The much-maligned and long-stalled free trade deal with Colombia was approved again Wednesday. This time it came with the seal of approval of President Barack Obama’s administration, in hopes of averting another defeat at the hands of Democrats in Congress and the labor unions.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said the plan, “significantly expands the protections of labor leaders and organizers. “It bolsters efforts to punish those who have perpetrated violence against union members and, we think, substantially strengthens their laws and enforcement.”
Kirk’s comments came in hopes that this time, a trade agreement with Colombia first approved under the George W. Bush administration, will not be torpedoed in Congress by the president’s own party.
According to The Hill, President Obama will meet Thursday with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at the White House to formally announce the deal.
Still its approval by Congress was less than certain. Many Republicans have approved a trade agreement that U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said “will help bring jobs and economic growth to South Florida and throughout the United States.”
Kirk told the media that the plan should quell concerns of U.S. unions over the effect on jobs and have a “positive effect on American jobs.”
But, according to The Hill, the AFL-CIO said it was disappointed with the deal, and some members of Congress close to labor also said more needed to be done.
House Ways and Means ranking member Sander Levin (D-Mich.) said that while the administration has received “important commitments to address serious issues regarding worker rights, violence and impunity,” more work needs to be done.
But Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) told The Hill that the agreement on labor could be enough to move the Colombia trade deal forward. He said it appears “to represent a solid basis on which to build on Colombia’s good work and ensure that Colombia takes additional steps to strengthen labor rights, reduce violence and increase prosecutions of those responsible for the violence.”
U.S. trade officials also said trade the agreement with Panama should be completed within the next several weeks. On Tuesday night, Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli signed new labor laws into effect and is expected to push through a tax information exchange agreement or TIEA that deals with Panama’s history a tax haven within the next several weeks, officials said.
Ros-Lehtinen was quick to point out the advantages of a treaty that had been held up by Democrats under pressure from American labor unions.
“Colombia is already Miami’s second largest trading partner globally and this agreement will open the door for further opportunities to spur economic growth,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
“It is unfortunate that this job-creating agreement has been on hold for more than four years as the Obama Administration raised one obstacle after another due to politically-driven opposition by partisan special interest groups,” she added.
Kirk explained that under the new agreement announced Wednesday, Colombia will follow a roadmap to make changes in its labor laws this year. Those include providing greater protections for union leaders, such as shop stewards and bargaining committee members, workers trying to organize or join a union and former union activists who might be threatened because of their past union activities.
Most of the requirements should be wrapped up before Congress votes on the agreement, Kirk said.
According to The Hill, the International Trade Commission (ITC) has estimated that the agreement’s tariff reductions will expand exports of U.S. goods by more than $1.1 billion and increase gross domestic product by $2.5 billion.
Still, U.S. trade officials didn’t provide a timeline for ratification of the pending free trade deals, saying they would need to meet with congressional leaders to determine the path.