February 1, 2013—Since 2007, 64 trade unionists have been murdered in Guatemala, and hundreds more union leaders and members have been kidnapped, tortured and threatened with death—all part of an ongoing pattern of violations against worker rights, according to Britain’s Trade Union Congress (TUC). Only a small fraction of these incidents have been investigated, and 98 percent of these crimes have not been punished.
A banana worker labors in Izabal, Guatemala, where several trade unionists have been assassinated over the past several years. Photo: Solidarity Center
Over the past 20 years, the international community has appealed to the Guatemalan government to address serious human rights violations, to little effect. The TUC now is adding its voice in urging the International Labor Organization (ILO) governing board to establish a special inquiry commission—its highest investigative body—to push for needed reforms. Last June, 10 worker delegates to the ILO’s Labor Conference, from Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas, filed a request with the ILO for such a commission.
Guatemalan unions have sent detailed recommendations for improved labor rights compliance to its government, filed under the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) complaint process. In 2008, six Guatemalan trade unions filed a complaint about the suppression of worker rights under the trade agreement. The case advanced to the dispute resolution phase in 2011 and is still pending.
Members of Guatemala’s Union of Izabal Banana Workers (SITRABI) are particularly threatened. In 2011, four of the 10 trade unionists murdered in Guatemala were from SITRABI, a long-time Solidarity Center partner, and the murder of SITRABI members continued into 2012. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) 2012 Survey of Trade Union Rights described Guatemala as “characterized predominantly by human rights violations,” as the “right to life of trade union, rural and indigenous community leaders and human rights defenders continued to be violated.”
Meanwhile, the Guatemalan government has for several decades supported the maquila (light manufacturing) industry through tax holidays and the failure to enforce its labor laws. Any company exporting more than 51 percent of production can be classified as a maquila and so qualify for significant tax breaks. Although the law requires businesses to respect labor law to receive tax breaks, employers are rarely penalized for retaliating against workers who seek to form unions, even though employer tactics include targeted or mass firings, death threats, blacklists or plant closings (and sometimes reopening elsewhere under a new name).
For example, at the Ternium aluminum processing plant in Villa Nueva, Emeterio Nach was among workers fired in recent months after seeking to form a union. “Management used to tell us they can do whatever they want with the workers,” said Nach, speaking through a translator. “They didn’t care about the Ministry of Labor or inspections or anything. I could never take a day off.”
Nach’s experience is all-too common for Guatemalan workers who, when seeking to improve their wages and working conditions, lose their jobs and, sometimes, their lives.