Labor Alerts/Labor News
Breakthrough in Guatemala! Union contract signed with Phillips-Van Heusen
Labor Alerts, 20 August 1997
[The following alert was written by the U.S./Guatemala Labor Education Project (US/GLEP). For more information, contact US/GLEP at (773) 262-6502 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Campaign for Labor Rights recommends that anyone interested in labor rights in Guatemala contact US/GLEP to find out about receiving their newsletter. In addition to mobilizing U.S. and Canadian support for the Phillips-Van Heusen workers, US/GLEP has supported worker justice in the Starbucks campaign and, now, in the Pepsi union contract struggle.]
In a major advance for the basic rights of apparel workers in Central America, workers at a Guatemalan factory owned by the U.S.-based Phillips-Van Heusen Corporation (PVH) have ratified a contract agreement with the company, making it the only collective bargaining agreement in Guatemala's maquiladora (apparel-for-export) sector and one of the very few in the region.
The rapidly-growing "maquiladora" sector in Central America has been the subject of dozens of news stories in recent years detailing worker abuse, poverty-level wages, and repression against workers seeking to organize unions in order to improve wages and better working conditions. News coverage of the miserable conditions in the Central American maquiladora sector that produces clothing for export to brand-name U.S. companies helped prompt the formation of a White House taskforce to respond to the growth of sweatshops. Earlier this year, the taskforce released a proposed code of conduct for U.S. businesses and their suppliers. The code includes respect for the right of workers to form unions and engage in collective bargaining. This is the first collective bargaining agreement signed in Central America since the White House code was released. PVH is a member of the White House taskforce.
Dozens of efforts by maquila workers to organize unions have ended in failure in Guatemala and elsewhere in the region due to wide-spread denial of basic rights, the failure of governments in the region to enforce basic labor law protecting the rights of workers, as well as discrimination, intimidation, and death threats against maquila union leaders. One Guatemalan maquila union leader was found dead two years ago. Only one union in Guatemala has been able to negotiate a contract in the past ten years, and it was effectively nullified when the owner immediately fired illegally all union members.
STECAMOSA, the union at PVH's CAMOSA factory, ratified the contract on August 14, after a six-year struggle of charges and counter-charges by workers and management and in the face of a Guatemalan government that failed to act on the union's request for contract negotiations.
PVH Workers first began organizing for a union in 1991 in order to improve wages and obtain better treatment. The union received legal recognition in 1992, in large part because of U.S. grassroots pressure. A second organizing drive began Labor Day, 1996 with critical technical assistance provided by the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation and its North American affiliate, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE!). The union then successfully secured broad enough explicit support from the workforce that the company was legally obligated to negotiate.
However, the Guatemalan Labor Ministry refused to ratify that the union had achieved the threshold required for negotiations, leaving the matter at an impasse until Human Rights Watch conducted an independent analysis verifying in March, 1997 that the union had in fact met the legal requirements. PVH Chief Executive Officer Bruce Klatsky, a member of the Human Rights watch board, immediately accepted the findings of Human Rights Watch and the company began contract negotiations.
Juan Francisco Alfaro, General Secretary of the Confederation of United Guatemalan Workers (CUSG) to which the new union is affiliated, credited the workers victory not only to their own organizing efforts but also to the international support provided by U.S./GLEP, UNITE! and the AFL-CIO. He added, "The PVH union has obtained benefits and protections that are normally denied to workers in the textile industry in Guatemala. The decision of PVH to respect its workers as well as Guatemalan law is a good example that other businesses in Guatemala should follow."
Union leaders and worker rights supporters in the U.S. expressed strong affirmation for the break-through contract. "We salute the courage and tenacity of the CAMOSA workers and congratulate both them and PVH in reaching this historic agreement. This is a victory for democracy, for peace with justice. It is an example of what can be done when enough people care about making workers' rights real in this new global economy," commented Jay Mazur, President of UNITE!.
"The PVH union has fought a long, hard battle in a very difficult environment. Against all odds, it has succeeded not only in gaining direct concrete benefits for its members but also in opening up the political space needed for workers who wish to exercise their basic rights in Guatemala's maquiladora sector," said Stephen Coats, executive director of US/GLEP, the organization that helped organize international support for the PVH workers.
"Workers have long believed that there has been an unwritten agreement between management and the government to keep Guatemala's largely young and female maquiladora workforce union-free and contract-free. Whether or not such an agreement exists, it has certainly been true that the Guatemalan business sector and the Guatemalan government have been successful in squashing the right of workers to negotiate a contract -- until now," added Liz O'Connor of STITCH, a U.S. women's that supports women workers in Guatemala.
The contract responds to all of the major concerns put on the table by the union, including losing jobs to outsourcing, ending arbitrary and discriminatory treatment by supervisors, and raising wages. The contract calls for an increase in wages equivalent to 11% in the first year and 12.5% in the second; maintaining current levels of employment; a grievance procedure; increased subsidies for transportation, lunch, and school-age children; a signing bonus; and visible recognition of the union, including the right to use plant facilities for an anniversary party and the right to have a bulletin board in the factory.
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