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Chairman Menendez Remarks on Colombian Labor Action Plan Reports

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered the below statement, as prepared for delivery, on the Senate Floor following the publication of reports by the AFL-CIO and Colombia’s National Union School evaluating the Colombian Labor Action.

“I come to the floor to speak about Labor rights in Colombia –    and Labor rights of workers around the world. Three years ago today, the U.S. and Colombian governments announced the creation of a Labor Action Plan that identified concrete steps to address the challenges faced by Colombian workers -- threats, deadly violence, and widespread informality that opens the door to worker abuse.

“Both governments said that the implementation of the plan would be a precondition to enacting the Free Trade Agreement between our two countries.

“At the time, I advocated that the standards laid out in the Labor Action Plan should have been part of the formal Free Trade Agreement, and should have included provisions for monitoring the Plan’s implementation. It’s true that the Colombian Government initially made impressive steps, but, unfortunately, other aspects of the plan have not yet been fulfilled.

“Today, the AFL-CIO and Colombia’s National Union School have released reports evaluating the Labor Action Plan and identifying key areas where implementation has fallen short. I come to the floor today to share these key findings.

“In February, I traveled to Colombia and met with Colombian union leaders and representatives of the National Labor School. I had a chance to meet with President Santos and Minister of Labor Rafael Pardo. We had the opportunity to review the important steps the Colombian government has taken and what still needs to be done.

“Shortly after the Labor Action Plan was established in April 2011 -- nearly overnight -- Colombia established an independent Ministry of Labor. To date, the Ministry has hired more than 480 new labor inspectors and created a formal complaint mechanism for workers and unionists.

“The Colombian government reformed its penal code to strengthen sanctions against employers violating rights to free association. The Ministry of Labor has opened nearly 400 investigations of violations and issued nearly 70 sanctions. And the government has had directed its protection units to concentrate efforts on labor activists who are under threat.

“As a result of these steps, Colombia has made progress. According to the Colombian government’s own statistics, more than 530,000 jobs have been formalized in accordance with government standards.

“Now, while it is important to acknowledge the progress that has been made, the reports released today by the AFL-CIO and Colombia’s National Union School remind us that more needs to be done. Aspects of the Labor Action Plan remain unfinished and risks to Colombian workers continue, specifically in the palm oil industry, sugar sector, oil industry, and ports sector.

“Both reports point out that -- while that some trade unionists have seen better protection from the government -- others continue to face threats and violence. In 2013, 26 trade unionists were murdered. 

“Equally troubling is the fact that in cases of murdered trade unionists, 86.8 percent go unresolved.

“The two reports recognize that in response to the Labor Action Plan, the Colombian government took steps to address irregular contracting practices, specifically focusing on Associated Work Cooperatives -- CTAs.

But, given the loopholes in new labor regulations that have come to light, the Government has been unable to stem the rise of alternate hiring – like simplified joint stock companies that keep workers from being directly hired and being entitled to benefits and collective bargaining rights.

“So, there has been progress, but clearly more needs to be done.

“The report rightfully applauds the creation of the Ministry of Labor, but also notes that the hiring of labor inspectors did not comply with International Labor Organization standards, severely affecting these inspectors’ autonomy and technical capacity. And, as further evidence of the challenges of informal labor arrangements, the majority of labor inspectors are provisional hires.

“And – when it comes to fining those guilty of violations -- the Colombian government has levied millions of dollars in fines against companies violating labor standards, but both the AFL-CIO and the National Labor School point out that not a dollar has been collected. Fines hardly constitute a deterrent if companies know they will never have to pay the bill.

“As the U.S. and Colombian governments – along with organized labor in the U.S. and Colombia -- look forward, it is important that everyone come to the table, identify targeted goals, and establish benchmarks that will bring the kind of change we are all looking for -- lasting change that protects workers and worker rights.

“M. President, given that the U.S. and Colombia renewed the Labor Action Plan through the end of 2014, now is the time to renew political commitments. Now is the time for collective action.

“Having met with Minister Pardo -- and knowing our colleagues in the Department of Labor -- I know that the political will is there.  Now is the time for swift action. The lessons from Colombia should be lessons for all of us as the U.S. continues to engage in trade negotiations around the world.

“Our trade agreements must include the highest labor standards, concrete benchmarks for guaranteeing compliance with these standards, and a clear plan to monitor implementation. Anything less will leave the most vulnerable workers around the world at risk.

“We are moving in the right direction when it comes to protecting workers and workers rights in Colombia and around the world. Let’s keep moving forward – and aspire to the highest labor standards in every nation.”