Though Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have both said they oppose the Trans-Pacific partnership—at least in its current form—they’ve hedged on trade issues overall, while the Obama administration continues to slide the treaty through Congress. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party remains ideologically tied to neoliberal policies for opening more “free markets,” despite potential impacts on labor and economic standards around the Pacific Rim.
But if past is prologue, it’s time to revisit another trade pact that candidate Barack Obama rebuffed in 2008—back then he cited human-rights abuses against labor activists. The US-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement ultimately did get enacted, however, and eight years on, despite lowering trade barriers and fueling an export market worth about $17 billion, it has left a labor movement in tatters, replicating a pattern of neoliberal trade ravaging the hemisphere.
American workers are increasingly wary of NAFTA-like free-trade policies that are historically associated with the hemorrhaging of many blue-collar jobs. But the losses for our “trade partners” in the Global South are often paid in blood. According to a complaint recently filed by AFL-CIO with the Department of Labor, Colombia’s political climate is just as, if not more, hostile toward trade unionists as it was before the trade treaty was enacted.
While trade has liberalized, intense violence has besieged Colombia’s incipient union movement, facing brutality from paramilitary, criminal, and state forces. Unionization efforts have stalled as dozens of union activists have been murdered, often without legal recourse.
Amid anemic enforcement of human-rights protections, the AFL-CIO reports, “Since the [free trade agreement] was signed, workers attempting to exercise their rights have suffered at least 1,466 threats and acts of violence, including 955 death threats and 99 assassinations.”
Unstable, poverty-wage labor remains prevalent in many sectors, especially oil extraction and agriculture. Although the trade deal included a Labor Action Plan designed to help revamp oversight and safeguards for workers’ rights, Colombia has lagged in implementing the extensive reform plan, despite pressure from US and Colombian unions. According to the complaint, basic freedom of association faces daily threats, and workers “face violence, reprisals and impunity when trying to exercise their rights.”