The murder of Brenda Marleni Estrada Tambito, deputy coordinator of the Legal Advisory Committee of the Trade Union of Workers of Guatemala (UNSITRAGUA / HISTORICA), was a “cowardly criminal attack” according to the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA) union leaders, who strongly condemned her murder in a letter to Guatemala President Jimmy Morales Cabrera.
Estrada Tambito was shot five times and killed in Guatemala City June 19. She was followed from a bus terminal after dropping off her father, UNISTRAGUA leader Jorge Estrada y Estrada, who has been advising the negotiation of collective agreements in some of the banana plantations in the Department of Izabal. Several banana union leaders in Izabal have been murdered in Guatemala in recent years, and in 2014, 11 leaders from the UNSITRAGUA-affiliated banana workers’ union were fired on while at the plantation.
“This cowardly murder has again pushed families and the labor movement into mourning and reflects the climate and culture of fear of persecution and violent silencing that lingers in Guatemala and is suffered by workers, leaders and union officials,” TUCA (the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas) and its parent organization, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), wrote.
“This situation is intolerable.”
Union activists are frequent targets for violence and harassment in Guatemala. In the first quarter of 2016, one union member was murdered, another physically attacked and 12 instances occurred in which union activists were threatened or harassed, according to the Red de Defensores de Derechos Laborales (Labor Rights Defenders Network) in Guatemala.
Last year, the Network, a coalition of trade union confederations and human rights monitors, documented 14 incidents of anti-union violence in Guatemala, including the October 2015 murder of Mynor Rolando Ramos Castillo, a municipal worker in southeastern Guatemala.
62 Unionists Murdered in Guatemala in Eight Years
Some 62 union members and leaders in Guatemala have been murdered since the U.S. government pursued an April 2008 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 Office of Trade and Labor Affairs (OTLA).
In an unprecedented move, the U.S. government last year agreed to take Guatemala to international arbitration for violating worker rights under CAFTA. The action was the first time that a country has sought international arbitration against another for a violation of labor standards and followed Guatemala’s failure to implement an 18-point enforcement plan to address worker rights violations. More than eight years since filing the complaint, labor rights violations and attacks continue, as the arbitration panel has announced another delay.
TUCA and the ITUC are urging the government to take steps to ensure the safety of trade unionists and to investigate and punish those responsible for Estrada Tambito’s murder. Despite ongoing violence against union members—murder, torture, kidnappings, break-ins and death threats—few perpetrators are brought to justice.
Honduran union leader Victor Crespo is among Central American unionists threatened with death. Credit: IUF
The murder last week of Victor Manuel Crespo Puerto, father of Honduran union leader Victor Crespo, is the latest in a deadly turn for trade unionists in Central America. Already this year, two unionists have received death threats in Honduras, one unionist has been murdered in El Salvador and, in Guatemala, one unionist has been murdered and 11 others fired upon.
Since 2009, the year of the presidential coup in Honduras, 31 trade unionists, 57 rural workers and 28 journalists have been murdered there. This anti-union violence is part of climate of violence that gives Honduras the distinction of being the nation with the world’s highest per capital murder rate. Not coincidentally, Honduras also has the highest income inequality in Latin America.
Guatemala, where 65 trade unionists have been assassinated since 2009, now has surpassed Colombia as the most deadly nation in the world for union members. Most recently, Marlon Dagoberto Vásqez Lόpez, 19, a member of the construction worker union was murdered in January. Also last month, gunfire was sprayed on 11 members of the banana worker union as they held a meeting. The National Police never came to the crime scene and no one has been jailed for any such murders in recent years.
The murders and death threats are the culmination of “widespread violations” of workers’ most basic rights, said Stephen Benedict, director of the Human and Trade Union Rights department at the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Workers “daily contend with harassment, interventions from employers and government officials in union matters and ultimately death threats and assassinations.”
Crespo, leader of the port workers union Sindicato Gremial de Trabajadores del Muelle (SGTM), was threatened with death and in September, his home was attacked by armed men yelling that he should “stop making noise organizing stevedores.” He left the country soon after. His father and other family members were targeted this week by an armed assailant who ran them down.
Crespo’s colleagues in SGTM leadership are now receiving death threats. The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and SGTM believe they are connected to the union’s lawful request for a collective bargaining agreement at the port and workers’ request to receive their legally-required benefits. Despite meetings between the ITF and Honduran security and government officials, the government has taken no serious action to increase security nor act on SGTM’s requests for a collective bargaining agreement.
Other incidents in Honduras since January 1 include:
- Increasingly frequent and specific death threats against José Maria Martinez of the FESTAGRO banana and agricultural worker federation. Martínez, host of a daily trade union radio show for the past 20 years, worked closely with workers at the Tres Hermanas banana plantations as they pushed to win a collective bargaining agreement in the face of harsh employer repression.
- Intimidation and a death threat directed at Nolvia Aracely Paz Rivera, a member of the construction workers’ union SIGTRACOH and community leader in Cofradia. Hooded gunmen have circled her home where she lives with her three children. SIGTRACOH, a Solidarity Center ally, has been active in the community, meeting with workers interested in community development as well as broader engagement to restore democracy in the country. Members of the union have faced harassment, threats and violence.
Last November, Serafin Alas, another SIGTRACOH member in Cofradia, was murdered. Jacinto Cortez, an informal construction worker from the community, was killed earlier last year. Union leaders say nearby police have delayed their responses from 20 minutes to two hours after they receive calls for help.
The Solidarity Center joins Honduran and Guatemalan labor federations and the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA-CSA) in demanding prompt investigations of these attacks against union members, and has urged the governments of both countries to find the perpetrators and define a policy and actions to guarantee the life and physical integrity of union members and freedom of association.
