Women trade unionists in Indonesia and in Honduras and other Central American countries who are tackling gender-based violence at work often start by changing a culture of patriarchy within their own unions, according to speakers at a Solidarity Center-sponsored panel today in New York City.
Alexis de Simone, Robin Runge, Nurlatifah and Izzah Inzamliyah discussed strategies for ending gender-based violence at work. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“Unions in the past only focused on economic issues—gender-based violence issues have never been our priority,” says Nurlatifah, board member of the 341,000-member National Industrial Workers Union Federation (SPN–NIWUF) in Indonesia. But after she and other union leaders conducted an in-depth research project among women members that showed 81 percent had experienced gender-based violence, “the union tries to mainstream this issue into every activity the union conducts.”
Nurlatifah spoke on the panel, “Gender-Based Violence at Work and Social Protections,” co-sponsored by the Global Fund for Women, one of dozens of parallel events taking place this week in conjunction with the 63rd session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) meeting March 11–22. The CSW, a global policy-making body dedicated to promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women, this year is focusing on social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.
Alexis de Simone highlighted how women in Honduras have addressed gender-based violence in garment factories and farm fields,
In highlighting how workers are organizing and building power to confront gender-based violence in Central America, Alexis de Simone, Solidarity Center senior program officer for the Americas, says years of leadership training among women union members in Honduras’s garment and agriculture sectors has led to more than 80 women becoming union leaders. They now negotiate contracts that address key women’s issues like maternity leave, and in the agriculture sector, have developed a cross-border network that shares contract language that benefits working women.
The Solidarity Center assisted many of those programs in Central America “and now is working with our partners in 17 different countries to support women worker efforts to define gender-based violence at work and to make it a priority with their unions,” says Robin Runge, Solidarity Center senior gender specialist and panel moderator.
Runge described the global union effort to secure passage of an International Labor Organization standard (convention) that would address violence and harassment at work, with a special emphasis on gender-based violence. Final negotiations are slated for June.
Expanding the Campaign to End Gender-Based Violence at Work
The Solidarity Center is supporting training that addresses gender-based violence in 17 countries—Robin Runge. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
Women union leaders’ work challenging and addressing gender-based violence at work by focusing first on educating members and shifting union power dynamics that long favored men plants the seed for broader outreach.
Union leaders and members are now working toward passage of legislation in Honduras to address gender-based violence, says de Simone. And in Indonesia, SPN–NIWUF partners with some 50 organizations and unions in a nationwide campaign seeking government support for the ILO convention on gender-based violence at work. Meanwhile, the Indonesian Parliament “is actively supporting a campaign on gender-based violence because of the work the campaign has done to build consciousness,” says Izzah Inzamliyah, Solidarity Center program officer in Indonesia, who also helped translate for Nurlatifah.
Lawmakers would not have even considered such legislation before women across the nation raised their voices to end gender-based violence, she says.
The Solidarity Center is mourning the loss of Victor Hugo Quesada Arce, Solidarity Center project coordinator in Costa Rica, who died July 16 after a battle with cancer.
“Victor was always a dedicated, passionate and joyful person,” says Stephen Wishart, Solidarity Center director for Central America. “He helped give workers courage, armed them with knowledge, and helped them rely on each other and this global labor movement we are all part of to build better realities for themselves and their families.”
In his 30 years of strengthening unions and educating workers about their rights, Victor worked side by side with some of the most vulnerable and marginalized workers in the region. He helped revitalize plantation worker unions which primarily represent migrant workers in Costa Rica and which had been decimated by decades of anti-union assaults.
Victor came to the Solidarity Center five years ago as a worker rights advocate well-known across the region, and agriculture unions from throughout Central America have been sending tributes and an outpouring of appreciation for his many years of solidarity and support.
“We stand in solidarity and send hugs to friends, relatives of our brother Victor,” writes FESTAGRO, the agriculture union in Honduras. “People like you are one of a kind, and are always remembered.”
Guatemala is still one of the most dangerous places in the world for worker rights activists, with 14 incidents of anti-union violence documented and verified in 2015, according to a report issued today by the Worker Rights Defenders Network of Guatemala.
The incidents—including the October 2015 murder of Mynor Rolando Ramos Castillo, a municipal worker in southeastern Guatemala, and the sixth member of his union to be assassinated—were tracked by the Protection Unit of Human Rights Defenders-Guatemala (UDEFEGUA) and the Worker Rights Defenders Network in their ”Annual Report on Anti-Union Violence.” The group also documented the arbitrary and illegal detention of a trade unionist, anonymous death threats received by activists, and illegal firings and intimidation, including surveillance of the home of one trade unionist. Half of the cases involved public-sector workers.
Between 2004 and 2013, 70 trade unionists were assassinated in Guatemala, most with impunity. Only 18 cases from that period were investigated and successfully brought to trial. In November 2015, the Guatemala government reported to the International Labor Organization that the 52 other cases were still open.
The lack of credible police probes into harassment, threats and violence—including murder—against workers attempting to improve their working conditions, treatment and wages, and exercise their legal right to join a union has a dampening effect on workers’ voice. According to the report, when perpetrators of violence escape justice, human rights are denied and the right to freedom of association is co-opted, weakened, attacked and destroyed.
The Worker Rights Defenders Network of Guatemala was formed in 2014 to ensure observance and promotion of human rights in Guatemala. Its sister organization, the Network against Anti-Union Violence in Honduras, released its annual accounting of anti-union violence. Both organizations are Solidarity Center allies and received support to produce their reports.
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