Jan Schakowsky

Worker's Rights in Columbia - June 15, 2006

Jan Schakowsky
June 15, 2006— Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC
Panel discussion
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Thank you. I want to thank the Solidarity Center for working on this critical report about worker's rights, and the lack thereof, in Colombia. And I want to thank the Carnegie Endowment for hosting this event today.

I'm honored to speak alongside Linda Chavez Thompson and Barbara Shailor. And I am so grateful to our four panelists today for sharing some time for me to make remarks. Lisa Haugard helps me and my staff on a regular basis and is a reliable source for so many of my colleagues in the House. I'm so glad all four of you are here presenting today. (And I have to apologize to everyone in advance because I will have to speak and run this morning.)

As a UNITE HERE! Member and a partner in the struggle for labor rights here in this country, I know what an uphill battle we have had to fight for each and every victory we have achieved in the U.S.

Labor has earned every single bit of collective power and representation it has achieved and we've had serious obstacles along the way. Our members do not take it for granted.

I'm so proud of our brothers and sisters for the work they do every day to improve the collective rights of workers in this country. It is never enough that some of us are successful in unionizing workers at one company or one store or another. And it is not enough that workers in one industry or another receive fair benefits and pay for the contributions they make to successful companies. We know that our success lies in the success and well being of others in the movement through the country. And we know what it means to show solidarity and the power that ideal we maintain provides to our labor family everywhere.

I am equally proud of what we do to improve lives for working families in other countries. The Solidarity Center plays a huge role in those efforts. The Center has staff on the ground in places that are leaps and bounds behind the U.S. in terms of labor rights. The Center is on the front lines of this battle and you are making an impact.

I want to thank John Sweeney and everyone at the AFL-CIO and all the staff at the Solidarity Center for the work you do to improve worker's rights and the work you do to support my work and that of my office as we pursue our common goal of improving lives for working people everywhere.

So, with all that is happening all over the world, why focus on Colombia? Why so much concern over a trade agreement with Colombia and why so much scrutiny of the billions of dollars we have given Colombia over the last several years? What makes Colombia so different and interesting?

It is not a country we often hear or read about on the front pages or during prime time news. Sp why all the fuss?

That is what member and others who are unfamiliar with Colombia often ask. Well, as the report being released today begins, "Colombia is the deadliest country in the world to be a trade union member. About 4,000 trade unionists have been murdered in the last 20 years and, more union activists are killed each year in Colombia than in the rest of the world combined."

In 2005 alone, 70 trade unionists were assassinated, bringing the total to over 2,220 Colombian trade unionists murdered since 1991.

The Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS), the National Labor School in Colombia, a well-respected NGO, (we are lucky to have its co-founder, Hector de Jesus Vasquez Fernandez here today) has found that paramilitary groups are responsible for the greatest number of violations (49%) against Colombian trade unionists, with Colombian state entities a close second (43%), in cases where the assailants were known.

The Colombian government has consistently failed to investigate and charge those responsible for the murders of Colombian trade unionists. According to information provided by the Vice President of Colombia, Francisco Santos Calderon, of the 2,220 murders of trade unionists from 1991 to 2005, only 1% of these murders ever resulted in jail time for those responsible.

There is a labor and human rights emergency raging in Colombia and it has been largely unaddressed by the United States and by the Colombian government and that has got to change.

U.S. policy towards Colombia has failed to address the ongoing violence against Colombian trade unionists. Instead, the U.S. supports a military that continues to attack trade unionists and collaborate with paramilitary terrorists and in essence supports a policy of impunity.

The U.S. should not support the Colombian military or government policies that fail Colombia's working families.

And we owe Colombians much better than a false promise that their weak labor laws will be upheld.

You've heard the big picture numbers time and again.

For each statistic, there is a heart-breaking story.

I have traveled to Colombia. I have met with workers, with leaders in the labor movement, and I know the obstacles they face and I have seen the impact of our failed policy in Colombia.

In a meeting with workers in the flower sector (where thousands of mostly women work in harsh conditions, without protection from pesticides, and with inadequate compensation), one labor organizer recalled tactics her company invoked when she tried to organize. She was forced to peel potatoes 8 hours a day, every day, in a room by herself or she would lose her job. She was harassed, threatened, and insulted for her efforts. She feared for her job, her health and her personal safety. Her husband, a worker at another flower plantation, was fired for approaching fellow workers outside of company property to discuss organizing.

