Costa Rica

The Solidarity Center in Costa Rica joins with unions in the transportation, construction and agricultural sectors to bolster negotiation and bargaining skills, build leadership and expand union outreach among migrant workers.

Costa Rica is one of the most stable democracies in Latin America, with relatively strong public institutions and, since 1949, peaceful post-election transitions. Although poverty and inequality are much lower in Costa Rica than in other Central American countries, nearly one fifth of the Costa Rican population lives below the poverty line.

Of the country’s unionized workers (approximately 6.7 percent of the workforce), slightly more than 91 percent belong to public-sector unions. The low two-percent rate of private-sector unionization, stems in part from employer-organized “solidarity associations,” which serve to prevent workers from forming autonomous, independent unions. Through these “solidarity associations,” employers implement “direct bargaining” arrangements (solidarisimo) that essentially eliminate private-sector collective bargaining.

Recent government interference in unions, such as in leadership elections, has raised concern over respect for freedom of association and democratic principles. For instance, in the transportation sector, government officials appointed non-elected leaders to head the SINTRAJAP union, after port workers sought to take part as stakeholders in plans for the port’s modernization. With Solidarity Center support, SINTRAJAP challenged the action in court, and the country’s Supreme Court ultimately reinstated the union’s elected leaders.

Between 400,000 and 800,000 migrants live in Costa Rica, the majority from Nicaragua. Migrant workers are prohibited from holding elected union office, a legal mechanism that denies them a collective means to improve their wages and working conditions. Despite the difficulty in organizing unions in the private sector, unions are expanding their outreach to this vulnerable workforce. In the construction industry, for example, Solidarity Center ally SUNTRACS-CR has reoriented its outreach strategies, created new partnerships with migrant rights organizations and adapted its union structures to allow for representation and leadership by migrant workers in the union.

The Solidarity Center also works with agriculture unions to develop strategic plans for outreach among non-unionized agricultural workers. As recently as the 1980s, nearly all agricultural workers were in unions. But following employer efforts to impose solidarisimo, fewer than five of the approximately 180 plantations are unionized, according to the NGO Banana Link. Throughout rural Costa Rica, the Solidarity Center joins with unions to train and mentor organizers, facilitate worker affiliation and empower workers, many of whom are migrant workers, to effectively advocate for their interests.