”
Free-trade agreements between the U.S. and Colombia, Panama and South Korea are stalled in Congress as Republicans resist demands from Obama and Democrats that lawmakers also renew an aid program for workers who lose their jobs because of overseas competition. Those talks are deadlocked.
Levin, who visited Colombia twice this year, said he supports pending deals with South Korea and Panama, and praised the administration of Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos for steps to curb violence against workers and ensure that the nation’s laborers have basic protections.
“Santos has begun to take important steps to improve labor conditions and address violence and impunity, toward fulfilling obligations outlined in the Action Plan,” Levin said.
On April 6, the administrations of Santos and Obama said they agreed on the steps Colombia must take before the free-trade agreement would go into effect, in what was dubbed the Action Plan. Colombia has met two deadlines for carrying out actions under that agreement.
Under terms of the labor deal, Colombia said it would expand protections for union activists and direct the police to assign 95 investigators to help prosecute crimes against union members. Colombia also limited the use of cooperatives, which let companies skirt union protections.
The implementing legislation is meant to make changes to U.S. laws, including tariffs, in order to meet the terms of the trade agreement. The labor Action Plan details measures Colombia will take.
The trade agreement would boost U.S. goods shipments to Colombia by $1.1 billion a year when in full effect from $12 billion in 2010, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission. For Colombia, the deal would lock in unilateral trade privileges that are subject to renewal by Congress, providing greater certainty to investors. The privileges lapsed in February, dealing a blow to Colombian textile makers and flower growers.
Ruby Chagui, a spokeswoman for the Colombian Embassy in Washington, declined to comment.