I have heard stories of sickness and injuries suffered by workers in the sector and the stories of abuse suffered by so many partners in the struggle. Their stories, sadly, are about as good as it gets for struggling organizers. After all, they are alive. I have been in the city, on the countryside, and in neighborhoods full of the internally-displaced people who have lost their homes due to violence.

The United States may not be in charge in Colombia, but we do not have to contribute to violence against trade unionists. And by turning a blind eye, that is the effect. We have provided Colombia with over $5 billion since the year 2000 alone and attacks on trade unionists and other human rights abuses have continued.

And each time those of us who disagree with the policy try to put forth a modest effort to make a statement of disapproval of the state of affairs in Colombia, we are shut down by the Majority in Congress.

Last week, we had an amendment on the House Floor while we debated the Foreign Operations Bill. We tried to cut $30 million in military and fumigation dollars for Colombia and put those funds into an account to help refugees. Colombia, by the way, has some 3 million internally displaced/domestic refugees as a result of the conflict. Even though passage of that amendment still would have left the bill with $9 million above President Bush's request for FY 2007, the drug warriors in the House refused to let it pass.

They argued that it is just the ultra-left liberals in the House who can't see progress in Colombia. But they're wrong.

According to the 2005 U.S. State Department (that's the Bush Administration-run State Department's) Human Rights Report on Colombia, "collaboration between paramilitary groups and the Colombian military continues."

ENS, as I am sure Hector will tell you, has also reported that since 2002 Colombian state entities have nearly tripled their attacks on labor unions.

Though we should have had a debate on the overall policy last week and though we should drastically decrease our aid to the Colombian military, we didn't. We can't because the Republican Congress, the White House and the Colombian government do not want us to have one.

Unfortunately, we may have another chance before the year is through to debate our relationship with Colombia. As you know, Presidents Bush and Uribe are pushing a U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

Here's what Harold Meyerson had to say about it in yesterday's Washington Post: "Over the past 15 years, the trade agreements that the United States has entered into with other nations have been, when it comes to ensuring the rights of workers in those nations, merely outrageous and inadequate. Now the administration is about to send up to Capitol Hill a new accord that takes our trade agreements to a whole new level. The proposed agreement is with the government of Colombia, and it's ridiculous."

It is ridiculous.

I think we have done a great job this week in anticipation of and during President Uribe's visit to DC in elevating the despicable record of human and labor rights abuses in Colombia. And I think this report will help. But the time is now for us to ratchet up these efforts and to make our voices heard. We will not reward a country with such a disastrous record as Colombia with a trade deal.

Colombian workers, along with much of civil society, oppose the continuing militarization of U.S. aid to Colombia as well as the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

They want a balanced foreign aid program that directs more aid towards social and economic programs and the strengthening of the rule of law.

I support aid to help protect Colombian trade unionists and to help prosecute those responsible for the assassinations of trade unionists as well as sustainable development and viable alternatives to drug production and trafficking. Wehave failed to do enough on those fronts.

Colombian workers also vigorously oppose a trade agreement that is based on the failed economic model represented by NAFTA. They know better.

If the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement is approved in its present form, it will replace existing worker rights protections, eliminating the ability of the U.S. government to effectively use trade policy to gain improvements in worker rights in Colombia. Even if this Administration will never use those tools, we want them available to the next administration, which may show some leadership.

Similar to NAFTA, CAFTA, and other free trade agreements, the US-Colombia FTA labor provisions merely require Colombia to enforce its existing labor laws regardless of whether or not those laws adhere to internationally-recognized labor rights. Implementation of the FTA will facilitate perpetuation of the status quo or worse in Colombia.

And it will hurt workers rights in this country, perpetuating a race to the bottom in our hemisphere and he global economy.

We cannot justify this policy to tax-paying American workers.

How can we tell them that the U.S. is continuing to support a foreign military that both supports and commits violence against workers with impunity? And how can we support a free trade agreement with a country where unions-busting through assassination is common practice?

U.S. aid and trade policy should promote true democracy and the protection of fundamental human rights. Human and labor rights should be on par with the rights of capital when we negotiate our trade agreements.

Only then will we accomplish the tough challenge or improving economic and working conditions in Colombia and in the U.S.

I want to leave time for you to hear from the real experts. Thank you for allowing me to speak. Thank you for producing this very important report. Thank you for your great work.

I'm honored to be your partner in the struggle for worker's rights.

Speech from http://www.house.gov/schakowsky/WorkersRightsinColombia_6_15_06.shtml.