Unions in Mexico and throughout Latin America are speaking out against anti-union violence in the wake of threats made against two women leading efforts to win a historic union election. Voting began yesterday and continues today at a pickup truck plant in Silao, Mexico. Over 6,000 workers have the chance to elect an independent union and enjoy real collective bargaining for the first time ever. Labor leaders and activists from Mexico, Brazil, the United States and Canada demonstrated outside the plant in support of the democratic union. Other unions in the region sent solidarity messages and letters to the Mexican government denouncing the threats.
In August, workers at the Silao plant voted to throw out the contract held by the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) for the last 25 years. The National Independent Union for Workers in the Auto Industry (SINTTIA), supported by the Solidarity Center, emerged from a popular movement urging workers to reject the CTM contract. In a three-year struggle, SINTTIA built a sizable following, leading efforts to throw out the sham contract and increasing its chances of winning today’s election.
However, independent labor activists face threats of violence. Just before voting began, three individuals threatened SINTTIA leader María Alejandra Morales Reynoso and her family with harm if she showed up to vote.
“They just came by my house, two men and a woman, telling me to send a statement saying neither I nor any other worker should show up tomorrow, or if not there will be problems,” said Morales Reynoso.
Later, Claudia Juárez López, SINTTIA secretary, and her family received threats through Facebook and WhatsApp.
Argentina’s Women’s Council of Union Power issued a statement calling on the Mexican government to take measures to protect the safety of union activists and their families; conduct a “comprehensive, exhaustive and impartial investigation” into the threats and identify those responsible; and take steps to ensure the integrity of the election and prevent harassment, threats and intimidation of union workers voting in the election.
In Honduras, the Network Against Anti-Union Violence sent a letter to the Mexico Consulate in San Pedro Sula, requesting that the government guarantee the integrity of the election and the lives and safety of labor activists.
The Network of Labor Rights Defenders of Guatemala issued a statement that read in part, “We call on Mexican authorities to guarantee a favorable environment for workers to freely express their choice of union representative without fear.”
#SomosSINTTIA | All our solidarity with the @SINTTIA (Mexico) and the companions Alejandra and Claudia, leading women who together with their families have been death threats in the framework of a process for the choice of representation.
The Nicaragua Domestic Workers Federation posted a statement in support labor activists, saying, “We position ourselves against all kinds of violence suffered by the members of the Union, we request that the will of the workers of the plant be respected.”
Brazil’s Central Única Dos Trabalhadores (CUT) issued a statement demanding protective measures from the government, stating, “an independent union that obtains its power from workers is necessary to build a future for their families and all Mexican workers.”
Clément Voule, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly, tweeted in response to reports of threats against union activists in Mexico.
1/2 #Mexico I received disturbing reports of death threats against ind. trade union leaders, both women, and their families in connection to an imminent vote at the GM assembly plant in #Silao following 3 yrs of struggle for an independent union & collective bargaining agreement.
2/2 #Mexico An election for union representation cannot be carried out in the context of threats and intimidation. I call on the Mexican authorities to ensure an environment conducive for the 6,000 workers to freely express their choice of union rep without fear. @STPS_mx
This is the first high-stakes union election brought about after Mexican workers rejected a sham contract. A 2019 Mexican labor law reform required by a trade deal with Canada and the United States aims to challenge the power of labor organizations that have long signed deals without workers’ knowledge or consent. The reform requires contract “legitimation” votes to occur before May 2023, creating an opening for representative unions.
For decades, Mexican workers have had little to no say in which unions represented them. “Protection unions” have drawn their power from alliances with politicians and employers, whom they placated by keeping wages low, while collecting dues and accumulating wealth and power. The CTM formed part of Mexico’s ruling party. Its leaders signed contracts with companies before plants were even opened, and kept workers in the dark about the union and its negotiations.
Mexican auto workers earn a fraction of what their American, Argentine, Brazilian or Canadian counterparts make. They earn much less than the few Mexican autoworkers who are members of independent unions. Low wages spurred an exodus of investment, auto plants and jobs from other countries in the Americas to Mexico. A victory for SINTTIA could mark the beginning of a fundamental shift, keeping wages from bottoming out for workers in many countries in the region.
The case arises out of a collective dispute in 1996 when efforts by the Union of Workers of the Judicial Body to negotiate a new collective agreement failed. The union went on strike in March 1996, having complied with the procedures but before the General Inspectorate of Labor had confirmed two-thirds of the workers supported the strike—the legal requirement in the Labor Code. The Attorney General obtained an injunction declaring the strike illegal, and the employer subsequently fired those who had participated in the strike. In 1999, the Supreme Court confirmed the dismissals, leading the union to take the matter to the Inter-American Commission in 2000. The commission rendered its decision on the merits in 2019, and the matter was referred to the court in 2020 for a final, binding decision.
Unions in Guatemala and throughout Latin America are hailing the decision. César Guerra, secretary of Labor and Conflicts at the Union of Banana Workers of Izabal-SITRABI, calls the court decision “an important precedent for the country’s labor judges to rule in accordance with our rights, especially on a subject as stigmatized as the strike.”
