The Association of Floral Importers of Florida hosted a meeting in Miami on Wednesday with Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, Gabriel Silva, to show its support for a U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

The Free Trade Agreement, supported by Democrats and Republicans, grants U.S. exporters tariff-free access to the Colombian market. Supporters say this would boost U.S. competitivness and create jobs, while opponents dispute the job creation figures and say that Colombia must show it will respect organized labor and workers’ rights.

According to the Office of the United States Trade Representative, if the Free Trade Agreement is approved, “over 80 percent of U.S. exports of consumer and industrial products to Colombia will become duty free immediately.”

A statement issued by Proexport Colombia — the Colombian government trade bureau that promotes exports and tourism to the South American nation — and the Association of Floral Importers states that “Congress has reported that they have agreed to a path forward for the Colombia Free Trade Agreement (along with the agreements with Korea and Panama) that will hopefully be up for a vote when Congress returns to Washington in September.”

The statement adds that the flower industry provides about 6,000 direct jobs in Miami.

The Association of Floral Importers‘ Christine Boldt tells The Florida Independent that “89 percent of all flowers that come into the U.S. come through Miami in about seven flights a day on cargo planes,” supporting “the airlines, the handlers, the importing flower companies, the brokers, the transportation companies.”

“We have about 30 truck lines in the Miami area that just haul flowers in refrigerated trucks out of Miami throughout the United States and Canada,” she says.

According to Boldt the Obama administration, the U.S. Trade Representative and Congress have said that a trade agreement would generate about 250,000 jobs in the US.

“In my personal opinion, most of those U.S. jobs would be from growers of wheat, corn that the U.S. exports,” Boldt says. “There would be jobs mostly in small businesses and growing. It is very easy to start an importing/exporting company so those businesses would be able to provide more jobs to more people if they can export or import products duty-free.”

Vicky Gass, senior associate for rights and development at the Washington Office on Latin America, tells the Independent that the Economic Policy Institute issued a study that shows the Korean and Colombian free trade agreements would cost the U.S. more than 200,000 jobs. She says that studies have shown the U.S. lost more than 682,000 jobs thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement passed in the ’90s.

She is skeptical of the flower industry’s claims about job creation: “Where is the proof?”

Free Trade Agreement opponents have said human rights violations, the unresolved murders of union leaders and cheap labor in Colombia should delay the approval of the agreement. Boldt counters, “A lot of the people who actually state those issues are stating issues that occurred a long time ago. They are not [the] current situation.”

According to Gass, 17 labor activists in Colombia “have been murdered this year alone.” She says concerns about labor rights led the U.S. Trade Representative and the Colombian government to develop a Labor Action Plan. She says it “is a good idea” and “there are some important measures there,” and urges the U.S. to “wait for concrete results” before approving the trade agreement.

She cites the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement as a model; it included benchmarks to deal with labor rights issues.

“The Senate gave $60 million a year to implement this, and signed the Free Trade Agreement based on this plan alone, and yet you still see labor rights violations in all of the countries,” Gass says. “Guatemala is right up there with Colombia as far as violence against trade unionists; nothing has changed. Plans are all very good, but we need proof that people will not be killed for execrcising their right to freedom of association.”

Gass says the Colombian government, a stalwart U.S. ally in Latin America, “has been complicit in the murder and assassination of trade unionists, or unwilling to really do what it takes to reverse this situation.”

The United Steel Workers sent a letter (.pdf) yesterday to Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., that states: “This past weekend, the Washington Post ran a story, U.S. Aid Implicated in Abuses of Power in Colombia, highlighting how U.S. aid and assistance was diverted from the war on terrorism and drug- smuggling to actions to subvert the interests of justice, workers’ rights and civil society.”

Gerardo Cajamarca — who was granted asylum in the U.S. in 2004 and is a member of the International Mission of Sinaltrainal, the Colombian union of food industry workers — says that last week a leader of his union was shot at, and that in May, another leader was detained and tortured by the authorities.

Cajamarca says that Sinaltrainal opposes the Free Trade Agreement because Colombian economic policy of the last 20 years shows it is based on the exploitation of Colombian workers and does not respect environmental legislation.

USLEAP, a labor rights nonprofit, is also opposed to the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia, and has consistently denounced labor violations (.pdf) in the Colombian flower industry.

The Floral Importers Association’s Boldt says that the flower industry “started social and environmental programs almost 15 years ago for the workers and the farms,” and that Colombian “flower farms have very strict rules and regulations.”

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