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Canada’s ambassador to Colombia spoke with public sector union leaders at a breakfast meeting in Bogota on July 22 as part of their ongoing tour of Colombia. Free trade was the sticking point.

Ambassador Mathew Levin engaged in a two-hour exchange with the four leaders on differing views of what he termed the “Colombian reality”. While there was agreement on many of the problems facing this South American country, they couldn’t agree on the proposed Canada-Colombia free trade agreement.

“Free trade will not help raise the tide for poor people and the oppressed in Colombia, said one leader. “Free trade won’t improve human rights, especially for the millions of displaced people,” said another. “Free trade must be fair trade that respects people’s rights,” said another. “Canadians need to hear the other side of the Canada-Colombia free trade story,” said a fourth.

“Our view is that a free trade agreement can’t resolve the deeper problem of violence in Colombia…The conflict hasn’t served to fix the problems of poverty, lack of social justice and exclusion. Instead, it has created polarization, intolerance and a lack of confidence.” And the regions most affected by the conflict are where “pre-economic, almost feudal, relationships exist”.

“We are also concerned about the massive displacement of people,” Levin replied. “Our global peace and security fund is trying to encourage a truth and justice process. Our current focus is on children and youth that have been excluded from formal education due to violent displacement.

“Canada’s engagement must be balanced and multifaceted,” Levin said. “It can’t just be about trade and economics.” But until the country can put the 50-year-old conflict behind it, it will only exacerbate the problems.

On corporate social responsibility: “That question is not going away,” he said. “We are being told to work on it more.” But he argued that Canadian companies treat employees in Colombia as they do those in Canada, a point the leaders vigorously disputed based on their discussions with Colombian trade unions.

On the Colombian economy: “The government knows that the Colombian reality is not ideal,” he said. “There is poverty, violence, lack of access to services.” He agreed that a round table on investment did not produce “the expected outcomes from the extractive industries”, but noted that they examine trade and investment situations closely.

On the many murders of trade unionists: “No one would question the severity of the violence against trade unions in Colombia…The point of the free trade labour cooperation side agreement is to hold partners to the rule of law.” He acknowledged that the killers act with impunity.

On a labour side agreement: News reports recently revealed that the side agreement includes a proposal for the Colombia government to pay a fine when a trade unionist is murdered. “The government doesn’t agree with this,” Levin said.


Later in the day, the leaders met with a group of national trade union leaders to discuss privatization, the lack of collective bargaining rights and cuts to public services. They represented the municipal sector, health and social security, postal services, the office of the human rights ombudsman and others.

The two-hour session yielded a list of complaints against the Uribe government, including his push to privatize, destroy unions, threats to the lives of trade union activists, and the abysmal state of free collective bargaining.

“We are now dealing with a situation where our young people go to work without pay as cashiers,” said one union leader. To be paid, they must ask for a tip from the customer. “Uribe has worked hard to disappear trade unions from our country,” said another.

“What we are seeing is the formation of a national Gestapo,” said another. “Through Uribe’s ‘forgive and forget’ policy, he has allowed the distribution of demilitarized paramilitaries throughout all institutions.”

One leader thanked CUPE for teaching her about pay equity. “Pay equity is now central to our bargaining with municipalities,” she said.

A member of a lawyer’s collective laid out the raw statistics: 4 million displaced (1.7 since Uribe came to power), 15,000 disappeared, 3,000 kidnapped, 20,000 political assassinations over past 20 years (12,500 since Uribe was first elected), 6,500 arbitrary detentions in the past six years.

As for trade unionists: 2,600 assassinated (one every three days since 1986, 467 under Uribe), 194 disappeared, 7,200 attacked, 58 murders admitted by paramilitary leaders, and they get away with murder in 97 per cent of the cases.

“It is the state that is killing the trade unionists,” he concluded. Another presenter added that “most of the time the assassinations occur around a labour conflict”.


The Canadian union leaders are Denis Lemelin, national president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, Paul Moist, national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, John Gordon, national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada and George Heyman, international vice-president of the National Union of Public and General Employees.

The group continues its tour of Colombia this week with more meetings and visits to examine human and labour rights, working conditions, and exchange views on free trade and the absence of human and labour rights guarantees. They plan to meet with the outgoing Canadian ambassador, government officials and members of the opposition. They will also discuss privatization and other problems with public sector trade unionists.

The leaders return to Canada on July 25.