Mynor Rolando Ramos Castillo, a municipal worker in Jalapa, a city in southeast Guatemala, was shot and killed in front of his home over the weekend. His family detained the killer and turned him into the police. The killer confessed to accepting the hit for 1,500 quetzales (roughly $195).
Ramos Castillo was a union activist with the Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Municipalidad de Jalapa (SITRAMJ), the city workers’ union, and was among 183 workers disputing illegal termination who had won a labor court’s order of reinstatement. Ramos Castillo had been laid off, reinstated to his job and laid off again within the past two years, and was waiting for the city’s mayor to comply with the order to reinstate the workers and pay them back wages. Union leaders say Ramos Castillo and other laid-off city workers were targeted and harassed by city officials because they were active union members. He is the sixth member of his union to be assassinated.
70 Union Members Killed Since 2007
Ramos Castillo is the first union activist murdered this year in Guatemala, where some 70 worker activists have been killed since 2007. Last year, transport union leader Luis Arnoldo Lόpez Esteban was murdered in Jutiapa in May. Marlon Dagoberto Vásqez Lόpez, 19, a member of the young trade unionists’ network and the construction workers’ union, a Solidarity Center ally, was murdered in January 2014.
This year, Guatemalans waged months of public demonstrations, turning out in nearly unprecedented numbers to demand transparency, democracy, accountability and access to justice. As a result, in September, President Otto Perez Molina was forced to step down and arrested, and more than 15 high-ranking government officials have been implicated in a widening corruption scandal. At local government levels, municipal workers say pervasive corruption results in routine wage theft, harassment of workers organizing to improve their workplaces and illegal terminations and reprisals.
Despite ongoing violence against union members—murder, torture, kidnappings, break-ins and death threats—few perpetrators are brought to justice. In an unprecedented move, the U.S. government last year agreed to take Guatemala to international arbitration for violating worker rights under the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement (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. The case first arose in 2008, when six Guatemalan unions and the AFL-CIO filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Trade.
Guatemala, Honduras Not Complying with Trade Provisions
Similarly in Honduras, where this year one union leader was murdered, another forcibly disappeared and presumed dead, and several others threatened and harassed, union activists say their government is not complying with CAFTA provisions. In March 2012, the AFL-CIO and 26 Honduran unions and civil society organizations filed a complaint under CAFTA’s labor chapter, which the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Trade and Labor Affairs accepted in 2014. In a February 2015 report, the U.S. Trade and Labor Affairs office said Honduras has made virtually no progress since then.
In denouncing Ramos Castillo’s murder, the Confederaciόn de Unidad Sindical de Guatemala (CUSG) said it would submit the case to the International Labor Organization (ILO)’s Administrative Tribunal. The tribunal is meeting in November to discuss charges that Guatemala is not complying with ILO standards the country ratified, including Convention 87, the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize.
The CUSG also echoed the International Trade Union Confederation call for creation of an ILO Commission of Inquiry to “help to open up needed space for debate and consultation” because “the government has no effective preventative mechanisms in place to protect workers from acts of violence or to credibly and effectively investigate and prosecute those responsible.” The ILO sets up an Inquiry Commission when a member state is accused of committing persistent and serious violations and repeatedly has refused to address them.
Karim Sawadogo is young enough to count his age on his hands, but instead he uses them to hack away at the dry, yellow earth in the hazardous mine shafts where he works in Burkina Faso. He has a few memories of what it’s like to be a child in school or at play. “My dream,” he says, “is to make enough money so I don’t have to do this anymore.”
Sawadogo is among 168 million child laborers around the world, 6 million of whom are estimated to toil in forced labor, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s new report, “2014 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor.” Some 85 million child laborers are engaged in hazardous work, such as digging gold mines and working in agricultural fields sprayed with toxic pesticides, the report states, citing the International Labor Organization (ILO).
Uzbekistan Retains Bottom Rank for Child Labor
Released yesterday, the report measures the commitment and progress made by governments to eliminate the worst forms of child labor—slavery or trafficked labor, bonded and forced labor, exploitive labor, hazardous work, commercial sexual exploitation and involvement in illicit economies. It ranks 140 countries on their progress since the 2013 report was released last October, from “No Advancement” to “Significant Advancement.” The rankings are based on assessments of meaningful efforts made my governments in the areas of laws and regulation, enforcement, coordination, government policies, and social programs.
