The Colombian Free Trade Agreement & Labor Rights

Sugar Cane Workers ColombiaIn September of 2013, I visited Colombia for a research project organized with the American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). The objective was to evaluate the progress of the alleged reforms to Colombian labor law, as agreed to under “The Colombian Action Plan Related to Labor Rights” (hereinafter “Labor Action Plain” or “LAP”). This ambitious side agreement was designed to reform Colombian labor and employment law, to ensure workers’ rights and freedom of association. I met with oil workers, sugarcane cutters, dockworkers, airline workers, and palm workers. The stories collected through my research serve as a vehicle to illustrate the failures of the LAP, which I believe can be best characterized as ineffective, naïve, and misguided. A full report has been published by the AFL-CIO International Affairs Department, and I have written further about the process for an independent study. For those interested in learning more about this work, feel free to contact me directly. Here is a link to the AFL-CIO report just published in April, 2014.

What follows are some excerpts about the research. I’ll post more photos in the forthcoming blog entries.


Had I known how far the city of Medellín was from the airport, I might have planned somewhat better. Nevertheless, I arrived around midnight and found myself in an unmarked gypsy cab, driven by a teenager who appeared so young, I wondered if he in fact had a license. In the pitch-black night, I was unaware of the lush Colombian mountainside rushing by us. The hour-long ride from the airport in Medellín provided ample time to consider exactly what I was getting myself into.

The young taxista offered me a cigarette and turned down the radio. Making small talk, he asked what brought me to Colombia. I thought to myself… “to investigate the murders of trade unionists like myself.” Instead I simply said I was doing legal research about the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. I figured he would have no interest or real knowledge about the topic. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Immediately he began retelling his participation in street protests just a few weeks earlier, where he joined other students from his school in games of cat and mouse with the local police. Massive demonstrations had rocked the rural areas of the country in July and August as small farmers and miners had staged protests against the provisions in the Free Trade Agreement going into effect that forced them to compete with subsidized products from the United States. In other areas of the country, there had been a number of deaths, as farmers and police engaged in hand-to-hand combat in the streets.

I was silent – partly out of surprise, and partly out of exhaustion. I sat in the passenger seat and digested the fact that many parts of the country were in a state of uprising against the trade agreement, and wondered if I could link these rural protests to my narrower topic of workers’ rights under the agreement. I also was beginning to wonder exactly where we going. We had been driving for nearly 45 minutes and there were no signs of a city. The kid sensed my unease, and turned the radio back on. Ironically, the radio commentators were deep in a debate about the price of milk and the effects of ‘leche americana’ now lining the shelves at supermarkets. Reporters interviewed dairy farmers who were asking the government to delay implementation, or renegotiate the provisions concerning milk products under the Free Trade Agreement. I thought about how many people in the United States even knew that the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement existed – definitely not most 17-year-old taxi drivers.

After some preliminary research in Medellín, meeting with different researchers and investigators from the Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS) (National Trade Union School), I began traveling the country conducting interviewers for my report.  I’ll post stories and photos about those experiences in the coming weeks.

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