Textile workers at a meeting in Arequipa, where union leader López was fired after a successful contract campaign. Credit: Milko Sotomayor
José López Mota, former leader of a textile workers’ union local in Peru and current general secretary of the regional textile federation FERRETEX, was fired on February 10, 2014. He was dismissed after the union achieved a collective bargaining agreement in late 2013 for allegedly missing more than 15 days of work without permission. However, López was conducting union business during those days, using legally mandated union leave.
López led a highly visible campaign at the garment and yarn manufacturing factory where he worked, calling for management to negotiate a fair collective bargaining agreement. The union’s peaceful work stoppages that followed more than six months of labor-management negotiations were ultimately successful in gaining workers a collective bargaining agreement.
“They want a leader who does not speak up. I fought for union rights and alongside my brothers and sisters, we achieved two significant improvements in the two years that I was in charge,” López told Peruvian newspaper La República.
Last month, the union held elections in which López was replaced as general secretary. Although he continues to serve as the general secretary of the regional textile federation, he no longer is protected by “union immunity” (fuero sindical) extended to workplace union leaders.
The factory management says López took days off without permission. During that time, López used his protected right to take union leave to help conduct contract negotiations and attend labor conciliation meetings with company participation at the Arequipa regional labor directorate. But because he did not always ask for days off in writing, he has no paper trail to prove he was absent for legitimate union work.
“These methods (of repression) that were common practice in the past no longer generate the effect desired by employers who continue in this retrograde mentality,” said Geronimo López, Arequipa Region secretary-general of the Confederación General de Trabajadores del Perú (CGTP). The CGTP is one of Peru’s four main union federations. “On the contrary, to confront these anti-union actions, workers understand that they need to strengthen their unity and act with even greater commitment to defend their rights.”
Peruvian labor federations and international organizations are concerned about this violation of International Labor Organization (ILO) Conventions 87 and 98 (freedom of association and freedom to form a union and collectively bargain), and the intimidation tactics used to silence a labor rights defender in Arequipa’s booming textile and apparel sector.
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.
Public employees in Peru rally against a civil service law that takes away collective bargaining rights (above and below). Photos: Marcela Arellano Villa
Seeking to reach a collective bargaining agreement with the Peruvian government, three public-sector union confederations presented a joint petition to government officials in recent days. The bargaining proposal includes the freedom for workers to form unions, and stresses that worker rights should not be negated even though civil service is a “vocation and calling.”
Peruvian unions took inspiration from their brothers and sisters in Colombia, Argentina and Uruguay, who have negotiated similar industry-wide collective bargaining agreements.
The industry-wide bargaining proposal “is an opportunity to advance respect for freedom of association and collective bargaining in the public sector, which are currently under threat,” said Jorge Villa Garcia, deputy secretary general of the National Federation of Administrative Workers in the Education Sector (FENTASE). “It’s a chance for us to negotiate fair wages and establish agreements that will prevent conflict and help us build a better Peruvian civil service.” Villa Garcia is also Public Services International (PSI) coordinator for Peru
Last July, the government passed a new civil service law that eliminated the right of more than 500,000 public administration workers to collectively negotiate salaries, narrowed the definition of the type of unions they may establish and prevents “essential service” unions from striking (without defining essential services).
The International Labor Organization (ILO) has criticized the new law for its unfair restrictions on collective bargaining and the right to strike. Some members of the Peruvian Congress and human rights organizations have noted that portions of the law are contrary to international labor legislation and say it provides no mechanisms to promote the provision of quality public services. Three separate lawsuits charge the civil service law violates the constitution, and members of the Peruvian Congress have sponsored five bills to modify it.
Peru’s new civil service law is part of a “second generation” of neoliberal state reform that includes the country’s privatization of its health, education and other public services, actions that entail the elimination of many public-sector jobs, according to PSI. Public-sector worker rights are under attack in Latin America and elsewhere around the world, even as rising inequality and lack of jobs, especially for young workers, further limit the ability of working people to support themselves and their families.
The Solidarity Center actively assists public-sector workers in defending their rights across the Andean region, including in Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, and in coordination with PSI, the global union federation that represents public-sector workers worldwide.
Iraqi union leaders and Solidarity Center staff last May. Credit: Solidarity Center
Update: The draft version of Iraq’s new labor law emerged from Parliament in recent days but falls far short of protecting workers freedom to collectively bargain, according to Iraqi union leaders.
On Friday, Iraqi union leaders expressed their concerns to members of Parliament at a Solidarity Center-sponsored conference, and union leaders have written a letter to the Speaker of Parliament in which they detail the proposed law’s shortcomings. Read the letter in English and Arabic. The AFL-CIO also has written to the Speaker of Parliament expressing “deep disappointment” that the proposed legislation “contains several provisions that violate international standards.” Read the AFL-CIO letter.
January 10, 2014—The Iraqi Parliament is currently debating legislation that for the first time could contain worker rights protections in line with core labor standards, including freedom of association. The law would replace the 1987 labor law passed by Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The vote comes nearly a decade after the Inetrnational Labor Organization (ILO) first worked with the government of Iraq to draft new legislation. The ILO commented on drafts in 2007 and 2012, finding them severely inadequate in regards to protecting the rights of workers, in particular freedom of association.
Six major Iraqi labor unions, together with the Solidarity Center, have worked since June 2012 to bring proposed changes to the nation’s draft labor law in line with International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions. In addition, the Solidarity Center facilitated meetings among the unions and the labor committee in parliament, the Iraqi Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the ILO, which provided recommendations based on ILO conventions. The labor federations launched a public advocacy campaign for passage of the labor law, and have received strong support from the global labor movement, including global union federations, the AFL-CIO and the British Trade Union Congress (TUC).
On a parallel front, a new union law that would replace the 1987 Trade Union Law had its first reading in Parliament this week. The 1987 Trade Union Law bans public-sector unions, which include the majority of Iraqi workers, restricts union pluralism and allows government interference in internal union affairs.
The Solidarity Center has worked closely with the Iraqi labor movement to secure passage of the new trade union law that protects freedom of association for all workers. Parliament plans to hold its second reading before the end of January, after which Iraqi unions will advocate for Parliament to vote on it before the current session ends in April.
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