The 2014 report ranks 13 countries as showing “Significant Advancement,” including seven in Latin America, four in Africa and two in Asia. Madagascar, Paraguay and Thailand increased their assessment level from “Moderate” in 2013 to “Significant” in 2014. Eritrea, South Sudan and Uzbekistan continue to rank at the bottom of assessed countries because of what the report cites as government complicity in forced child labor.
Sub-Saharan Africa again is the region with the highest incidence of child labor. An estimated 59 million children ages 5–17 are engaged in child labor, or more than one in five children in the region. Nearly 29 million of these child laborers are engaged in hazardous work.
Children Bear the Brunt of Trauma from World Crises
The report reflects on the call to action by 2014 Nobel Laureate and long-time Solidarity Center ally Kailash Satyarthi. “Let’s walk together. In the pursuit of global progress, not a single person should be left out or left behind in any corner of the world, from East to West, from South to North.”
Other notable findings from the report include:
- The Ebola outbreak in West Africa affected 5 million children, some of whom turned to work to support themselves or their families during the crisis.
- An estimated 1 million children were killed, injured, kept out of school, or trafficked as a result of the massive April 2015 earthquake in Nepal.
- Approximately 75 percent of school-aged Syrian refugees in Turkey were not enrolled in schools, making them vulnerable to forced labor and exploitive work.
The State Department this year released an accompanying app, Sweat & Toil: Child Labor, Forced Labor, and Human Trafficking around the World. Users can access a comprehensive database on child labor, searchable by country, goods, or exploitation types. “This report and the new mobile app are intended as practical tools,” says Deputy Secretary of Labor Christopher Lu, “to identify the problem and help governments around the world firm up the foundations of such protections, so that children don’t fall through the cracks.”
Representatives of Swaziland’s trade union federation, TUCOSWA—who are in Washington, D.C., to receive a human rights award from the AFL-CIO in recognition of the courage and persistence of Swaziland’s workers in demanding their rights—say an alarming number of people are losing their jobs because of the country’s unwillingness to improve its poor human rights record.
Swaziland lost preferential access to the U.S. market under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), on January 1, for violations of worker rights eligibility criteria, including laws that restrict freedom of association and speech. As a result, thousands of workers, especially in the textile sector, face layoffs, said Secretary General of the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) Vincent Ncongwane, at a briefing on working conditions in Swaziland at the Solidarity Center yesterday. Some employers are closing factories while others are moving production to subsidiary plants outside the country.
TUCOSWA has strongly criticized the Swazi government’s actions leading to AGOA suspension and has said trade benefits can be restored when the government chooses to meet benchmarks to become compliant under the Act’s eligibility requirements. In return, the federation’s activities have been disrupted, it was long denied (and only recently received) official registration, and many workers are afraid to get involved for fear of retribution, said Ncongwane.
However, international solidarity with Swazi workers and TUCOSWA has helped the labor movement remain a vibrant voice for workers, he said. The federation represents more than 36,000 workers, who do not have to see their jobs disappear.
“All that is necessary is the political will,” said Ncongwane.
This evening, Ncongwane and Patrick Mamba, TUCOSWA treasurer general, will accept the 2015 George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award on behalf of Swazi workers at a 6 p.m. ceremony at the AFL-CIO.
Another union leader in Honduras has received death threats and a second union leader was arrested in the department of Colon during a peaceful rally protesting government corruption, according to the Honduras-based nonprofit ACI-Participa. Earlier this year, one Honduran union leader was murdered and another disappeared and is presumed dead. The latest incidents bring to nine the number of attacks on union leaders in 2015.
Isela Juarez Jimenez, president of the public employees union SITRASEMCA, began receiving death threats earlier this month and last week, her motorbike was rammed by a white Toyota, which had been following her for days. Jimenez was not injured.
