June 9, 2008 / 3:05 AM / in 9 years

Canada concludes Colombia free trade talks

TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada said on Saturday it had wrapped up free trade negotiations with Colombia and reached agreement on related labor and environmental issues, but the deal could raise criticism from opposition lawmakers concerned about the Andean country's human rights record.

Once implemented, the trade pact would improve access for farm and industrial goods and services trade between Canada and Colombia, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade said in a news release posted on its Web site.

The deal would also provide for more secure investments, it said. Talks on the agreement began in July 2007.

The agreements "will help solidify ongoing efforts by the government of Colombia to create a more prosperous, equitable and secure democracy," Canadian Trade Minister David Emerson said.

In Washington, a free trade agreement with Colombia negotiated by the Bush administration has bogged down in the House of Representatives, where Democrats have delayed a vote on the package. The AFL-CIO labor organization is fighting the pact because it believes Colombia has not done enough to stop murders of trade unionists and bring their killers to justice.

Canada's Conservative government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has shrugged off similar concerns at home, arguing it can have a positive influence on countries like Colombia by engaging them through trade and investment pacts.

Still, at the request of opposition parties, a parliamentary committee was set up to study the environmental and human rights concerns surrounding the talks with Bogota.

The agreements face legal and parliamentary reviews in both countries. After the review period, draft legislation will be submitted for approval by lawmakers.

The Canadian government said on Saturday the labor cooperation pact committed both countries to respecting the core standards set by the International Labour Organization, such as eliminating child labor and workplace discrimination, and ensuring the right to collective bargaining.

"This agreement, like the one that was signed by our government in Peru last week, contains some of the most comprehensive labor provisions to be found in any agreement anywhere in the world," Canadian Minister of Labour Jean-Pierre Blackburn said.

The agreement on the environment obliges Canada and Colombia to comply with and enforce domestic environmental laws and refrain from relaxing them to encourage trade or investment, the government said.

Trade between the two countries -- both major trading partners with the United States -- is substantial.

Last year, two-way merchandise trade between Canada and Colombia was $1.14 billion, the trade ministry said. Canada's direct investment stock in the Andean nation was $739 million.

LEVERAGE FOR BUSH

The United States signed a free trade agreement with Colombia in November 2006 shortly after Democrats took control of Congress.

Since then, the Bush administration has been unable to win approval of the pact because senior Democrats -- including the party's presidential candidate Barack Obama -- say Colombia should first do much more to stop violence against unionists.

The Bush administration hopes Canada's free trade deal will give it new leverage to press for a vote in Congress this year on the U.S.-Colombia pact. It argues that U.S. exports to Colombia will be put at a disadvantage if Canada has a free trade deal and the United States does not.

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has pressed for action on a number of domestic economic concerns before Congress votes on the Colombia agreement. The Bush administration has resisted that, arguing the Colombia agreement itself would help the economy by boosting exports.

Pelosi has been a long-standing critic of Colombian violence against labor unions and lagging environmental protections.

U.S. labor unions, an important constituency for Democrats, especially in this election year, are strongly opposed to the trade deal with Colombia.

Additional reporting by Doug Palmer in Washington; Editing by John O'Callaghan

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