Date: Fri, 1 Dec 1995 20:01:51 GMT
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International Centre for Trade Union Rights and Central American Human Rights Committee joint campaign for trade union rights in Guatemala
Central American Human Rights Committee (CAHRC), 24 November 1995
Being an active trade unionist in the Central American country of Guatemala is not an easy task. Since the CIA-sponsored coup that overthrew an elected Government in 1954, many thousands of trade unionists have been murdered, disappeared, threatened or subjected to violence. Many more have been dismissed because of their attempts to form trade unions. In the words of one Guatemalan entrepreneur the most effective response to a "bothersome labour leader", was to "shoot him or eliminate him.. Assassinate him. Murder him. Whichever word is applicable." In June 1980, 27 members of the executive of the CNT union confederation-almost the entire leadership-were disappeared in one fell swoop. Over the years there have been countless cases of trade union leaders and activists being murdered, tortured and disappeared.
In 1994 and 1995 the level of abuses against union activists and members has increased and the attempts to enforce basic legal trade union and employment rights is pitifully inadequate. A recent report by the human rights office of the archdiocese of Guatemala City expressed the view that repression against the union movement has become a 'systematic practice'.
The trade unionists of Guatemala continue to organize, despite immense hostility form some employers and paramilitary groups linked to the far right. In 1985 the workers at the Coca Cola bottling plant in Guatemala City won an historic victory for the right to be represented by a union, after they had occupied their factory for a year. International solidarity has played an important role in helping create the conditions to allow some trade union organisation. As a result, recent years have seen limited progress in union representation in Maquila factories, which are mainly foreign owned and produces goods solely for export.
It is in the maquiladora sector that some of the most visible violations of workers' rights are taking place. The primarily female workforce work long hours, with complaints of beatings, sexual harassment and poor health and safety conditions being common. There are now a few unions operating the maquila sector. Workers who try to form a union are often dismissed. It is not unknown for factory owners to close the factory down, rather than recognise trade unions.
The last year has seen increasingly serious methods being used against trade unionists trying to organise in the maquila sector, with threats, murder, and rape being used to intimidate members of the trade union movement into giving up their campaign. However, international solidarity, particularly from unions and other organisations in the United States, has increased pressure for improved labour rights in the maquilas which are becoming more important in the world economy.
Public sector trade unionists have long been one of the more organised sectors, but they are now facing an onslaught on their working conditions as a result of neo-liberal economic policies and privatisation. The effect is serious for the whole of the Guatemalan population, many of whom live below the poverty line. An assault on working conditions is accompanied by violence against union activists. In June 1995 Alfred de Leon Parajon, a public sector trade unionist, was found dead. His body bore signs of severe torture. He had been abducted on May 31 by three armed men, one of whom was wearing a security force uniform. Previously he had received death threats from the notorious 'Jaguar Justiciero' death squad, which regularly threatens leaders of the trade union and popular movement.
The labour laws in Guatemala are rarely enforced, employees are regularly unjustifiably dismissed applications for the registration of trade unions are delayed beyond the time specified by the law for their processing.
There are reported to be high levels of corruption within both the labour ministry and the courts, with the names of union officials signing petitions to the ministry being passed on to employers. FESTRAS, the foodworkers' union, recently retired after giving judgment against the union in their long-running legal and industrial battle to unionise the Coca Cola plant in Puerto Barrios on the Atlantic Coast.
Despite recent changes to the Labour Code and the tribunal system following US trade pressure based on the question of respect for workers' rights, hardly any cases actually come to tribunal and the standards stipulated in the labour code are not be enforced by the State. Essentially, workers are starved into giving up on their rights.
Debora Guzman Chupen, is a trade unionist at the L y L Modas maquila factory in Guatemala. She also married to Felix Gonzalez, a leading trade unionist at the Lunafil maquila where 200 workers lost their jobs in 1994, but have been struggling to obtain their rights in the face of threats and oppression ever since. In February 1995 Debora Guzman was violently abducted, drugged and told that she would be killed if she did not convince her husband to stop his union activities. She was released a day later, and shortly after received a written death threat at her home, warning her to ensure that her husband resigned from the union within 72 hours. Following the abduction of Debora Guzman, on March 4 a group of heavily armed men in a pick-up truck with darkened windows drove past the Lunafil factory, where members of the union were gathered, and fired shots in the air. On 20 May 1995 an anonymous hand-written letter was delivered to her home: "We have given you enough time and you have not done what we told you to do... We had you in our hands, but you do not seem to understand. But we are going make sure you do understand. We are giving you eight day to comply. Start counting the days. Think about your parents and about your future. It is not worth dying over something you yourself can prevent happening. Do not leave your house, as we have you under surveillance..."
