Dems question Colombia trade pact after shooting of activist labor lawyer

A pair of top House Democrats is questioning a pending trade agreement with Colombia following last week’s shooting of a prominent labor lawyer in that country.

Rep. George Miller (Calif.), senior Democrat on the Education and Workforce Committee, and Rep. Jim McGovern (Mass.), said the apparent assassination attempt on Hernán Darío, who represented Colombian sugarcane workers, raises questions about the Colombian government’s commitment to protecting its labor force.

{mosads}The lawmakers have asked U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk to examine whether the trade agreement, a top Obama administration priority, should be postponed until there’s “tangible evidence” that workers’ rights are being protected.

“Violence and intimidation are utilized to silence labor rights defenders in Colombia,” the lawmakers wrote Wednesday to Kirk. “When high-profile figures like Mr. Dario are attacked, it becomes evident that there are no guarantees for workers that peacefully and legitimately defend basic labor rights.

“Their vulnerability,” they added, “is symptomatic of a labor environment where the rights of workers do not matter.”

On Monday, the pending Colombia trade agreement — along with deals with Panama and South Korea — hit a snag when the Obama administration criticized Republicans for opposing an increase in decades-old subsidies to help U.S. workers who could be harmed by the pacts.

“This administration believes that, just as we should be excited about the prospect of selling more of what we make around the world, we have to be equally firm about keeping faith with America’s workers,” Kirk said.

The remarks align the administration more closely with several House Democrats, including Miller, McGovern and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who’ve argued that the trade agreements would help businesses at the expense of workers.

The unrest surrounding Colombia’s sugarcane industry has been an ongoing saga. In 2008, an estimated 18,000 sugarcane workers went on strike to protest labor conditions, which resulted in industry concessions — but also criminal charges against some of the strike leaders.

Darío, the lead attorney for those labor leaders, was shot five times last week by gun-wielding motorcyclists in Cali, Colombia, according to numerous reports. He remains in critical condition, the reports say.

There’s recent evidence that Kirk is being watchful of workers’ rights abuses at the hands of U.S. trade partners. On Monday, he asked an international trade panel to investigate allegations that the Guatemalan government has failed to enforce its own labor laws at the expense of workers.

“We expect to see the government of Guatemala take concrete actions to improve its labor-law enforcement to protect the rights of workers,” Kirk said in a statement.

“While Guatemala has taken some positive steps over the past several months, its actions and proposals have been insufficient to address what we view as systemic failures.”


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