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US Dept of Labor Knocks Colombia for Lack of Compliance under FTA

The Labor Department on January 9 issued a progress assessment calling on Colombia to more fully comply with obligations outlined in the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement, a move that continues “contact point” consultations between the two governments.

The Jan. 8 assessment, originally due Oct. 11, flags what the department calls a “lack of national inspection strategy,” shortfalls in short-term contracting methods endorsed by Colombian businesses and continued neglect of “associational rights of workers where representational unions exist.”

The progress assessment evaluates 19 recommendations pitched by the Labor Department in a Jan. 11, 2017, report issued to assist Colombia in bringing its labor commitments into compliance with the provisions outlined in the FTA. Last year’s report included suggestions for the Colombian government on labor law enforcement and inspections, subcontracting, collective pacts and enforcing prosecutions in cases against unionists.

The Labor Department used the 2017 report to trigger what are known as “contact point consultations” – under Article 17.5 of the trade pact – which have been progressing ever since.

The department, in coordination with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the State Department, has met three times with the Colombian Labor Ministry to address the issues outlined in the report and “progress toward implementing the recommendations,” the assessment states.

The Labor Department says it “remains concerned” about a number of areas addressed in the report. Specifically, the agency says Colombia “still appears to lack a national inspection strategy,” which the U.S. says would more strategically direct the country’s “limited resources and prioritize investigations.”

The U.S. also knocks Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje, a public labor institution committed to labor training, for neglecting to provide a more comprehensive system for outlining fine collections.

“The [Colombian Ministry of Labor] has yet to ensure that preventive inspections are not used as a substitute for administrative sanctions,” the Jan. 8 assessment states. “Although SENA indicates that timelines for persuasive and coercive fine collection are contained in Resolution 1235 of 2014, these timelines are not clear and are spread across various additional regulations and laws. SENA should produce a comprehensive chart that gathers all of the timeframes from the various regulations and that refers directly to persuasive and coercive collection of fines imposed by the MOL.”

The U.S. also argues the Colombian Labor Ministry should bolster sanctions on “all forms of abusive subcontracting and the misuse of collective pacts in accordance with established timeframes.” While the U.S. said Colombia has made headway in this area by showing evidence of increased investigations into illegal collective pacts, the Labor Department says “it is unclear that such efforts are addressing the undermining of associational rights of workers where representational unions exist.”

The assessment also cited areas of progress, including a 67 percent budget increase approved by the Colombian Congress for the country’s labor inspectorate.

The installment of an “electronic case management system” in all regional offices of the Colombian Ministry of Labor was also lauded by the U.S. And the U.S. touted Colombia’s commitment to improve labor inspector training.

“On November 1, the MOL launched an internal group that will manage and ensure the relevance of trainings and is working with a USDOL-funded project being implemented by the International Labor Organization to design updated training curricula,” the assessment states.

The Labor Department recognized progress made in the Colombia’s process for collecting fines, which, the U.S. claims, will make it easier for the Ministry of Labor to “track a fine from its imposition to its collection.”

House Ways & Means trade subcommittee ranking member Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) issued a statement Tuesday slamming the U.S. for “blowing past their own deadline” in releasing the assessment and knocking Colombia for what he called a lack of “long-term strategy.” Pascrell is a member of the Colombia Monitoring Group, which was formed after Congress approved the agreement in 2011. It meets frequently to assess the progress made on the dispute and ensure that it provides results in protecting fundamental labor rights. The agreement took effect in 2012.

“Today’s update merely calls for continued consultation, monitoring, and assessment over the upcoming year – this is simply not good enough, given the depth of the problems and how long they have been festering,” Pascrell said. “We need more proactive action and for this Administration to focus and engage with Congress to ensure all our trading partners have fair labor standards.”

At the request of the U.S. Trade Representative, the case can move into cooperative labor consultations if there is still a lack of compliance during the contact point consultations. If cooperative labor consultations still do not resolve the issues at hand, the case can then slip into the dispute settlement phase.

The assessment does not lay out specific next steps or time lines, saying only that Labor will remain engaged “through consultations of the contact points” over the next year.

Labor advocates recently told Inside U.S. Trade that the inclusion of enforcement mechanisms – such as clearer deadlines – in labor chapters of free trade agreements should be prioritized in 2018.