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A Market for Good

Why American workers need the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Done right, trade bills are jobs bills. Nowhere is this truer for American workers than with the pending U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement (FTA). Colombia is not only a strategic ally in an often-troubled region of the world, but it is also a large and growing market for the exports of U.S. farmers, ranchers, and entrepreneurs.

The U.S. International Trade Commission estimates that the Colombia FTA will increase U.S. exports by more than $1 billion a year. As the U.S. economy continues to recover, an aggressive trade agenda that includes the approval of the FTA and extension of Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program to assist American workers adjust to the demands of globalization, will have a dramatic and positive impact on job-creation here at home.

Colombia is a country of 45 million people, about the same population as South Korea, with a large and growing number of middle-class consumers. It is the second-largest market in South America for U.S. farmers and the third-largest market for U.S. manufacturers.

But while Colombia has historically enjoyed duty-free access to the U.S. market, our goods are subject to significant tariffs in Colombia. American farmers face an average tariff of roughly 30 percent in Colombia, and U.S. manufacturers face an effective tariff of 14 percent. These tariffs have hit American workers hard during the greatest recession in a generation.

The FTA would eliminate these tariffs on U.S. goods. It would reduce the cost of high-quality U.S. agricultural exports, including wheat, beef, barley, peas, lentils, and seed potatoes from my home state of Montana. And it would reduce the cost of goods produced by U.S. manufacturers that send products to Colombia, nearly 90 percent of which are small and medium-sized businesses.

But as the United States has delayed approval of the FTA, signed by U.S. President George W. Bush and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe in 2006, American exporters have lost ground in the Colombian market. Meanwhile, China and other countries are surging ahead. Over the last two years, U.S. farmers have lost $1 billion in sales to Colombia. Argentina overtook the United States last year as the largest agricultural exporter to Colombia. Since 2002, China has tripled its share of the Colombian market and is now that country’s second-largest trading partner. Each day we fail to act costs jobs and dollars in the American economy.

Many U.S. supporters of the FTA have touted the political and national security benefits of the agreement. The FTA will indeed fortify relations with one of our closest allies in the world in a critical region. These benefits are key, but we cannot overlook the economic gains from this agreement. 

American workers and many others have voiced concerns about violence and labor rights issues in Colombia, concerns which I share. But the significant progress Colombia has made in reducing violence and strengthening labor rights is encouraging. The Labor Action Plan agreed to by the United States and Colombia on April 7 will continue and accelerate this progress. Under the Action Plan, Colombia will hire and train 480 new inspectors to ensure that labor rights are strongly enforced, and Colombia will enact legislation to increase penalties on employers that undermine basic labor rights. The Action Plan also will help protect union members from violence and bring the perpetrators of violence to justice. Colombia has also agreed to expand an existing program that protects labor leaders from violence to include labor activists as well. And Colombia has agreed to dedicate 95 additional investigators to cases involving crimes against union members and activists.

In addition to the Labor Action Plan, the FTA itself will further Colombia’s progress by providing clear protections for fundamental labor rights. Those protections will be fully enforceable. In fact, the U.S.-Colombia FTA has far stronger labor provisions than the trade agreements that Colombia has signed with any other country, including Canada.

While we work to pass the FTA, we cannot neglect American workers’ need for Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), which expired in February. TAA creates job opportunities here at home and strengthens our economy, providing assistance to workers in industries affected by global trade and preventing layoffs by helping trade-distressed companies retool and become more competitive. TAA also retrains workers for an increasingly globalized economy. Because of TAA, American workers can enroll in community college or earn a bachelor’s degree in growing, cutting edge industries like health care and high tech manufacturing.

TAA puts people back to work — people like Larry Netzel. Larry is a sophomore in the Welding and Inspection Program at Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell, Montana. Larry isn’t training for his first job, but he certainly hopes he’s training for his last. Larry is 64 years old. He worked at an aluminum company for 40 years. But in 2009, the company shut down and laid off nearly 200 workers due to pressure from increased imports. Because of TAA, Larry has the opportunity to train for and secure a new, good-paying job.

There is support on both sides of the aisle and in the administration for TAA and the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement. We should work together right now to pass these two trade measures to help create jobs at home, regain lost ground, restore our global leadership, and seize new opportunities for American workers.

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