SITRASEMCA has been in the forefront of opposition to government corruption and a water privatization scheme. More than half of all households in Tegucigalpa, the capital, do not have access to potable water and a plan supported by a government commission to privatize the water supply likely would make access to clean water prohibitively expensive for many residents.
Meanwhile, Heber Rolando Flores, a leader in the union representing workers of the National Agrarian Institute, was arrested and charged with sedition for taking part earlier this month in a peaceful rally in which students, workers and the public were protesting government corruption. Flores must report weekly to the Public Ministry until his court hearing.
Both Juarez Jimenez and Rolando Flores suffered physical attacks at the hands of security forces (including the National Police and the Army) as the September 1 anti-corruption rally was violently repressed by the state.
Violence against union leaders in Honduras nearly always goes unpunished, even though Honduras is under scrutiny for failure to enforce worker rights under its labor laws. The United States is waiting for the Honduran government to present a corrective plan of action to address labor rights violations, a move required after the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Trade and Labor Affairs last year accepted a complaint under the labor chapter of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).
The AFL-CIO and 26 Honduran unions and civil society organizations filed the complaint in March 2012. In a February 2015 report, the U.S. Trade and Labor Affairs office said Honduras has made virtually no progress since then.
A delegation of U.S. union leaders traveled on a fact-finding trip to Honduras late last year, where they described the widespread noncompliance with laws, including attacks against labor leaders, a lack of compliance with minimum wage laws and an unresponsive government. Based on the delegations’ findings, the AFL-CIO issued a report describing the exploitative conditions workers experienced in factories and in their communities. According to the report:
“Throughout the delegation visit, workers and community leaders spoke not only about the extreme levels of corruption, but also the increased militarization of the country, and widespread corruption among security forces and the impact it had on their daily lives.”
Many union leaders reporting threats and harassment are members of the Network Against Anti-Union Violence in Honduras, coordinated by leadership of the national labor confederations and the human rights NGO ACI-Participa, which seeks to promote respect for human rights in Honduras, encourage people to exercise their right to participate in decision-making processes and push for transparency in government and private-sector institutions charged with providing public services.
A vigil tonight at the United Nations kicks off events around the world body’s broad new 17-point agenda that aims in part to end extreme poverty, eradicate hunger and ensure clean water and sanitation. The 193 UN member states have debated the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) over past three years and in coming days likely will commit to work toward achieving them by 2030.
The 17 goals include 169 targets, an ambitious agenda whose success will depend upon governments and civil society working together, according to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. But fundamental to the entire plan is Goal No. 8, “Decent Work and Economic Growth,” says Shawna Bader-Blau, Solidarity Center executive director.
“Pernicious economic and social inequality is most obvious where the rights of working people are most denied,” Bader-Blau wrote in a recent Huffington Post article. “And no effort to mitigate inequality within and among countries will succeed without a committed movement to protect and bolster those rights.”
Key Goals in Decent Work and Economic Growth
Decent Work and Economic Growth includes the following key goals:
- By 2030, achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities, and equal pay for work of equal value.
- By 2020, substantially reduce the proportion of youth not in employment, education or training.
- Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labor, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labor, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labor in all its forms.
Another critical target is protecting worker rights and promoting safe and secure working environments for all workers, “including migrant workers, in particular women migrants, and those in precarious employment.”
“People should not have to leave their human rights at the border when they migrate,” Bader-Blau said this week on the Kojo Nnamdi radio show in Washington, D.C.
Gender Equality Essential for Broad-Based Prosperity
Achieving gender equality, Goal No. 5, also is essential to attaining broad-based prosperity. A new study released today estimates that tackling gender inequality and boosting women’s job opportunities could add $12 trillion to the annual gross domestic product (GNP).
The “Gender Equality” goal includes as one of its top targets the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls in the public and private sphere—a scourge that is prevalent even in the workplace, where 30 percent to 40 percent of workers report gender-based violence, a figure that rises to 90 percent in some jobs.
Building accountable institutions and ensuring access to justice (Goal No. 16 and Goal No. 17), and implementing social protections systems, one of the targets of Goal No. 1, also are essential components of the new 15-year plan.
The SDGs replace the eight UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which included halving extreme poverty, halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education by 2015.