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.
Four years after the tortured, lifeless body of Bangladesh garment worker organizer Aminul Islam was discovered in a ditch, his killers have yet to be arrested. Yesterday the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF) and Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity (BCWS) demanded that authorities find and bring Aminul’s killers to trial.
Aminul was a well-respected labor leader among workers at Savar- and Ashulia-area garment factories in suburban Dhaka, the capital. At the time of his death, he was a BCWS organizer and BGIWF regional president, and working to resolve a dispute between workers and managers at a nearby factory. The police filed a case accusing an agent of National Security Intelligence (NSI) with the crime, but he escaped. The BGIWF and BCWS, both Solidarity Center allies, complain that the case was filed without a proper investigation, and rules for collection of primary evidence were not followed.
At a Dhaka press conference yesterday, Babul Akter, BGIWF president, demanded that the Ministry of Home Affairs reopen the case and conduct a legitimate investigation, including DNA testing of Aminul’s clothes, to identify, arrest and prosecute the murderers.
Since Aminul’s murder, more than 1,100 Bangladeshi garment workers have been killed on the job and at least 3,600 have been injured, including workers in a factory fire at Tazreen Fashions in November 2012 and in the collapse of Rana Plaza in April 2013. Aminul sought to improve the hazardous conditions many garment workers still face, as well as to redress exploitation such as wage theft. He believed that the lack of fire safety measures and other protections for workers could most effectively be addressed by workers who freely form unions and collectively bargain to improve workplace conditions.
Balmi Chisim is based in the Solidarity Center’s office in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
This is a cross-post from the AFL-CIO Now blog.
In her life and in her death at the hands of assassins this week, Berta Cáceres, a leader in Honduran struggles for social justice, exemplifies the difficult choices that so many Central American communities have faced over the past 40 years. When the region was torn by Cold War struggles and civil war, Cáceres’ family gave shelter and support to those fleeing the violence in El Salvador. As a tenuous peace was achieved, and many Hondurans faced poverty and violations of their rights, she went on to study and emerged as a leader for the rights of the Lenca people to stay on their land and sustain their rural communities, rather than migrate to cities that have become some of the most violent in the world or to the United States seeking safety and opportunity for decent work and better lives for their children.
Cáceres chose to stay in Honduras and, for more than 20 years, led the Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras, the organization she and other students founded to defend the rights, land and interests of the Lenca. She also chose to stay with her family and raise her four children in their community. In the aftermath of the 2009 coup, she stood out as a leader of the massive movement of Hondurans who rejected the removal of their democratically elected president and the violent repression that has characterized the Honduran government since the coup. Some 200 social, environmental and labor activists, and organized opposition party members have been killed since the coup.
Every day, Honduran workers face violations of their rights and labor laws by employers and inaction by the government. Commitments made to defend these rights in the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement remain unfulfilled, nearly four years after Honduran workers filed a formal complaint, along with the AFL-CIO.
While Cáceres and COPINH were recognized for their work by the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015, the danger they face also was recognized by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which granted her protective measures against the many threats Cáceres and her allies face in Honduras. In 2013, the IACHR denounced “the complete absence of the most basic measures to respond to grave violations of human rights” in Honduras.
The United States has a special responsibility to ensure the Honduran government fulfill its responsibilities. As part of its ongoing support to the post-coup governments, the United States must review the country’s compliance with human rights. As Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) noted this week, “The immediate question is what President [Juan Orlando] Hernández and his government—which has too often ignored or passively condoned attacks against Honduran social activists—will do to support an independent investigation, prosecution and punishment of those responsible for this despicable crime.”
The AFL-CIO joins many allied organizations in Honduras, elsewhere in Latin America and the United States, in sending our deepest condolences to the family, friends and community of Berta Cáceres, in denouncing her assassination and demanding a thorough investigation of those responsible for planning and executing her murder.
We also note that another leading activist, Gustavo Castro, was wounded during the assassination. As a key witness to the murder, he must be protected and given every opportunity to testify about this horrible crime.