The decision “sets an important precedent for the country’s labor judges to rule in accordance with our rights, especially on a subject as stigmatized as the strike,” he says. Exploitation and abuse of worker rights is widespread on banana plantations throughout Guatemala.
The Inter‑American Court of Human Rights is an autonomous judicial institution created to apply and interpret the American Convention on Human Rights. The seven court members come from countries that comprise the Organization of American States.
“This is an important decision on the right to strike, not only for Guatemala, on which it is directly binding, but also because it sets an important precedent for the rest of the region and the world,” says Jeff Vogt, director of the International Lawyers Assisting Workers (ILAW) network. “Importantly, the court ordered Guatemala to amend its labor laws concerning the right to strike to prevent repetition.”
ILAW submitted an amicus brief in support of the workers and focusing on the right to strike, an internationally recognized right protected by International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 87 and now by the American Convention. ILAW was established in 2018 by the Solidarity Center.
The decision was hailed by Guatemalan unions. “As the SITRABI union, we feel extremely satisfied with the ruling of the Inter-American Court in favor of Guatemalan workers and trade unionism, which, despite arriving 25 years later, sets an important precedent for the country’s labor judges to rule in accordance with our rights, especially on a subject as stigmatized as the strike. And we hope, as stated in the judgment in its Reparations section, that the pertinent steps be taken to ensure that the ‘guarantees of non-repetition’ are fulfilled and that the right to strike of Guatemalan workers is effectively respected,” explains César Guerra, secretary of labor and conflicts at the Union of Banana Workers of Izabal.
No Law Can Prevent Basic Right to Strike
In its ruling, the court explained that the right to strike is protected by ILO Convention 87—a point that employers have been contesting since 2012. It went further to say that the right to strike is a general principle of international law. Further, the right to strike is directly justiciable under the American Convention and the obligation is immediately enforceable.
With regard to Guatemalan labor law, the court explained that “the conditions and prerequisites that the legislation establishes for a strike to be considered a lawful act must not be complicated to the point of making a legal strike impossible in practice.” The court further explained that, “While conditions for exercising the right to strike can be laid down in the framework of collective negotiation, these conditions must be reasonable and at no time should affect the essential content of the right to strike, or the autonomy of trade union organizations.”
Where unions establish collective bargaining, they initiate the strongest mechanism for protecting agricultural workers’ rights, health and dignity according to a new report prepared for the Solidarity Center by researchers at Penn State’s Center for Global Workers’ Rights (CGWR).
“Fighting for Work with Dignity in the Fields: Agriculture Global Supply Chains in Morocco, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico,” seeks to understand employment relations in agricultural global supply chains and the struggle for dignity and empowerment of workers who are providing the world’s food. The report analyzes five agribusiness sectors including palm oil in Colombia, bananas in Guatemala, strawberries in Mexico, and grapes, olives and wine in Morocco.
In all four countries and five sectors, workers’ collective action has been “almost entirely responsible for increasing respect for workers’ rights” in a context where: 1) governments are constraining worker rights in favor of maximum employer flexibility in support of national, export-oriented development policies and, 2) global retailers are putting downward pressure on wages by curtailing the amount of capital that production workers might negotiate over with their employer for wage increases.
In Colombia, unions negotiated agreements that increased direct hiring by three palm oil production companies, pushing back against the sector’s rampant use of labor subcontracting, which denies subcontracted workers union representation and provides them lower pay and more precarious work.
In Guatemala, union representation in the banana sector means employer compliance with laws on working hours, remuneration, provision of personal protective equipment, voluntary overtime, protection from sexual abuse and freedom of association.
In Mexico, while not achieving collective bargaining, the 2015 strike during strawberry harvest compelled employers to increase wages and registration workers in the national social security system, e.g., toward compliance with laws requiring living wages and consistent registration.
In Morocco, the country’s labor law is enforced in grape, wine and olive oil production due to the agreement secured for workers by the Confédération Démocratique du Travail (CDT).
Addressing inequality and gender-based violence and harassment
Women, who comprise between 50 percent and 70 percent of the informal workforce in commercial agriculture, are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment, physical abuse and other forms of gender-based violence at work. Unions are addressing the gender-based violence that is common in all five sectors studied, as well as gendered pay discrimination and division of jobs that reduces women workers’ earnings, as follows:
In Guatemala’s banana sector, women workers covered by union contracts report 50 percent less incidence of sexual harassment than peers at nonunion plantations because union women “can inform the company,” a female unionist explained.
Women in Mexico’s strawberry sector reported that the 2015 strike helped reduce sexual abuse at work.
While Moroccan law does not prescribe comprehensive equitable treatment, women’s participation in CDT negotiations with Zniber-Diana resulted in clauses requiring equity.
Although union density remains extremely low in all sectors studied, the report concludes that, “[w]here workers are able to unionize and collectively bargain, conditions improve, wages increase and gender-based violence is curtailed,” and that increased union density and collective bargaining coverage will expand these improvements.
