Workers’ Rights in Guatemala

 The Solidarity Center and the AFL-CIO, hosted a panel discussion yesterday (early June) in Washington, DC with speakers Jeff Vogt, Global Economic Policy Specialist (AFL-CIO); and Vicki Gass, Senior Associate for Rights and Development, with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA); to discuss the report “The Struggle for Worker Rights in Guatemala”.

According to the report, much of the workforce – 75% is in the informal sector, which means the employment laws do not apply to them.  Informal workers include those without contracts – temporary contracts, or self employed.  Without a contract, workers cannot negotiate wages, overtime, safety procedures, healthcare, and are fired at will.  Anti-union activities are a full time job that companies take quite seriously.  A company will shut down its operations entirely, only to reopen in another part of the country or even across town.  The current economic crisis and high unemployment has fears of organizing efforts due to threats of losing their job. If a worker were to be fired, they are often blacklisted, which effectively prevents them from getting a job anywhere.   A previous blog  discussed the effect that DR – CAFTA has had on Guatemala. Guatemala’s increasing violence against trade unionists has earned it a deserving place on the list of world’s most dangerous place for unionists.  Thirty eight labor activists have been killed in the last few years, alongside 2,000 Guatemalans who died a violent death as of May this year.   The impunity rate for crime in general is an astounding 98%.  Even in the rare case that a company is ordered to pay a price for violations, the government cannot enforce it.  Thus accountability and justice are a backbone to improving labor rights but unfortunately this isn’t realized in Guatemala. 

While prosecutions of gross violations of human rights from the 36 year civil war have been minimal, important headway has been made.  Kelly Lee and Michael Gould-Wartofsky wrote in The Nation that current President Colom ordered the release last march of 7 million files from the Historical Archives of the National Civil Police (NCP).  These can be used to further cases to convict those responsible for massive human rights violations. Two such cases are against the dictators Rios Efrain Montt and Oscar Humberto Mejia Víctores for charges of genocide.  Rios Montt currently holds a seat in Congress.  Nisgua (Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatmala) has more information on these cases.

The panel discussion cited numerous reasons for such widespread impunity.  The police force totals 19,000, a fraction of what is needed to be effective.  They are understaffed, underpaid, work long hours in a situation of low morale – a recipe for corruption and disaster.  In contrast, private security guards number more than 100,000 and gang affiliation at 80,000.  Organized crime is entrenched in much of the state such as the courts, ties to government officials (or even being in the government), and of course, ties to the police force. 

This context of violence and corruption makes it easy for companies to violate worker rights.  Del Monte and Dole have a history of far reaching abuses.  According to the ILRF report last year,  “workers and communities in pineapple growing regions are frequently exposed to toxic agrochemicals while their communities have suffered from contaminated water”.  It is shameful that corporations such as these have taken advantage of a country recovering from decades of civil war.  Instead, as a minimum, US corporations should hire a permanent labor force to negotiate a contract with, respect the right to organize, pay a decent wage, pay for overtime, have paid maternity leave, and respect environmental law.  All people have the right to work in an environment that respects basic human dignity.

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About Musings over Coffee

Fitness enthusiast. Love to travel, mess up recipes, ponder random things, get riled up about the news, all of which nearly always coinciding with one of my favorite things in the world: Coffee.
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