In response to the unveiling of the Biden administration’s Presidential Memorandum on Advancing Worker Empowerment, Rights and High Labor Standards Globally, Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau issued the following statement:
“The Biden administration’s announcement today represents the first time the U.S. government has made a holistic commitment to global worker rights. If this new global labor strategy is fully resourced and implemented, the United States has a historic opportunity to play a critical role in reversing corporate- and government-supported exploitation of millions of working people and bolster democratic freedoms around the world.
“It is impossible to overstate the need for this long-awaited commitment to worker rights. In many countries where the United States has diplomatic, trade and economic development influence, workers’ ability to exercise everyday democracy—through the rights to form and join unions, strike and bargain together for fair wages and decent working conditions—is consistently repressed, often violently and sometimes fatally. In just the past two months, police allegedly shot and killed three garment workers and injured many more during protests for a higher minimum wage in Bangladesh; entered a labor union leader’s home in the Philippines, shooting him dead; and assaulted workers in Nigeria protesting over lost wages, seriously injuring the union’s leader. This new strategy to advance global labor rights is a roadmap for the U.S. government to expand its use of diplomatic and trade leverage and multilateral tools and settings to garner additional countries’ support for upholding worker rights.
“The U.S. government should use its direct influence or its convening power with other nations to address labor rights repression in places like Belarus and Myanmar, where unions fighting for democracy have been outlawed by their governments, their leaders and members beaten, jailed, sent into exile or killed.
“This all-of-government labor rights strategy should also focus on influencing labor laws and increasing employer accountability. Today, U.S. companies too often treat sourcing like a game of Whac-A-Mole, jumping from country to country when strengthened and enforced labor laws drive workers’ pay closer to a living wage. And, most of the 2 billion people who work in the informal economy, including agriculture and domestic workers, street vendors and drivers and delivery workers in the growing platform economy, have no access to health care, sick leave or support when they are injured or lose their jobs.
“The Biden administration’s trade approach in Mexico has the potential to be a game-changer for workers and an example of this new labor strategy’s potential impact. The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement includes a rapid response complaint mechanism unions are using to remedy worker rights abuses. Tying worker rights to U.S. market access and investing in independent union organizing has led to an unprecedented growth of democratic unions that represent workers’ interests and are winning wage hikes and safety improvements in factories that supply the U.S. market. Replicating this kind of approach to worker-centered trade policy should be a priority.
“We are hopeful that this commitment to global labor rights will mean workers are represented in conversations about how to sustain good union jobs in communities worldwide that are most impacted by the transition to a clean energy economy. We look forward to workers’ rights and livelihoods becoming front-and-center in conversations about the evolution of technology in the workplace. And, we look forward to expanded investment and prioritization of a worker rights approach to ending gender-based violence and harassment and other forms of exploitation on the job.”
Violence broke out on Wednesday, February 23, as Haitian police opened fire on garment workers demonstrating for higher wages and killed a reporter, according to witness reports. Two other reporters were injured at the scene in Port-au-Prince.
Maxihen Lazzare, who worked for Haitian media group Roi des Infors, died of his wounds at a hospital on Wednesday. Haitian police responded to Lazzare’s death in a press release saying they are launching an investigation and that the police are implicated.
The union coalition released a statement denouncing Wednesday’s violence and condemning “the kind of conspiracy of the police and employers to block the mobilization to force us to accept a minimum wage that cannot meet our needs so that they can continue to suck blood and exploit workers.”
Protests have been ongoing since Haitian workers staged a peaceful demonstration calling for an increase in the minimum wage earlier this month. In January, a coalition of nine trade unions issued an open letter to the prime minister seeking a minimum wage increase from 500 gourdes (about $4.82 a day) to 1,500 gourdes ($14.62). They noted that wages have been stagnant for years while the increasingly high cost of living and rising inflation were eroding workers’ ability to live with dignity.
In response to garment worker demands, the government mandated a new minimum wage earlier this week, bumping pay to about $6.53 a day.
