Friday, April 8, 2011

Barfield: The Big Downside of the Colombia FTA [UPDATED]

Claude Barfield's quick take on the big US-Colombia FTA "action plan" is dead-on and worth quoting in full (h/t Ramesh Ponnuru):
I will write more on this subject in the future, but I want to flag a big downside in the just-announced agreement to move forward with the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement: that is, the highly intrusive and largely ill-advised provisions of the so-called “Action Plan” for Colombian labor laws and regulations. Yes, I know that the Colombians—browbeaten and desperate to assure permanent access to the U.S. market—have agreed to go along. But in many ways these provisions represent a callous trampling on Colombia’s sovereignty and the right to determine for itself specific priorities and obligations in the domestic labor market.

Among the more egregious demands, Colombia has acquiesced to “criminalize” (with prison terms of up to five years) any acts that “undermine the right to organize and bargain collectively.” It must also pass a law dictating prison terms for anyone who “offers a collective pact to non-union workers that is superior to terms for union workers.” No definition of “undermine” or “superior terms,” of course, is set forth. Such vague mandates are an invitation to harassment and extortion. Further, Colombia must assume heavy administrative and enforcement obligations that will stretch resources and constrict the government’s flexibility to adjust as labor (or other) conditions change in the future—including mandates on the number of inspectors, prosecutors, and police labor investigators, a plethora of new legislative actions, programs, analyses, directives, and consultations/meetings in the labor relations area. Some of these ideas have worth, but the attempted straitjacket of mandated priorities will breed endless disputes down the road.

Two closing questions: the first, related to the above, is what will happen when Colombia, through its own democratic process, wants to adjust programs and mandates in the future? Will the United States intervene to stop or control such changes? And second: beyond Colombia, the United States in the future—starting with the TPP—will attempt to conclude more FTAs. Does the Obama administration really think that Australia or Chile (and later possibly Indonesia and India) will stand for this intrusive trampling of sovereignty and democratically established laws and regulations? Good question—with an obvious answer.

I should add that, ironically, even this is not enough for U.S. labor unions, who have unanimously announced their opposition to the Colombia FTA even with the action plan.
On that last point, I'll simply repeat my usual chorus: placating anti-traders is always - ALWAYS - a fool's errand.

On Barfield's main point, however, I'm a little curious: haven't we been doing this type of FTA bullying for a long while now?  The US-Peru FTA immediately comes to mind here:
The U.S. and Peru reached their agreement at the end of 2005, signed it in April 2006, and the Peruvian Congress ratified it a year ago. With changes pushed by Democrats this year before a vote in Congress, Peru was forced to accept tougher environmental and labor rights rules, and its legislators in June approved the agreement a second time.

In recent weeks, Peru’s labor ministry issued a decree limiting the use of non-union contract workers in mines and other unionized industries. That decree and other changes to Peru’s labor regulations address more than 60 percent of the initial concerns by unions, said Douglas Figueroa Silva, president of the Confederation of Workers of Peru.
As you may recall, the Peruvian government was "forced" to accept new labor and environmental standards and re-vote on their FTA because then-Ways & Means Chair Charlie Rangel (D-NY) and his buddy Rep. Sandy Levin (D-MI) literally traveled to Peru to condescendingly judge them demand pledges from the Peruvian government on labor and environmental issues.  And they got them.  (Levin tellingly complained about Peru's failure to implement all of his labor demands in 2009, yet subsequently bragged about his Peru-bullying prowess in 2011.)

The United States also has sought "legislative reforms" from partners of completed FTAs due to their alleged labor infractions, and is already bullying TPP members on dubious environmental provisions related to timber harvesting.

So while I totally agree with Claude that the US-Colombia "action plan" is a slap in the face of the Colombian government (and a blatant affront to their sovereignty), it's not really that surprising, is it?  The detailed plan might beprobably is a more aggressive and blatant than the many other instances of American FTA bullying, but - unless I'm missing something (always a distinct possibility) - it's not breathtakingly novel.  This bad precedent was set years ago.

Of course, Colombia voluntarily agreed to make these legal changes, and there's a very good argument that they're totally cool with doing that.  But still - the fact that we have to publicly emasculate our supposed "ally" in order to pass a totally-lopsided trade agreement is a pretty telling (and depressing) indicator of the current state of American trade policy, now isn't it?

UPDATE: Barfield ably responds to my questions - definitely worth a read.

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