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Freedom Of Association in a Maquila
Human Rights Watch report, 19 March 1997
(19 Mar 97) In a ground breaking report released today, Human Rights Watch documents the subtle but pernicious ways that workers' rights - particularly freedom of association are undermined in the export assembly sector in Guatemala. With applicability to the burgeoning number of export processing zones worldwide, Freedom of Association in A Maquila in Guatemala is a case study of government suppression of basic worker rights and pressure by local managers and supervisors of the Phillips Van Heusen (PVH) corporation against union members. The report reveals the level of scrutiny required if human rights oriented corporate codes of conduct are to be meaningful. This report comes at a time when corporate social responsibility for human rights is becoming an increasing part of consumer expectations in the global marketplace.
In an important step to promote human rights and labor rights, Phillips Van Heusen's Chief Executive Officer Bruce Klatsky agreed to accept Human Rights Watch's findings, to introduce new safeguards against discriminatory treatment of trade unionists, and to begin collective bargaining with the union at PVH's plant in Guatemala.
According to Richard Dicker, Human Rights Watch Associate Counsel, "This report highlights the need for greater safeguards of international standards on freedom of association in overseas assembly plants, particularly where national mechanisms for the protection of labor rights are flawed." Responding to the decision by PVH to begin negotiations, Mr. Dicker said, "We welcome this commitment by the company. It sets a standard for others in the corporate community who have pledged to incorporate human rights concerns into their operations."
A two person Human Rights Watch delegation traveled to Guatemala in January 1997. The visit focused on reports of the discriminatory treatment of trade unionists at the PVH assembly plants and allegations of obstacles posed by the company and the Guatemalan labor ministry to the union's recognition for purposes of collective bargaining.
Human Rights Watch found that the Guatemalan Ministry of Labor failed to uphold its obligations to implement Guatemalan law concerning negotiations between the companies and the legally recognized union of its workforce. The company and the union had petitioned the ministry to establish, or acknowledge, the strength of the union's membership, so that obligations under Guatemalan law concerning negotiations would be clear.
The question of the size of the union's membership could have been promptly answered had the authorities had the will to do so. At the request of the union and the company, Human Rights Watch examined the union's original membership records and the extensive dossier on file in the labor ministry. The inquiry concluded that the union's strength in fact exceeded the threshold at which Guatemalan law requires companies to sit down with legally recognized unions like Stecamosa, the union at the PVH plants.
Collective bargaining agreements are uncommon in Guatemala's industrial sector, and are bitterly opposed by industry leaders in the domestic and export assembly sectors. By refusing to enforce the law, the labor authorities maintained a status quo in which not one of Guatemala's overseas assembly plants operates in accord with a collective labor agreement, and less than a handful tolerate independent trade unions.
The report also documents a disturbing pattern of measures by local managers to dissuade PVH employees from union membership, and to punish those on the union's rolls with a dramatic drop in their earning power. Many workers cited in the report described seeing their incomes after joining reduced to one-half or quarter of what they had received during previous years at the PVH plants. In such cases, workers who were protected by law from dismissal, some of them with up to seven years' tenure with Philips-Van Heusen, were forced to leave to seek employment elsewhere.
The chief executive officer of the Phillips Van Heusen (PVH) corporation, Bruce Klatsky, a member of the Human Rights Watch Board of Directors, strongly supported a fact finding visit by the organization and pledged his company's full cooperation with such a visit. This was subsequently forthcoming, as impromptu requests were made while in Guatemala to review personnel records, payroll information, and to meet extensively with managers at PVH's consolidated plant; these requests were granted without hesitation.
The report seeks to provide guidance to employers with the will to remedy such abuses, by identifying a range of discriminatory measures that are less readily perceptible beyond the shop floor than the gross abuses mass dismissals, arrests, "disappearances," murders that make the headlines. The identification of the ways that freedom of association can be violated, as well as possible remedies, is in turn proposed with a view not just to remedy the particular situation described in this case study, but with a view to encourage other corporations that have played a leading role in the formulation of human rights based codes of conduct to deepen their implementation.
A number of corporations in the apparel and footwear industries have established standards to be observed by their wholly owned operations, contractors, subcontractors, and licensees. The codes of conduct developed by some of these corporations are an advance. It is the hope of Human Rights Watch that issues addressed here will be viewed far beyond the particular case study examined and the burgeoning overseas assembly sector of Guatemala's industrial establishment.
The practices documented in this report underscore the need for the companies that have taken a leadership role to ensure that the principles formulated by senior management are implemented in the workplace in a way that will increase respect for their workers' human rights. Given the importance of the rights of free expression and association, codified in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Labor Organization Conventions No. 87 and 98, it is critical that corporations carefully evaluate and, if need be, revise their practices in situations where organizing and collective bargaining efforts are taking place. To this end, Human Rights Watch is calling for greater attention by concerned executives in the corporations that have already made genuine advances in introducing human rights considerations into their operations. In addition, we hope these findings sound an alarm for those who have not.
Copies of this report are available from the Publications Department, Human Rights Watch, 485 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 100176104 for $8.40 (domestic shipping) and $10.50 (international shipping). Visa and MasterCard accepted.
Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch is a nongovernmental organization established in 1978 to monitor and promote the observance of internationally recognized human rights in Africa, the Americas, Asia, the Middle East and among the signatories of the Helsinki accords. It is supported by contributions from private individuals and foundations worldwide. It accepts no government funds, directly or indirectly. Kenneth Roth is the executive director and Robert L. Bernstein is the chair of the board. In 1994, Human Rights Watch began an initiative to examine the link between corporate practices and human rights conditions in a growing number of countries. Two overarching principles have guided this work. We insist that corporations avoid complicity in violations of human rights principles within their operations and those of their suppliers. We also urge corporations to encourage respect for human rights within the broader societies where they do business.
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