When Emeterio Nach suffered a shoulder injury at his job, he asked his supervisor at the Ternium aluminum processing plant in Villa Nueva, Guatemala, for time off to see his doctor. After the supervisor denied his request, Nach asked again. The supervisor continued to refuse, finally telling Nach he would be fired if he kept asking—and would be fired if he were sick because the factory needed healthy workers.
The 250 workers at the Villa Nueva plant frequently experienced such treatment, leading Hernández, along with his co-workers, to create a union, SITRATERNIUM (Ternium International Guatemala Worker’s Union). They filed for registration of organization in March with the Ministry of Labor.
As a result, the company immediately fired dozens of workers, including Nach. The firings violate Guatemalan labor code (Article 209) as well as international labor standards relating to freedom of association and the right to unionize.
“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 worked more than four years at the factory, helping produce metal beams, and said if the workers do not put in 12 hours a day, seven days a week on the job, Ternium fires them.
Workers and management met in six mediation sessions in April and May, but the company refused to negotiate. Ternium reinstated 10 of the 27 workers in July, but workers say they have been threatened against speaking of the union to others. One says he was suspended for eight days for speaking to a colleague about the union during his lunch break. Others have been ostracized, isolated and harassed at work.
The Guatemalan Ministry of Labor registered the union in August, granting it legal recognition and enabling the fired workers to seek reinstatement and require Ternium to abide by Guatemala’s labor code. Ternium has asked the court to dismiss the workers’ petition. The case now is tied up in court.
Meanwhile, Nach and other fired workers, like Enrique Arana and Vicente Carias, are taking odd jobs to scrape by—Carias sells ice cream on the street, Arana makes a little money as a barber. All are having trouble paying rent, water and electricity. But it’s the children who are suffering the most, the men say. Children cannot take final exams until their families pay school fees and often cannot finish the school year. They describe with sadness how Walter Ignacio Rodríguez Gómez, who had more than three years on the job at Ternium before he was fired for his union support, had to pull his 8-year-old son out of school. They believe the company has blacklisted them because similar factories will not hire them.
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) recently described Guatemala as among the worst violators of worker rights in the world today. Not only are workers routinely fired for asserting their rights at work, increasingly, they are threatened, tortured or murdered. Six banana workers active in their union were killed over the past year and a half.
As a result of decades of repression, fewer than 2 percent of workers are union members. In June, workers from around the world filed a complaint with the International Labor Organization (ILO) urging Guatemala to respect the right of freedom of association.
Nach says he and his co-workers are “eager and willing to continue with the fight.”
But they need the help of the global union community. Take action now: Write to Paolo Rocca, chairman of Ternium S.A., and demand that his company comply with the Guatemalan Labor Code and international labor practices.
And make sure the workers know you support them—Like SITRATERNIUM at its Facebook page.
The Solidarity Center spoke by telephone with Emeterio Nach, Enrique Arana and Vicente Carias.