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CENTRAL AMERICA: Trade Unionists Face Deadly Dangers

Raúl Gutiérrez

SAN SALVADOR, Dec 10 2008 (IPS) - Central America has become the world’s most dangerous region for trade unionists, due to the increase in threats, torture, disappearances and murders, says a report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

These practices, absent from the region for a time, have reappeared, trampling on the rights of organised workers, the report indicates.

Freedom of association and collective bargaining have “deteriorated since 2002; Central America heads the list of the world’s most dangerous regions for engaging in union activities,” Juan Manuel Sepúlveda, an ILO senior specialist on workers’ activities, said in a telephone interview with IPS from San José, Costa Rica, where the report was released Monday.

Anti-union discrimination (dismissals and restrictions on union organising and collective bargaining) and attempts against workers’ lives are among the most serious violations to occur in Central America and the Dominican Republic, the ILO says.

“Labour activism has become very dangerous; there is profound concern at the ILO and among the unions” over the lack of respect for workers’ rights, Sepúlveda stressed.

The study, on the present state of freedom of association and collective bargaining in Central America and the Dominican Republic, says that more complaints have been lodged with the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association so far this decade than in the whole of the 1990s.

There were 72 complaints in the 1990-1999 period, compared with 89 between 2000 and 2008.

At least eight union leaders were murdered between 2000 and 2008 in different countries of the region, the ILO representative said.

Central America is one of the regions in the world where union activity entails risks: death threats, torture, physical aggression, and forced disappearance and murder, the report says.

Even though the countries have laws protecting trade union activity, they are not always enforced. Paradoxically, recognition of international laws on fundamental trade union rights and freedoms coexists with the persistence of serious violations of those rights, the study says.

José Martín Jiménez, a leader of the Trade Union Confederation of Salvadoran Workers (CSTS), reported that the rights of workers in El Salvador continue to be violated and that union leaders are still being murdered.

Jiménez was participating in a conference on “Promotion and defence of freedom of association and collective bargaining” held in the Costa Rican capital Monday and Tuesday. He told IPS that several attempts to organise unions in El Salvador in 2008 ended with workers being sacked.

For example, he described the case of 10 people who were fired in October after trying to set up a union at Industrias Caricia, a footwear company.

Jiménez also referred to murders of trade unionists in recent years, such as that of Gilberto Soto, a Salvadoran who became a leader in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the U.S. truckers’ union.

Soto was murdered in November 2004, while he was working to organise a truckers’ union in El Salvador.

Two other cases, reported by Jiménez, were those of Miguel Ángel Vásquez, a member of the Electrical Sector Workers’ Union (STSEL) at the state Hydroelectric Commission of the Lempa River (CEL), who was killed in July 2007, and Armando León Monterrosa, of the Social Fund for Housing Workers’ Union (SITRAFOSVI), murdered in January 2006.

No one has been brought to justice for any of these three murders. In August 2006, El Salvador ratified ILO Conventions 87, 98, 135 and 151, confirming and expanding union rights for workers in the private and public sectors.

But in October 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that Convention 87, on freedom of association for public employees, was unconstitutional, and the right was annulled.

“Violations of labour rights have definitely increased,” Jiménez said.

“The practice of forced disappearance of trade unionists was rooted out of this region some time ago,” but now it is back, and “the fact is that reported cases have increased since 2004,” Sepúlveda said.

The conference in San José, organised by the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA) and sponsored by the ILO, was attended by representatives from trade unions in Central America and the Dominican Republic, and from international union confederations, which are planning to hold a Campaign for Freedom of Association in this region in 2009.

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