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Obama: labor deal paves way for U.S.-Colombia trade pact


President Barack Obama meets with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (L) in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, April 7, 2011. REUTERS/Jim Young
President Barack Obama meets with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (L) in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, April 7, 2011. REUTERS/Jim Young

By Alister Bull and Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said Thursday that a deal over labor rights had cleared the way to advance a long-delayed trade pact with Colombia, but he was silent on when he would send it to Congress for approval.

"Today I am very pleased to announce that we have developed an action plan for labor rights in Colombia," Obama told reporters in the White House Oval Office.

"We believe that this serves as a basis for us moving forward on a U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement," said Obama, sitting beside Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

Colombia has promised to improve protection of labor leaders and organizers targeted by right-wing groups in order to advance a pact stuck in the U.S. Congress for four years.

Obama is under pressure from Republicans to push forward with this deal and trade pacts for South Korea and Panama, but he faces resistance from his own Democrats and members of the U.S. labor movement.

With high U.S. unemployment likely to be a big factor determining his 2012 re-election prospects, Obama has been eager to promote trade as a source of economic growth and has vowed to double U.S. exports in five years.

The president pointedly declined to put any timeline for when he would send the pact to Congress for approval.

"There is obviously a lot of work to do to translate this action plan into reality and we are going to continue to engage with President Santos and his administration in an active process to ensure good working conditions to make sure that trade unionists are protected," Obama said.

Deputy Trade Representative Miriam Sapiro and Colombian Ambassador Gabriel Silva Thursday initialed the Colombian Action Plan Related to Labor Rights, U.S. trade officials said.

The Colombia's Ministry of Social Protection is required to take a number of steps by April 22, including issuing a hiring decree for 100 new labor inspector. The plan calls for 480 new labor inspectors to be hired over four years.

FIERCE UNION OPPOSITION

The two countries signed the trade pact in November 2006, when Alvaro Uribe was president of Colombia and George W. Bush was president of the United States.

Bush was unable to persuade a Democrat-controlled Congress to approve the agreement because of fierce opposition from the 12.2-million member AFL-CIO labor federation.

However, prospects for the pact have improved since Republicans recaptured control of the House in last November's election. They have been pressing Obama to send the agreement, and two other trade deals with South Korea and Panama, to Congress for a vote by July 1.

Obama, after fighting business on a number of issues during his first two years in office, also has moved toward the center on the free-trade agreements, which he opposed when running for president in 2008.

"This is going to be a win for Colombia. It is also going to be a win for the United States. This represents a potential $1 billion of exports and it could mean thousands of jobs for workers here in the United States," Obama said.

(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Philip Barbara)

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