U.S., Colombia closer to trade pact with labor deal

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and Colombia moved closer to approval of a long-delayed free trade pact on Wednesday with a plan to address worries over labor rights and anti-union violence in the Andean nation.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told reporters Colombia promised to beef up protection for labor leaders and organizers who have been the target of violence by right-wing groups.

The plan also “bolsters efforts to hold accountable and punish those who have perpetrated violence against union members and it makes a number of important steps to strengthen labor laws and their enforcement,” Kirk said.

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, welcomed the agreement and urged the administration “to work with Congress to implement all three pending trade agreements — Colombia, Panama, and South Korea — in tandem with one another as soon as possible.”

However, in sign of the difficulty President Barack Obama will have in persuading many in his own party members to support the agreement, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee said “more work needs to be done” to ensure that Colombia was taking adequate steps.

“The administration has importantly included timelines and acknowledged that concrete action is required to remedy these long-standing concerns. This active process allows us to provide oversight,” said Representative Sander Levin.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO labor federation that helped put Obama in office, also criticized the plan, which he said failed to establish concrete benchmarks for reducing violence and increasing prosecutions.

“There is no guarantee that the terms of it will in fact lead to a reduction in violence, and no backup plan to delay implementation if the violence and impunity continue,” Trumka said. “Concrete progress on the ground with respect to violence, impunity, and labor law reform needs to be demonstrated over a sustained period of time.”

Several other House Democrats also attacked the plan in far stronger terms than Levin, making it clear that Obama would have to reply on Republicans for the bulk of the 218 votes needed for approval in the House.

In contrast, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, called the labor agreement a significant breakthrough “that would help restore our leadership position on trade in the world.”

Colombia, Washington’s biggest ally in South America, is frustrated with years of delays to the agreement and has struck deals with the European Union and moved closer to China.

But Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who is expected to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House on Thursday, told Spanish-language network Univision on Tuesday he was now optimistic the deal would be approved this year.

U.S., Colombia closer to trade pact with labor deal