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Free Trade will not Lift All Boats

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August 29, 2008

Free Trade will not Lift All Boats

Trade deal with Colombia criticized by Canadian labour leaders

by Chris Arsenault

John Gordon, National President of PSAC, Paul Moist, National President of CUPE, and Denis Lemelin, National President of CUPW, outside of the Léon de Greiff auditorium after the final hearing of the Permanent Peoples' Tribunal in Bogotá. Photo: Dawn Paley

Paul Moist, the President of Canada's largest union, expressed concern about a free trade deal between Canada and Colombia during a recent meeting with Fabio Valencio, Colombia's Minister of the Interior.

"[Valencio] listed off the numbers of unionists murdered in Colombia like he was reading a report on the weather channel," said Moist, President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). Since the beginning of 2008, 32 Colombian trade unionists have been assassinated.

Moist and three other Canadian labour leaders, representing some 1.1 million workers, returned to Canada on July 25 from a weeklong fact-finding mission in Colombia. They were tasked with examining the potential effects of a free trade deal inked on June 7 between the executive branches of the two countries.

"Our overwhelming conclusion is that a free trade agreement will not help the Colombian people," said the Canadian labour leaders in a statement.

According to the Colombian Network in Response to Free Trade (RECALCA), based on the precedent set with the Canada-Peru agreement, the Colombian government "calculates that overnight, the emaciated and already under-protected agricultural and industrial sectors in Colombia will be capable of competing with their Canadian counterparts." However, RECALCA notes that farmers as well as Colombian manufacturers of "textiles, footwear, plastic products, industrial metals, chemicals and paper as well as machinery and automotive equipment" are threatened by the ratification of the agreement.

The Canadian labour delegation met with various sectors of Colombian society, including government officials, the United Central of Workers (CUT) and other trade unions, opposition leaders, non-governmental organisations, groups representing indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples as well as the Canadian ambassador. "Colombia continues to be the most dangerous country on earth for trade unions and civil society activists," they said upon return to Canada.

"From what we have learned, 95 per cent of Colombian workers do not have an enforceable collective agreement," Moist explained. "We cannot accept a free trade agreement until this changes."

While Colombia is a signatory to International Labour Organization (ILO) protocols, which should guarantee workers the right to organise independent trade unions, the protocols have not been codified into domestic legalisation, making them practically irrelevant.

"It is easier to form a paramilitary gang than it is to form a trade union in this country," CUT President Tarisco Mora told reporters at a press conference with his Canadian counterparts.

The CUT had 1.5 million members at its founding, Mora told the Canadians. Today it is down to 460,000 due to a combination of legal hurdles to unionisation and violence against union members.

Colombia's National Trade Union School documented 2,245 killings, 3,400 threats and 138 forced disappearances of trade unionists between January 1991 and December 2006. Broken down, that's one unionist killed every three days and one unionist forcibly disappeared every month, for 15 years.

According to a statement by David Emerson, Canada's foreign affairs minister, the deal will expand "trade and investment, and will help solidify ongoing efforts by the Government of Colombia to create a more prosperous, equitable and secure democracy."

Union leaders, including CUPE's Paul Moist, dispute these claims. "In Colombia's current climate, increased foreign investment will not lift all boats," said Moist, citing the case of sugar cane workers with whom he met.

Even a decade ago, most of Colombia's 22,000 cane workers were unionised, according to Moist. Today, the industry has been contracted out and workers receive less money per pound of cane than they did ten years ago.

These trends exist not only in the sugar sector, but across a rapidly industrializing and concentrated agricultural sector. Free Trade Agreements undermine small-scale producers and food sovereignty, encouraging the export of cash crops and increasing the likelihood of dumping by countries with highly subsidized agricultural sectors.

In 2007, two-way merchandise trade between Canada and Colombia amounted to 1.14 billion dollars.

Some analysts believe Colombia is seeking a deal with Canada to win a public relations battle in the US, rather than to increase trade flows.

"Colombia is offering Canada an FTA because it really wants the US Congress to reconsider its opposition to such a deal," wrote Pablo Heidrich, senior researcher at the North-South Institute, a development policy watchdog based in Canada. Congressional Democrats are stalling a similar deal between the US and Colombia because of human right concerns.

With the recent collapse of World Trade Organization talks in Japan due in no small part to opposition from the global south, developed countries are likely to pursue bilateral deals, such as the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, with renewed vigour.

It is unclear what happens now with the Canada-Colombia bilateral deal. Buoyed by high popular approval ratings, Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe has the necessary congressional support and political capital to enact the trade agreement.

The same cannot be said for Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who does not have the parliamentary majority needed to pass legislation without support from other parties.

Canadian opposition parities, including the Liberals and the New Democratic Party, have expressed concern about the deal, especially given the human rights situation in Colombia. "We are not clear where this legislation will go in Canada," Moist told The Dominion.

While opposition parties in both countries remain skeptical of the agreement, business lobby groups support the deal.

"Colombia imposes tariffs averaging 11 per cent on industrial goods, 17 per cent on agricultural and 15 to 20 per cent on cotton yarns and paper products," said Thomas d'Aquino, leader of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE) in a May presentation to a parliamentary committee. "The elimination of these tariffs would greatly benefit Canada," said d'Aquino.

In particular, politically influential Canadian mining firms want access to the vast natural wealth under Colombia's soil. "The proposed agreement would benefit companies and workers in a wide range of industries, including the automotive sector, steel, chemicals, public infrastructure development, oil drilling... mining and advanced manufacturing such as mining machinery and equipment," d'Aquino told Canadian politicians.

While a lack of collective bargaining rights may hurt average workers, foreign interests seem content with the current labour situation in Colombia, taking advantage of the inability of most workers to organize to demand fair pay for fear of extermination. "No Canadian mining operations are unionised in Colombia," says Moist.

A version of this article was previously published by Inter Press Service.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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