Friday

19th Apr 2019

EU lifts trade barriers with Colombia, Peru

  • Bogota is hoping to attract more European money (Photo: Valentina Pop)

A free trade agreement entering into force Thursday (1 August) between the EU, Peru and Colombia include clauses on labour rights but trade unionists are sceptical they will be followed.

Calling for better working conditions or defending the rights of indigenous people is a risky business, particularly in Columbia.

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Activists are intimidated or even killed. Since 2000, an estimated 60 percent of all trade unionist murders in the world have taken place in the South American country.

The plight of trade unionists was one of the main sticking points during negotiations on the agreement, estimated to bring some €500 million annually in tariff savings.

The European Parliament made signing the agreement contingent on the issue. MEPs can now be included in the supervisory committee from the EU side, along with European business associations, trade unions and the EU commission.

But trade unionist do not hold out much hope about the EU deal.

Ever Causado, secretary general of Sintramienergetica union representing some 6,000 miners in the coal, gold and gas industries, said in a phone interview that the situation has not improved since a similar trade agreement with the US entered into force last year.

"We continue to receive daily threats. We have a negotiator with Drummond (a US coal mining company) who was fired at twice while in a taxi on 28 May. He is now hiding in Bogota," Casuado said.

"In our experience the state does not comply with the rules. The security situation here in Colombia is still critical," the trade unionist said.

However, others say that negotiations on the trade deal have led to much more awareness of workers’ rights.

"There is far more awareness on labour rights following the negotiation of the trade agreement,” said the EU’s ambassador to Bogota, Maria Antonia Van Gool.

"Labour rights are highly underlined and we insist a lot that they be respected," she said in an interview with this website.

She added the Colombian government has drawn up a roadmap of legislative measures improving labour rights, with specific deadlines.

A supervisory committee including Colombian trade unions is to be set up in the coming year to monitor the implementation of the trade agreement. If the promises are not kept, trade tariffs may be temporarily reintroduced.

"For Colombia this trade agreement means it is now an equal partner to Europe, they have the same rights and obligations as our 28 members," said Van Gool.

"They hope and expect to attract a lot of investments from Europe, people start looking more and more at Latin America," the Dutch diplomat added.

She noted that Colombia also wants to become a member of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which also sets labour rights standards they will have to comply with.

"In the end, particularly our trade agreement which contains some of the highest social standards will have an influence. People will feel supported by what is in the trade agreement and will use it as a backup, they will bring it to the attention of somebody in case it is not respected - parliamentarians, the EU or their own government," Van Gool said.

But she admitted that the actually putting into place of labour rights legislation may take some time.

“The legislation is there but the issue is implementation. It goes slowly," she said.

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Parliament sets out concerns over Colombia trade deal

The EU's ongoing free trade negotiations with Colombia featured twice in European Parliament debates last week, with deputies from across the political spectrum raising serious concerns over the South American country's human rights record.

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