Héctor Martínez Motiño, president of a local sectional union of Workers of the National Autonomous University of Honduras (SITRAUNAH), was murdered Tuesday, shot by gunmen as he drove home from work.
Martínez Motiño, a lecturer at the Choluteca campus of the National Autonomous University of Honduras, in the south of the country, had faced three other attempts on his life and numerous anonymous threats, the result of his reporting of violations of human and worker rights within the university.
He took his complaints of harassment to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which issued a “precautionary measure” demanding that the Honduran government provide protection for him and his family as his union work put him in danger. The Commission “may request that a State adopt precautionary measures to prevent irreparable harm to persons or to the subject matter of the proceedings in connection with a pending petition or case, as well as to persons under the jurisdiction of the State concerned, independently of any pending petition or case.”
Despite these measures, Martínez Motiño reported feeling unsafe. On Facebook, he posted: “Despite these measures, I continue to be harassed, followed, threatened and the target of attempts against my life. I ask God and all of you to keep us in permanent prayer.”
According to news reports, he had no police protection at the time of the attack. With this murder, 14 people with protective measures have been assassinated, according to the website Defensores en Línea. On April 8, Donatilo Jiménez, president of another local sectional union of university workers SITRAUNAH from the Atlantic Coast, was kidnapped and disappeared; to date, only his vehicle has been found. An MS-13 gang leader has been arrested in connection with this crime.
Martínez Motiño was a member of the Honduran Network Against Anti-Union Violence, an effort of labor union activists and the human rights non-governmental organization ACI-Participa, supported by the Solidarity Center. The network, Honduran labor movement and ACI-Participa condemn the “vile murder” and are demanding a full investigation.
Thousands of Guatemalans turned out on May Day this year to protest violence against union members and demand worker rights. Credit: Stephen Wishart
Guatemalan trade union leaders met with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman in Guatemala City today to express their frustration with the failure of the Guatemalan government to make any meaningful progress in protecting worker rights.
The meeting took place as Guatemala neared the deadline for complying with a “Labor Action Plan” it signed with the United States in April 2013. The United States granted Guatemala a four-month extension earlier this year. Guatemalan unions and the AFL-CIO first raised concerns about egregious labor rights violations in Guatemala in a joint complaint filed in 2008 under the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).
The union leaders told Froman that the government has failed to improve worker rights since the complaint was filed six years ago and in fact, the situation for workers in Guatemala has deteriorated in recent years.
Seventy-two unionists have been murdered in Guatemala since CAFTA was implemented.
“One of the main challenges in achieving labor justice in Guatemala are the high levels of impunity and lack of accountability of those public officials responsible for ensuring respect for labor rights,” said Victoriano Zacarias, deputy general secretary of the Confederacion Central de Trabajadores de Guatemala (Central Confederation of Guatemalan Workers, CGTG).
“Moreover, the bills before Congress on labor issues in Guatemala, if approved, will result only in more labor rights violations and further facilitate greater migration to the U.S. for lack of basic conditions of labor rights.” Zacarias was among union leaders taking part in today’s meeting.
Another participant in the meeting, Carlos Mancilla, general secretary of theConfederacion Unitaria Sindical de Guatemala (United Trade Union Confederation of Guatemala, CUSG), said “the government of Guatemala has no political will to solve the existing labor problems.”
“The government of Guatemala has stated it has made advances, but the only progress has been creating roundtable discussions that have not provided solutions to labor problems, and the establishment of agreements and protocols that are not implemented.”
“This year, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) named Guatemala the most dangerous place in the world to be a union leader,” said Solidarity Center Country Program Director Stephen Wishart, who attended the meeting. “So we’re pleased to see that Ambassador Froman is taking the issue of worker rights seriously and meeting with the unions to hear their side.”
Wishart said that Guatemalan unions will continue to press their government to live up to its labor rights commitments, and added, “The Solidarity Center will stand with our union partners in Guatemala as they keep up their fight for worker rights, safety and decent jobs for Guatemalan workers.”