By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A top senator on Friday urged the United States and Colombia to quickly craft a plan to resolve concerns about workers rights and anti-union violence that have long blocked approval of a free trade pact.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, in a speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in Bogota, said he was committed to winning approval this year of the trade deal, which is strongly opposed by U.S. labor groups.
He praised Colombia for steps it has taken to improve conditions for workers and to curb the number of murders of union members by illegally armed groups, but said concern about those issues was still a major obstacle.
"In the coming days and weeks, the United States and Colombia should develop a specific plan that builds on the tremendous progress to date in strengthening labor rights and prosecuting labor violence," Baucus said, according to the text of a speech that was released in Washington.
Colombia has a protection program that has helped reduce killings of union members by nearly 90 percent since 2002 and has a special unit to investigate and prosecute individuals charged with violence against labor union members, Baucus said.
"The homicide rate of union members is now nearly six times lower than the homicide rate of the general population. This is remarkable progress, but the death of even one union member is one too many," Baucus said.
The Montana Democrat and Senator Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the finance panel, have pressed U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk to outline the administration's ideas for moving forward on the Colombia agreement when he testifies before the committee on March 9.
The two countries signed the pact in November 2006, but it has languished in the face of stiff opposition from the AFL-CIO labor federation, a key Democratic Party constituent.
In comments filed in September 2009 with Kirk's office, the 12.2 million-member U.S. labor organization said it would take at least three years for Colombia to address its concerns.
Supporters of the agreement say Colombia has already made tremendous strides in reducing violence, and doubt the AFL-CIO will ever drop its opposition.
Since the November U.S. elections in which Republicans won control of the House of Representatives and increased their numbers in the Senate, President Barack Obama has put more emphasis on passing trade deals, a top priority of many business groups.
Obama is expected to formally submit a free trade agreement with South Korea to Congress in coming weeks.
The administration is also working to resolving remaining issues blocking a third deal with Panama.
A U.S. government team led by Kirk's office was in Colombia last week to make a fresh assessment of the situation there.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing by Vicki Allen)