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Obama Certifies Colombia Labor Plan, Clearing Trade Pact

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Obama Certifies Colombia Labor Plan, Clearing Trade Pact
President Barack Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos shake hands after a joint press conference in the framework of the VI Summit of the Americas at Casa de Huespedes in Cartagena, Colombia, on April 15, 2012. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

April 15 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama certified Colombia’s labor protection efforts, allowing both sides to put the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement into effect May 15.

“We’re moving ahead with our landmark trade agreement,” Obama said at a news conference with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos as they wrapped up the Summit of Americas in the resort city of Cartagena.

Obama called the trade deal a “win” for both nations. In the U.S., it will create “thousands” of jobs, he said, and Colombia will get more access to the U.S. market, its largest.

There are strong protections in the accord for labor and the environment, “commitments that we are going to fulfill,” Obama said. The president also said the agreement will help achieve his goal of doubling U.S. exports by 2014.

The agreement would end Colombian duties immediately on more than 80 percent of U.S. exports, open services markets and strengthen intellectual property rights, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in an e-mailed statement.

“This landmark agreement opens the door to new business opportunities, economic growth and job creation in the U.S. and Colombia,” said Thomas J. Donohue, the chamber’s president and chief executive officer, who took part in a first-ever CEOs’ Summit of the Americas.

Expanded Exports

The trade deal, approved by the U.S. Congress in October, will add as much as $1.1 billion to U.S. exports when it takes full effect, according to estimates from the U.S. International Trade Commission.

The U.S. exported $14.3 billion in goods to Colombia last year and imported $23.1 billion, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. Caterpillar Inc. and General Electric Co. are among the biggest supporters of the trade deal.

Obama’s certification of Colombian worker protections puts him at odds with the AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor federation, which Democrat Obama is counting on for support in his re-election campaign against presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

“We regret that the administration has placed commercial interests above the interests of workers and their trade unions,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in an e-mailed statement.

Labor Criticism

The Obama administration “signaled with today’s decision that a little improvement is good enough,” Trumka said. “If a little improvement were good enough, women might still be fighting for the right to vote and our workplaces would be filled with children.”

The U.S. labor federation had sought to have the trade deal delayed until Colombia took what the AFL-CIO called “sustained, meaningful and measurable action to change the culture of violence.”

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said that under the labor certification, Colombia has established a new labor ministry, is giving workers the right to organize, and promises to prosecute past cases of violence against union organizations and provide protections for them.

The U.S. will offer Colombia “technical assistance” as it implements the labor protection rules, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said on the conference call.

Work in Progress

“This is a work in progress” but “we are moving on the right track,” Solis said. “Taken together, these actions represent fundamental change and historic progress for the lives and livelihoods of workers in Colombia,” the Obama administration said in a separate e-mailed statement.

Colombia’s Congress passed bills to implement a free-trade accord on April 10, days before the Summit of the Americas began.

The free-trade agreement, first reached under President George W. Bush more than five years ago, stalled in Congress amid opposition from House Democrats and unions. Obama worked to broaden support by securing stronger labor commitments from Colombia.

Colombia agreed to completion a “labor action plan,” a side agreement signed in April 2011 between the U.S. and Colombia, before the accord could be implemented.

Obama’s approval hinged on Colombia taking further steps to protect workers’ rights and making progress on reducing the killing of union workers by terrorists.

Unionist Deaths

A Washington-based human-rights group called Obama’s decision a mistake. About 30 unionists were killed in Colombia last year, the Washington Office on Latin America said in an e-mailed statement, citing the National Labor School, which tracks such statistics. Four have been killed this year, and other trade union movements have reported additional murders, the group said.

About 3,000 unionists have been killed since 1986, according to the National Labor School, a human rights group.

“President Obama lost a historic opportunity to improve labor rights in Colombia, at a time when many Colombian labor rights activists are getting harassed and killed,” said Gimena Sanchez, the group’s Colombia associate.

To contact the reporters on this story: Roger Runningen in Cartagena, Colombia at; Kate Andersen Brower in Cartagena, Colombia at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at

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