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GUATEMALA: Unions Seek Labour Justice Under Free Trade Deal

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Apr 6 2011 (IPS) - “My brother was murdered, and we’re still the victims of threats and harassment, which is why we filed the petition” under the free trade agreement signed with the United States by Central America and the Dominican Republic, (DR-CAFTA), said Guatemalan trade unionist Noé Ramírez.

Ramírez, a member of the Union of Banana Workers of the northeastern province of Izabal, is seeking justice for the September 2007 killing of his brother Marco Tulio, who also belonged to the union. “No progress has been made” in the investigation of the murder,” he told IPS.

He added that the petition is also aimed at securing respect for labour rights in Guatemala, where “many companies do not fulfil their obligations, like social security contributions.

“They deduct the money from our pay, but they don’t make the payments into the system,” he complained.

The Central American countries involved in CAFTA, which went into effect in most of the signatory nations in 2006, are Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

DR-CAFTA has a chapter on labour rights in which its members undertake a commitment to “respect, promote and realise” core workers’ rights, enforce their own national labour laws, and provide adequate access to legal redress for workers.

But Guatemala has failed to live up to the free trade agreement’s labour provisions, trade unionists say.

In April 2008, six Guatemalan unions, including the banana workers’ union, denounced several labour abuses before the DR-CAFTA Office of Trade and Labour Affairs (OTLA), including the murders of Ramírez and another trade unionist. The complaint was filed on behalf of the Guatemalan unions by the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO).

According to the AFL-CIO, “This petition demonstrates that, in certain important respects, labour conditions in the country have remained unchanged or have worsened since the trade agreement was ratified. The level of physical violence against trade unionists increased markedly in 2006-2008. Violations of freedom of association and collective bargaining continue apace, and access to fair and efficient administrative or judicial tribunals remains elusive.”

With respect to Ramírez’s murder, the complaint notes that it took police several hours to arrive at the crime scene when he was killed, although there is a police station just two kilometres away.

“To date, the authorities have shown little interest in carrying out a serious investigation,” the petition adds.

The AFL-CIO complaint was even referred to by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. When she testified in early March before the Senate Appropriations Committee, she said the administration of Barack Obama was considering taking the matter to CAFTA’s dispute settlement system.

The Guatemalan government is hastily taking steps to prevent that from happening, as it could be fined 15 million dollars for violating CAFTA provisions.

Francisco Villagrán, Guatemala’s ambassador in Washington, announced on Mar. 18 that the General Labour Inspection office would be strengthened, compliance with court orders would be overseen, and employees in foreign-owned maquila export assembly plants that operate in tax-free zones would be protected, among other measures.

“It’s not that important for us for Guatemala to be fined for 15 million dollars; what is important is for it to be obligated to enforce the country’s labour laws,” David Morales, with the Union of Food, Agroindustry and Related Industry Workers of Guatemala (FESTRAS), told IPS.

The trade unionist said “in this country, as in the rest of Central America, unions continue to face repression,” which is why the local unions had to file the complaint through the AFL-CIO.

The cases mentioned by the petition include the murders of the two trade unionists, as well as three other cases of abuses such as unlawful dismissal of trade unionists, poor labour conditions, refusal to bargain with the legally recognised union, the blacklisting of labour activists, and the failure to contribute to the social security system by Guatemalan companies that export to the United States.

“Guatemala committed itself to making justice available to workers, in order for the free trade deal to be approved, so the country should take positives steps in that direction and with regard to respect for the freedom to organise and collective bargaining,” Morales said.

He accused the authorities of lacking the political will to enforce the country’s labour laws. “The Labour Ministry has the power of coercion, but there is a pile of fines and other sanctions in the labour courts that have not been applied,” he said.

The consequences of the impunity enjoyed by companies are obvious. Rosa Mazariegos told IPS that in 2005, when a union in the frozen foods company she worked for, INPROCSA, had recently been organised, they were harassed by the owners.

“They forced us to overwork, in poor conditions, and then the dismissals started,” she said.

Mazariegos, a mother of five, was laid off and had to find another job. “No one cares about workers, even if they don’t have enough to eat – workers are just sacked, to break up the unions,” she complained.

But Rolando Figueroa, legal counsel to the garment and textile industry association, told IPS that “The country has responded, one way or another, to each and every criticism voiced by the United States.”

The creation of more labour courts and of an office to monitor and oversee enforcement of and compliance with court orders, and the closure of garment and textile firms in 2011 were some of the advances mentioned by the industry lawyer.

Figueroa said that, for now, “there is no lawsuit against the state of Guatemala under DR-CAFTA. What we have is a process of cooperative labour consultations between the governments of the United States and Guatemala, which has arisen from a complaint.”

But he did not rule out the possibility that the incident could be taken to the next level, the dispute resolution mechanism, if Guatemala fails to adequately respond to the “consultations” or doubts raised by the United States.

“That would be the start of legal action in which an arbitration committee would be named and deadlines would be set for resolving the question, and fines might be levied,” Figueroa said.

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