US, Colombia Reach Agreement On Labor And Environmental Amendments

Thursday, June 28th 2007, 10:31 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Bush administration said Thursday it had reached agreement with the government of Colombia on amendments to address concerns about worker rights and the environment in a pending free trade agreement.

It marked the second successful conclusion to negotiations this week. The administration reached an agreement Monday with Peru on the same issues. Talks are still continuing with South Korea.

The administration is racing a Saturday midnight deadline to conclude all aspects of pending free trade deals with four countries before the president's authority to negotiate agreements under an expedited congressional review process expires.

The administration has asked for renewal of fast-track Trade Promotion Authority but the request faces strong opposition from lawmakers unhappy with the country's soaring trade deficits.

After they won control of Congress, Democrats demanded that four pending free trade agreements with Peru, Colombia, Panama and South Korea address concerns about protecting workers' rights and the environment if the administration wanted to see the deals approved by Congress.

In a statement, the top U.S. trade official, Susan Schwab, said that the amendments negotiated with Colombia, like those with Peru, conformed to the outlines of an agreement on these issues the administration reached with congressional leaders on May 10.

Officials said that discussions with South Korea were close to reaching a conclusion and a signing ceremony was expected to occur on Saturday in Washington.

``We are continuing to work with our Korean counterparts and look forward to the signing on Saturday,'' said Stephen Norton, a spokesman for Schwab.

Schwab said in a statement that the administration looked forward ``to working with Congress on the passage of all four of these important trade agreements.'' She had said earlier this week that the administration hopes Congress will approve the deal with Peru in July. Peru's legislature approved the labor and environmental amendments on Thursday.

The timing of passage of the free trade deal with Colombia is less certain because of stiff opposition to the pact among groups in the United States unhappy with Colombia's record on human rights.

Democrats in Congress contend that Colombia has a poor record on protecting the right of labor unions to organize. More than 800 trade unionists have been killed there over the past six years with few of the killings solved. Critics charge that allies of the Colombian government and top military generals have aided right-wing paramilitary groups who have murdered labor leaders and civilians in a more than decade-long reign of terror.