In 2019, the Solidarity Center conducted a wage assessment, with Haitian workers and their unions, and found that garment worker wages then covered less than a quarter of the estimated cost of living.
Unions around the world are pushing back against anti-union violence. Earlier this month labor leaders from several countries stood against anti-union violence in Mexico.
Two union leaders in Honduras were murdered in 2019, and dozens more physically attacked, threatened and harassed for their activism in advocating worker rights, according to the just-released report, The Price of Defending Freedom of Association: A Report on Anti-Union Violence in Honduras. (Read the report in Spanish.)
Unions leaders took part in the online release of the report documenting anti-union violence in Honduras. Credit: Network Against Anti-Union Violence
Published by the Network Against Anti-Union Violence, the fourth annual report provides detailed case studies, including the murders of Joshua Sánchez, a maquila worker and member of the Workers’ Union of Gildan Villanueva S.A. (SITRAGAVSA), and Jorge Alberto Acosta, executive committee/board member of the agricultural Workers’ Union of the Tela Railroad Company (SITRATERCO). The Network released an online presentation of the findings via Facebook Live.
Acosta was murdered despite requesting the government provide protection, and his assassination drew international condemnation and a global petition to Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernandez demanding his assassins be brought to justice. As U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal tweeted: “The murder of Honduran trade unionist Jorge Alberto Acosta is a tragedy, and part of a disturbing trend against the trade union movement in the country.”
Between 2009 and 2019, at least 36 trade unionists were killed in Honduras. More than 97 percent of the cases of violence against human rights defenders in Honduras go unpunished.
Most of the violence in Honduras last year, including Sánchez’s murder, took place as unions and human rights groups protested measures to cut the country’s health and education budgets. Unions, professional associations and teachers in 2019 joined together to form the Platform for the Defense of the Right to Health and Public Education, which held rallies across the country to urge funding for these key social programs.
Six out of 10 Hondurans live in poverty (62 percent), while four out of 10 live in extreme poverty (38 percent). The vast majority work in the precarious informal economy jobs like market vending and domestic work, where they are paid low wages and have no social benefits like paid sick leave or pensions.
The most common violence recorded was harassment, according to the report. For instance, union leaders report being followed and photographed after attending union meetings by individuals unknown to them.
To address the ongoing violence against workers, the Network, a Solidarity Center partner, championed creation of an international body to investigate crimes against trade unionists and offer state security protection. As a result, the International Labor Organization (ILO) established an Inter-Agency Commission on Anti-Union Violence which was launched in August 2019. Yet so far, the commission “has not managed to meet any of its objectives which are to protect victims or to encourage the Justice System to promote criminal investigation and reduce impunity,” according to the Network.
The report also describes the Network’s creation of a new campaign, with Solidarity Center support, to ensure union collective bargaining agreements represent a gender perspective and its efforts to draft proposals to amend trade union statutes to ensure the equal participation of men, women and the LGTBI community.
At least five union activists were murdered in Guatemala in 2018, and union leaders and members in Guatemala and Honduras suffered dozens of incidents over the past year for standing up for worker rights, including restriction of union rights, intimidation, harassment, illegal detention, death threats and attempted murder, according to two new reports.
In Guatemala, union leaders and members reported 882 crimes to the Office of Crimes Against Trade Unionists, including coercion, kidnapping and murder. Yet there were only two convictions, according to the Annual Report on Anti-Union Violence in Guatemala. Incidents against union activists in Honduras were concentrated in the department of Cortés in northern Honduras, which includes the major industrial city of San Pedro Sula, as well as a key agricultural area where banana and palm plantation workers are struggling to win decent wages and working conditions.
Both reports recommend that unions prioritize registering incidents of violence against union activists, incorporate gender analyses to prevent and demand protection from gender-based violence and harassment at work, and urge the governments to work across agencies and departments to prevent union violence, protect victims and end impunity.
