Migrant Workers, Unions Fight for Decent Work in Latin America

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Construction unions and migrant workers met this week in Costa Rica. Photo coursesy of BWI.

This week, eight construction union federation from six South and Central American countries came together in Costa Rica to focus on migrant workers and the issues they face in order to help migrants working in construction to organize and to improve union capacity to expand worker rights for migrant and native workers alike.

The seminar, jointly assembled by the Solidarity Center and Building and Woodworkers International (BWI), allowed union representatives the opportunity to present best practices for organizing migrant workers and to speak directly with Nicaraguan day laborers who also are active members of the Costa Rican BWI affiliate, SUNTRACS.  Union leaders heard firsthand accounts of the daily challenges that Nicaraguan migrants face on the job and in Costa Rican society in general, where discrimination—including denial of treatment by the national health service for work-related injuries and receiving salaries that are below the national minimum wage—is a fact of life.

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), more than 5 million people currently live and work in Latin American countries other than those in which they were born. Once a phenomenon almost exclusively restricted to developed countries in the Northern Hemisphere, positive trends in economic growth and job creation have converted numerous Latin American countries—such as Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Costa Rica—into attractive destinations for migrant workers over the last decade. Nonetheless, the promise of decent employment in these countries in sectors including construction, domestic work and agroindustry has remained elusive, particularly for workers without solid knowledge of their own labor rights enshrined by national law and international norms.

On a regional level, BWI and its affiliates have helped migrant workers obtain legal migratory status and advocated for more transparent national immigration policies. Most importantly, they have organized protest actions against insecure work environments, long working hours and wage irregularities for migrant workers.

BWI has seen positive results from its outreach efforts to migrant workers. “Objective economic conditions in Latin America have given new life to construction unions in the Southern Cone. The current construction boom in Brazil, for example, parallels what we saw in countries like the United States and Spain before the 2008 economic crisis,” said Nilton Freitas, BWI regional representative for Latin America and the Caribbean. “Using this new leverage and employing better forms of cooperation among our affiliates, we now are in a more advantageous position to prevent migrant workers from being treated as second-class citizens in the construction sector in those countries.”

The Solidarity Center and Building and Woodworkers International (BWI) have been working together over the last three years to promote innovative policies to improve union outreach and organization of migrant workers in the civil construction sector in Latin America.  BWI’s pioneering role in the defense of immigrants who have sacrificed all to construct soccer stadiums in Brazil, skyscrapers in Singapore and offshore oil rigs in the Arabian Gulf was recently recognized by the AFL-CIO as the 2014 recipient of its prestigious George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award.