A Guatemalan banana worker.
Earlier this month, on January 5, Guatemala’s first homicide of the new year took the life of 19-year-old Marlon Dagoberto Vásquez López, an active youth leader and member of the construction workers’ union, Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Construcción y Servicios de Guatemala (SINCS-G). His murder brought to 65 the toll of trade unionists assassinated in the country since 2007. Most of their murders have gone unsolved, making Guatemala the most deadly place to be a union member, after Colombia.
The Solidarity Center works with SINCS-G and other Central American unions.
Last Friday, 11 members of the banana worker union, Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Empresa Agropecuaria Omagua, S.A. Campo Verde I y II, held a meeting at their headquarters in Izabal, Guatemala. As they held their meeting, an unknown vehicle approached from the highway fronting the Honduran border and unleashed gunfire upon the plantation workers, shooting Juan DeDios Sagastume Rodas, secretary general for the union. Despite being immediately informed of the attack, the National Police never appeared at the crime scene and waited until the following day to interview the victim at the hospital.
Over the past three years, seven banana union leaders have been murdered in Guatemala. The country has recently committed to a Labor Enforcement Plan as it attempts to avoid arbitration for violating the labor chapter of the CAFTA-DR free-trade agreement. The U.S. government filed the labor complaint in April 2008 based on evidence provided by six Guatemalan unions and the AFL-CIO. The Guatemalan government also committed to the Workers’ Group of the International Labor Organization “to ensure the safety of workers, with effective measures to protect union members and leaders, and their property, from violence and threats.”
The astounding violence of the first weeks of 2014 against trade unionists in Guatemala must end. The American labor movement joins Guatemalan union federation UNISTRAGUA and the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA-CSA) to demand President Otto Pérez Molina ensure prompt investigations of these attacks against union members, find the perpetrators and define a policy and actions to guarantee the life and physical integrity of union members and freedom of association
In Honduras, a country where women laboring in fruit packing plants and textile factories endure especially difficult conditions, two union leaders are empowering women to take on important roles in their unions and their communities.
Irís Munguía began toiling at a banana packing plant at age 18, living on the banana finca (plantation) as a condition of employment. After 22 years at the plant, the longtime union activist now heads the Honduran banana and agricultural worker confederation, COSIBAH (Coordinadora Sindicatos Bananeros y Agroindustrales de Honduras), founded in 1993. Munguía also is the first female coordinator of COLSIBA, the Latin American coordinating body of agricultural unions.
Evangelina Argüeta Chinchilla also started work at a young age. At 15, she was hired at a maquila, where she toiled for nine years before being fired, likely for her work in the union. Now, Argûeta is coordinator of organizing maquila workers in the northern Choloma region for the General Workers Confederation (CGT), which includes seven unions that represent 10,200 maquila workers.
Speaking through a translator, both women described their painstaking efforts to develop awareness among working women and men about the rights of women on the job and in their unions. Munguia’s work began in the 1980s, when she was part of the local union, SITRATERCO. She and other women sought greater participation in the decision-making processes of their unions, but faced obstacles that included cultural norms dictating against women taking leadership roles. In the late 1980s, Munguía was selected by the International Labor Organization (ILO) as one of two women to take part in a training series on cultivating gender equality in the countryside. Those trainings took place every three months over two years.
She then began her decades-long work educating union members and empowering women, first through SITRATERCO and then COSIBAH. These “train-the-trainer” sessions reached an ever-larger group of workers. For instance, when Munguía held workshops for those on SITRATERCO’s women’s committee, participants returned to the plantations where they trained more women. Munguía and other women unionists have held countless trainings, many involving both women and men, in which gender equality issues are a subtext in education around literacy, media work or union governance. Munguía has gone on to help form a women’s coordinating committee in COLSIBA to reproduce across Central America what they have accomplished in Honduras. COLSIBA’s leadership practices what it teaches: Unions must elect at least one women for every COLSIBA committee.
“I hope to see more women participating in the country’s political processes, advocating for legislative proposals that will benefit us as women,” says Munguía. She also hopes leadership and empowerment training leads to “more women participating in union leadership positions, more women involved in the development of proposals and strategies that benefit women in their unions.”
Argüeta Chinchilla has taken a similar approach among women in the maquila industry. She and other women unionists hold leadership trainings with assistance from women’s rights organizations and the Solidarity Center. In one factory, for example, 43 women have participated in an entire education and leadership course, and Argüeta Chinchilla is now working with other unions to bring more women into the program. She hopes to see women “exercising power proportional to the numbers we represent in the world, in the labor movement.”
Honduran maquila unions have seen several successes in recent years, despite what activists say is increased government repression since a June 2009 presidential coup. In November 2009, Russell Athletic agreed to rehire 1,200 workers in Honduras who lost their jobs when the company closed the factory in an attempt to bust the union, after the union—with support from the Solidarity Center and the United Students Against Sweatshops—convinced 110 U.S. universities to cut their apparel contracts with Russell. And last year, Argüeta Chinchilla says workers formed two new unions in the apparel sector. At one garment factory, the new union signed its first collective bargaining agreement covering 1,200 workers.
Both women agree that the biggest challenge in developing women leaders is overcoming the machismo culture within unions. In Choloma, where five women are union leaders, Argüeta Chinchilla says they are reaping such success in their union education and outreach among maquila workers that even men have to admit they are doing good work. Munguia, who says men often see women’s leadership as an affront to them, says the key is to build consciousness among men by sowing seeds of support among a few men—“and of course, training women to stand up for themselves.”
A Guatemalan banana worker.
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.
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 disputeresolution 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 livees.