Where unions establish collective bargaining, they initiate the strongest mechanism for protecting agricultural workers’ rights, health and dignity. Through analysis of five agribusiness sectors—including palm oil in Colombia, bananas in Guatemala, strawberries in Mexico, and grapes, olives and wine in Morocco—this report seeks to understand employment relations in agricultural global supply chains and workers’ struggle for dignity and empowerment.
Unionized workers on Guatemala banana plantations earn more, work fewer hours, face less sexual harassment, and have safer workplaces, including during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a Solidarity Center report. (The report also is available in Spanish.)
Working conditions are very similar to modern slavery at the two-thirds of Guatemalan banana plantations not unionized, said César Humberto Guerra López, national secretary of labor and conflicts for SITRABI (Union of Banana Workers of Izabal). “The Labor Ministry and the courts are guardians of business interests, they are not on the side of the workers.” Guerra spoke at a Solidarity Center panel event yesterday to discuss the report’s findings. (Watch the full event here.)
While plantation workers in the North on average are paid $2.52 an hour, those along the Pacific Coast in the south are paid $1.05 an hour, said Mark Anner, director of the Center for Global Workers’ Rights and professor of labor and employment relations at Pennsylvania State University. Anner is author of the report, which surveyed 210 workers between September 2019 and March 2020.
“Workers without trade unions around the world, and Guatemala in particular, have lower paying jobs, more dangerous jobs, jobs with abuse and fewer rights,” said Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau in the panel’s opening remarks. “So what difference does a union make? It makes all the difference to workers in Guatemala.”
Far More Sexual Harassment at Nonunion Banana Plantations
Irís Munguía discussed the challenges women on banana plantations face when they don’t have a union to advocate for their rights. Credit: Solidarity Center
In one of the report’s most notable findings, 59 percent of women surveyed in non-union banana packing plants say they face sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence at work compared with 9 percent of women at unionized packing plants. Non-union workers are 81 percent more likely to face verbal abuse than union workers.
“If a woman reports someone who is harassing her, that woman could be fired. Because he’s the boss and we are the workers,” Irís Munguía said, speaking through a translator. Munguía, women’s coordinator of the Honduran Federation of Agro-industrial Unions-FESTAGRO, was the first woman coordinator of COLSIBA, the Latin American coordinating body of agricultural unions.
The report cites Carmen, a SITRABI union leader, who says sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence are much lower in unionized facilities because unions hold employers accountable. “If a man touches me, I can inform the company. Managers have been fired [for sexual harassment]. There is more respect now. And if someone doesn’t respect us, the issue goes to the union-management committee.”
Banana Workers Killed for Seeking to Form Unions
Workers have not formed unions in the south because “there is fear, panic to organize in a union,” according to Guerra. He said that when workers in the southern region last attempted to form a union in 2007, one union leader was killed and the daughter of another union leader raped, while other union activists received threats. “The consequences of fear continue to be very palpable for the workers,” he said.
Anner said his research found that between 2004 and 2018, 101 union activists were killed in Guatemala for trying to form unions and achieve decent work. The majority of those murders took place in the Southern part of Guatemala, in the regions where non-union banana plantations have expanded in the last two decades.
With no unions to champion worker rights, banana plantations and packing plants in the south do not comply with laws limiting working hours, regulating wages or ensuring safety, Guerra said. Workers labor 12 hours a day, Monday through Saturday.
Agricultural and production facilities have moved work to the south to pay the lowest wages. As the report makes clear, the root causes for the push for low wages goes to the top of the supply chain. “Fruit companies no longer wield power in the production process, that power is slowly being displaced by mega supermarkets that constantly look for ways to squeeze prices,” the report says.
“Wal-Mart requires such low prices that multinational corporations are pushing the directly owned facilities in the north to outsource to the south,” Anner said. And that means seeking out plantations in a nonunion region where wages are brutally low.
The report also finds that all production facilities that engage in worker rights violations have been inspected by private certification programs, including by Global G.A.P. and Rain Forest Alliance. “Management tells workers what to say to the certification inspectors before the inspectors arrive,” the report finds.
The Union Difference
Guerra and Munguía, long-time union leaders who began working on banana plantations in their teens, shared their successes in helping workers achieve their rights through unions.
In the north, SITRABI has 17 negotiated collective agreements, and wages at one plantation, a Del Monte subsidiary, are three to four times higher than at non-union facilities, Guerra said.
Munguía described a landmark regional agreement COLSIBA negotiated with Chiquita that ensures zero tolerance for sexual harassment and gender-based violence at work. The agreement covers banana workers in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama. The agreement shows “the importance and the great difference in belonging to the union and not being unionized.”
“Dignity on the job and just livelihoods—this is something we can reach only through union organizations,” Munguía said.
Joell Molina, Solidarity Center trade union strengthening director, moderated the panel. The report was commissioned by the Solidarity Center under the USAID-funded Global Labor Program and written by Center for Global Workers’ Rights/School of Labor and Employment Relations at Penn State University, is co-published by the Center for Global Workers’ Rights.
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