In May 2019 the UK and Colombia signed the UK-Andean Trade Agreement, rolled over from the pre-existing deal between the European Union and the Andean countries (Colombia, Ecuador and Peru). The TUC is concerned that the Colombian government is systematically violating commitments it made in the agreement to uphold human, labour, and trade union rights. The TUC and its sister union organisations in Colombia have serious concerns about the situation and believe the agreement should be suspended until human and labour rights are respected.
Article 1 of the UK-Andean Trade Agreement states that "respect for democratic principles and fundamental human rights, as laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and for the principle of the rule of law, underpins the internal and international policies of the Parties. Respect for these principles constitutes an essential element of this Agreement."
Article 269 commits both parties "to the promotion and effective implementation in its laws and practice and in its whole territory of internationally recognised core labour standards as contained in the fundamental Conventions of the International Labour Organisation."
Section 3A recognises the duty of both parties to protect the right to freedom of association and effective collective bargaining.
The fundamental Conventions of the ILO stipulate freedom from forced labour and child labour, equal pay, freedom from discrimination at work, and:
"that workers shall enjoy adequate protection against acts of anti-union discrimination […] Workers' and employers' organizations shall enjoy adequate protection against any acts of interference by each other […] The convention also enshrines the right to collective bargaining"
“the rights conferred upon workers' and employers' organizations must be based on respect for […] civil liberties … and that the absence of these civil liberties removes all meaning from the concept of trade union rights.”
However, there is no mechanism in the agreement to enforce these labour and human rights commitments – thus sanctions cannot be applied via the agreement for violations. However, the agreement does require governments to establish civil society monitoring bodies that involve unions, employers and other civil society groups - Domestic Advisory Groups – to monitor adherence to labour and human rights commitments. The UK government is currently developing plans to establish the Domestic Advisory Group in the UK.
The TUC is calling for the UK government to set up a process whereby it investigates and raises formal concern with the Colombian government if the Domestic Advisory Group raises a complaint about labour or human rights violations in Colombia.
Colombia has a long and ongoing history of violating both human rights and labour rights. These violations take place within a context of legal impunity for violence against trade unionists and excessive police repression of democratic protest.
Since the UK-Andean agreement was worded, the Colombian state signed an internationally recognised peace agreement with the FARC in November 2016. The TUC regrets that the UK government did not consider the Colombian government’s failure to uphold many of its obligations under the peace agreement while it was negotiating the UK-Andean trade agreement. Neither does the text of the UK-Andean agreement explicitly refer to the 2016 peace agreement. This is particularly concerning given that the UK holds the pen in the UN Security Council for the agreement.
Colombia’s appalling record on trade union freedom and labour rights has been a constant source of serious concern for trade unions and at the ILO. Unions in the US, EU and UK have opposed trade agreements with Colombia because of its ongoing abuse of trade union rights.
Key concerns include:
The ILO recognises the fundamental link between trade union rights and human rights, in which the rights conferred to worker’s organisations must be premised on respect for civil and political freedoms.
Trade with Colombia takes place in the context of a human rights crisis in which there can be no meaningful discussion of labour standards outside the framework of the overall human rights situation.
Key concerns include:
Despite the violations listed above which contravene the commitments the Colombian government has signed up to in the UK-Andean agreement, the UK government has failed to express concern to the Colombian government in this context.
A review of the treaty which took place between the UK and Colombian governments in July 2020 contained no reference to labour standards or trade union rights, neither did it reference the well documented violence against individual trade unionists and other civil society activists in Colombia.
European trade unions have been vocal in their opposition to the EU-Colombia trade agreement and the EU’s own Implementation Assessment of the agreement concluded that serious and systematic breaches of labour and human rights still take place in Colombia, with increasing frequency.
The TUC has joined the Colombian trade union centres CUT and CTC in a joint statement demanding the UK-Andean trade agreement is suspended until effective measures to ensure labour standards and human rights are observed and enforced.
However, while the trade agreement remains in place, it is vital that scrutiny and enforcement takes place with regards to human rights and labour standards. The TUC is also calling on trade envoys from both countries to engage with Colombian trade unions to monitor compliance with the terms of the agreement. As noted above, the TUC is calling for the UK government to set up a process whereby it investigates and raises formal concern with the Colombian government if the Domestic Advisory Group raises a complaint about labour or human rights violations in Colombia.
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