Free trade with Colombia will lead to worse human and labour rights abuses and further devastation of communities at risk, Canada’s public sector leaders said at a news conference in Bogota on July 24.
Here is the statement the leaders made to several Colombian media reporters following a meeting with leaders of the United Central of Workers (CUT), one of three central labour bodies:
“As the leaders of one million Canadian public sector workers, we have come to Colombia to examine human and labour rights as our governments negotiate a free trade agreement.
“We have met with many sectors of Colombian society, including government officials, the United Central of Workers (CUT) and other trade unions, opposition leaders, non-governmental organizations, groups representing indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples as well as the Canadian ambassador.
“We also were present to hear the final report of the Permanent People’s Tribunal following two years of hearings in six sectors of the Colombian economy. The report condemned the Colombian government and transnational coporations for countless violations of human and trade union rights.
“Our overwhelming conclusion is that a free trade agreement will not help the Colombian people. It will only exacerbate an already horrifying list of human and labour rights abuses that are shocking the world.
“Colombia continues to be the most dangerous country on earth for trade unions and civil society activists. Since the beginning of 2008, 32 trade unionists have been assassinated. We have also observed that Colombia has no juridical framework that permits free collective bargaining.
“On our return to Canada, we will tell our one million members, our government and all Canadians that it is unacceptable to sign a free trade agreement with Colombia as long as trade unionists are at risk and free collective bargaining and other labour and human rights continue to be violated.”
The statement was signed by 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.
Earlier, leaders met with several Senators from the opposition party Polo Democratica Alternativa (PDA or Polo), including Senator Alexandra Lopez, a long-time labour activist who attended a CUPE human rights conference in 2003 in Toronto.
The Senators were unequivocal in their opposition to a Canada-Colombia free trade agreement. “We don’t believe in free trade period,” said one. “It’s simply a bad way to develop healthy relations between two nations.” Another said “Free trade is a new form of colonization and the Polo rejects it.”
They called on the leaders to help them stop the destruction of a 400-year-old village by a Canadian mining company (Colombia Goldfield) that wants to mine the gold they have found underneath the village. And the Colombian government could let them do it.
On Ingrid Betancourt: “Her release was super well used by [President Alvaro] Uribe.”
On worker cooperatives: “They destroy worker-employer relations.” The Senators cite what is happening to cane workers and court workers among others.
On privatization: Postal workers went from 3,000 to 300 and many teachers’ jobs are going the same way; 83 hospitals have fallen into private hands.
Yearly statistics: 5,000 people die in the armed conflict; 26,000 die in the social conflict; 20,000 children die of hunger; 3million children get no access to education. “The president hides these realities.”
On Uribe and labour relations: “Uribe’s is trying to destabilize labour relations because labour is in the forefront of opposition to his government.”
On Uribe and the Polo: “Uribe’s intention is to falsely accuse our members and to put us in jail.”
The Canadian group also met with CUT President Tarisco Mora and executive members of the CUT, one of three central labour bodies in Colombia. The CUT had 1.5 million members at its founding, Mora told the leaders. It now has 460,000.
“Colombia may be the only country in the world that does not have a labour minister,” he said. The Ministry of Social Protection has replaced the old Ministry of Labour.
On organizing unions: “It is easier to form a paramilitary gang than it is to form a trade union in this country,” Mora noted.
On Canadian Embassy assistance for workers: “The role of the Canadian Embassy has changed from being helpful at assisting threatened families to receiving paramilitaries,” said one of the executive.
On the leaders’ public opposition to the free trade agreement: “A great help to all Colombians,” Mora said.
On the idea of a fourth labour central: “There is little interest except from the union leaders who represent the bosses.”
On the Uribe government’s tripartite declaration to improve the situation for trade unionists: “It is another trick to persuade the international community that Colombia is safe for investment. Thirty trade unionists have been killed this year, so they have issued this declaration. In another few months, 32 more will die and then they will issue another similar declaration. Nothing will have changed.”
On the leaders’ visit: “Your presence here is a clear demonstration that we are not alone.”
In vivid contrast to these meetings, the leaders also met with Fabio Valencio, Colombia’s Minister of the Interior, and an entourage of deputy or vice-ministers, one of them responsible for labour.
The minister was quick to unfold his notes on the tripartite declaration on improving the labour situation, but he was equally quick to argue that trade and investment come before labour rights improvements. He called it a “chicken and egg question”: investment or labour rights?
Valencio painted a rosy picture of the Uribe government’s achievements – lower unemployment, fewer assassinations, higher investment confidence, stronger economic growth. He stressed that it was not possible to compare Colombia to Canada or Europe. “The government is fighting terrorist organizations on the right and the left,” he said, and “the drug problem cuts through all other questions.”
But the Canadian leaders weren’t buying it.
“When will Colombia begin to respect the basic conventions of the United Nations’ International Labour Organization?” CUPE National President Paul Moist asked. “From what we have learned, 95 per cent of Colombian workers do not have an enforceable collective agreement. Until that happens, we cannot accept a free trade agreement.”
The minister was clearly upset when he learned that the leaders’ group would return to Canada with an anti-free-trade message.
“We don’t believe free trade will improve human rights,” National CUPW present Denis Lemelin told the minister. “There is a major difference between free trade and fair trade. Fair trade means respecting human and labour rights. Free trade is only about investment.”
The leaders leave for Canada on July 25.