Honduran Agricultural Workers Targeted in 2018
Union leaders in the area from the agro-industrial union STAS, the banana union SITRATERCO and other unions represented 26 of the 38 total victims of anti-union violence between February 2018 and February 2019, according to the report, Resisting Anti-Union Violence in Honduras. Women who were targeted often received threats against their mothers and children, the report finds.
The number of incidents of anti-union violence has steadily increased since the network’s first report, from 14 in 2015 to 39 in 2017, with one less incident in 2018. Union anti-violence networks in Honduras and Guatemala, supported by the Solidarity Center, annually issue reports documenting violence and intimidation against worker rights activists.
Agricultural worker activists represented 86 percent of the victims of anti-union violence in Honduras, a startling shift from past years, when state and public-sector violence against union leaders and activists represented a majority of incidents, according to data in previous reports. The remaining incidents in 2018 were directed at public employees.
“Stopping the systematic aggressions like those faced by STAS, SITRASEMCA, SITRATERCO and SITRAINFOP is an urgent responsibility for the state of Honduras,” according to the report.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) held back-to-back hearings at the International Labor Conferences (ILC) in 2018 and 2019 on Honduras’s failure to abide by its international commitments. The ILC report in 2018, which expressed “deep concern at the large number of anti-union crimes, including many murders and death threats, committed since 2010,” urged the Honduran government to protect vulnerable unionists, investigate more than a decade of unsolved murders of union leaders and prosecute those responsible for the crimes.
Among union activists murdered in Guatemala, Domingo Nach Hernández, a member of the Workers’ Union of the Municipality of Villa Canales, was found dead in June 2018, days after being kidnapped. Soon before he disappeared, the union had won back the jobs of several workers who were illegally fired. Hernández had previously received death threats and reported them to authorities, according to the Guatemala report.
Freedom to Form Unions Under Attack
In 2014, Guatemala overtook Colombia as the deadliest country in the world for trade unionists. Since then, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has consistently named Guatemala one of the 10 worst countries in the world to be a worker, in its annual Global Rights Index, with a rating of 5—“No guarantee of rights”—on its 5-point scale. Honduras is similarly ranked. Countries with a 5 rating are the worst countries in the world in which to be a worker. While they may have legislation that spells out certain worker rights, workers effectively have no access to these rights and are exposed to autocratic regimes and unfair labor practices, according to the ITUC.
Violence is widespread in both countries, but attacks on worker rights activists specifically seek to weaken or eradicate the unions and their work to build citizenship, both reports note. Few perpetrators are brought to justice in either country, with only two convictions in 2018 for crimes against unionists in Guatemala, for example.
When workers seek to join unions and bargain collectively, violence is among the many obstacles they face, as employers harass and intimidate workers generally without repercussion, despite both countries’ stated support for worker rights.
“Freedom of association in Guatemala continues to be very limited, despite current legislation on human and trade union rights and the ratification of international agreements,” the Guatemala report states, noting that many worker rights activists who receive threats fear reporting it to the network for fear of reprisals.
Few Jobs, Low Wages Result in Endemic Poverty
With few jobs available in Guatemala and Honduras, workers in both countries are struggling to survive in the face of endemic poverty. According to the Honduran union anti-violence network, more than 2 million Hondurans live in conditions of “relative poverty,” while nearly 4 million live in “extreme poverty”—in a country with 9 million people. Some 80 percent of those who work are paid less than the minimum wage, the report says.
More than 70 percent of Guatemalans with jobs labor in the informal economy, with low wages, lack of job security and often dangerous working conditions. Nearly half of children younger than 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition, and almost 20 percent of the population cannot read nor write, according to the Guatemalan union anti-violence network, limiting opportunities for better-paying jobs.
The United States brought trade complaints against the governments of Guatemala and Honduras for failing to enforce their own labor laws under the CAFTA-DR trade agreement. The Guatemala case lasted eight years and, despite overwhelming evidence of systemic labor rights violations, an arbitration panel cited a lack of evidence that worker rights violations impacted trade. The Honduras complaint is still active, and the U.S. government is working with the Honduran government, employers and the labor movement on a worker rights monitoring and action plan.