By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Colombia on Monday took another step toward U.S. approval of a long-delayed free trade agreement with the completion of several labor and judicial reforms aimed at reducing opposition to the pact.
"We are pleased that Colombia is meeting its commitments," U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said in a statement announcing Colombia had met milestones slated to be done by June 15 under a plan the two negotiated to address long-standing concerns about workers' rights and anti-union violence in the Andean nation.
"We are eager to see Congress move the Colombia trade agreement forward as soon as possible along with the Korea and Panama agreements and a renewal of Trade Adjustment Assistance. It's time to seize the market-opening, job-supporting opportunities of the pending trade agreements for American businesses, farmers, ranchers and workers," Kirk said.
Earlier, Colombian's ambassador to the United States said he was optimistic Congress would approve the trade agreement by the end of summer.
"We are working hand in hand to get to that goal," Ambassador Gabriel Silva said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But, he added: "It has been very painful (for Colombia) to wait five years to get where we are."
The former defense minister said he believed Congress would soon approve the trade deal signed in November 2006 "first of all because of President Barack Obama's leadership and also because of his commitment to do so."
KEY U.S. LAWMAKER
Meanwhile, a key Democrat whose opinion could determine how hard Obama has to push members of his own party to vote for the controversial agreement has just returned from a trip to Colombia to assess labor conditions for himself.
Representative Sander Levin, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, has been one of strongest proponents of using the trade agreement as a carrot to encourage Colombia to make additional labor reforms.
Under the plan, Colombia committed to hiring 480 new labor inspectors, including 100 this year.
It also pledged a number of actions by June 15, including enacting laws to establish criminal penalties for employers who undermine the right to organize and bargain collectively.
Other actions due by then included publication of regulations prohibiting the misuse of worker cooperatives to circumvent labor rights; the start of an outreach program to inform workers of available remedies in labor rights cases as well as criminal penalties for employers who violate the law; and a series of inspections to ensure employers are not using temporary services agencies to thwart unions from forming and exercising their labor rights.
A major part of the plan requires increased government action to protect Colombian labor leaders and workers from deadly violence and intimidation through expansion of a government protection program.
Colombia has agreed to assign 95 additional full-time police investigators to focus on a backlog of unsolved murders of union workers.
The Colombian Prosecutor's Office was required by June 15 to develop a plan to establish and fund "victim's assistance centers" specialized in labor and other human rights cases.
The office also faced a June 15 deadline to issue guidance to prosecutors to accelerate action on those cases with leads and to provisionally close "cold cases."
Kirk said the United States would continue to monitor Colombia's implementation of other labor and judicial reforms it has promised to carry out through the end of the year.
Some of those are due in July and others in September, October and December. Colombia has until the end of 2014 to hire all 480 new labor inspectors.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer, Editing by Doina Chiacu and Eric Beech)