Guatemala: Another Union Leader Murdered

Gunmen on a motorcycle assassinated another Guatemalan union leader on Friday, bringing to 87 the number of labor leaders murdered in the country since November 2004.

Tomás Francisco Ochoa Salazar, disputes secretary for the Bremen Union (SITRABREMEN), was leaving the meat-processing plant where he worked in Guatemala City when he was shot. Andy Noel Godinez, also a union member, suffered non-life-threatening injuries in the incident. Ochoa Salazar leaves behind a wife and three children.

SITRABREMEN is a young union. It filed for official recognition in July 2016, finally receiving notice of its acceptance by the Labor Ministry in February of this year. What followed, according to the union, was a campaign of retaliation, suspensions and harassment of union leaders and members. Its secretary general abruptly resigned in August shortly before the union submitted its collective bargaining proposal to the Labor Inspectorate.

Guatemala is one of the most dangerous places in the world for worker rights activists. While the country, as a member of the International Labor Organization, is obligated to uphold and respect freedom of association, union activists are often illegally fired, threatened, attacked and murdered, and the perpetrators of the crimes go unpunished. The government denies the murders of union members and leaders are connected to their worker rights activism.

“Union repression in Guatemala is intense, and fledgling unions are often harassed out of existence,” said Joell Molina, Solidarity Center Americas director. “The result is that workers suffer—from unsafe job sites to wage theft, from harassment to physical threats if they complain.”

In April 2008, the U.S. government pursued a complaint against Guatemala for violating the labor chapter of the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). The government acted after six Guatemalan unions and the AFL-CIO submitted a complaint with the U.S. Office of Trade and Labor Affairs. The labor dispute was settled in June 2017, against the workers, after the panel hearing the case decided the documented violations of worker rights were not affecting trade.

Also in June, retired farmworker Eugenio López, 72, was killed when gunmen fired on a peaceful gathering of mostly senior citizens who have been unable to receive health and pension benefits from the Guatemalan Social Security Institute (IGSS) because their employer, San Gregorio, had failed to pay into the system despite deducting from their wages for years.