Alexander Yovany Gomez Virula, a member of UNSTRAGUA was abducted on March 13, His severely beaten body was found in a ravine in Zone 18 of Guatemala City on March 19. Alexander Gomez, 24, was apparently beaten to death, with massive blows to the head, face and abdomen. The emergency team that recovered the body was also reported seeing several bullet wounds.
Alexander Gomez was financial secretary of the RCA Workers Union (Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Empresa RCA). RCA is a Korean-owned maquiladora, or assembly factory, that assembles clothing. UNSITRAGUA states that the owners had hired armed men to intimidate the workers on previous occasions.
On 24 August 1994 500 workers were evicted from the Hacienda San Juan El Horizonte, Empressa Exacta SA in Coatepeque, 150 miles west of Guatemala City. The workers had occupied the cattle ranch since mid- July in order to bring attention to the cases of 62 workers who had been unlawfully dismissed in March 1994 following their demands that the owner respect Guatemalan labour law and pay the legal minimum wage of Q10 (about 1.30, under US$2) per day. The riot police opened fire on the workers killing two-Efrain Recinos Gomez and Basilio Guzman Juarez-and seriously injuring 11 others. Efrain Recinos Gomez was a member of the Guatemalan labour confederation the Unidad Sindical de Trabajdores de Guatemala (UNSITRAGUA) and had been bringing food to the occupying workers. Basilio Guzman Juarez was a peasant working at the Hacienda San Juan del Horizonte.
On the next day the body of Diego Orozco-a union leader at the Hacienda San Juan El Horizante, who had been seen to be captured during the eviction-was found some 60 kilometers away. His body was pulverised as if it had been dropped from a helicopter or aircraft. A helicopter belonging to a neighbouring plantation was used by the security forces during the eviction.
The dispute which gave rise to the occupation arose from the workers' attempts to organise to remedy the breaches of labour law to which they were subjected. Average pay was only around Q6 980p, US $1) per day and their employers did not comply with rights as to holidays, access to state health care and to collective organisation. On 18 February 1994 an injunction was filed against the company which made it unlawful to fire workers without court approval, but 62 workers were nevertheless fired. The Guatemalan legal system has failed to deal with the subsequent complaint lodged by the workers and in mid- July they felt that they had no option but to occupy the finca where they worked in order to apply pressure for a settlement. The Company had been under pressure from senior Government ministers to settle the dispute, but in mid-August the local court in Coatepeque ordered the workers' eviction.
On 17 May 1995 Flor de Maria of the FESTRAS foodworkers union was on her way to work at 8.25am when she was forcibly taken off a bus, drugged, taken to a house, beaten and raped three times. Subsequently, on May 29, at about 8.30pm, Ms de Maria received a telephone call from a male caller who asked in a disguised voice: "Did you like the nice thing that we did to you?" She promptly hung up. She received another call on June 7 apparently from the same person.
In late March, Ms de Maria, who is an organiser in Guatemala's maquiladora sector, began receiving death threats at her home. Ms de Maria has also been active in focusing international attention on worker rights violations in the maquiladora sector. Last year she attended US congressional hearings on working conditions in Central America. She also met with striking textile workers in Pennsylvania whose jobs were being threatened by low wages and lack of unions in Guatemala.
Statement by John Monks, British TUC Secretary on Guatemala:
"The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions' latest international survey of trade union rights violations showed an alarming increase in the numbers of trade unionists murdered and imprisoned. The number and severity of the attacks on trade unionists in Guatemala followed that world pattern, despite the commitment of the Government to protect the exercise of basic human rights.
Guatemala remains on of the five or six most dangerous countries in the world for a trade unionists to work in, and there are many other terrible cases of murder, torture, and intimidation of working people peacefully and lawfully attempting to defend their jobs and the typically very low standards of living.
But the widespread systematic attacks on unions have evoked a response from Guatemalan trade unionists of astounding courage and determination. Their example should inspire trade unionists everywhere and should give hope and confidence to all engaged in the international campaigns for human rights and social justice in Guatemala and elsewhere. Every protest, every appeal, every pressure on the Guatemalan authorities has some impact. I hope that this ICTUR initiative will encourage an intensification of the international campaign in support of Guatemalan trade unionists".
The International Centre for Trade Union Rights was established in 1987. It has accredited status with both the United Nations and the International Labour Organisation. It aims: -to defend and extend the rights of trade unions and trade unionists around the world -to carry out its activities in the spirit of the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The International Labour Organisation Conventions and appropriate international treaties. ICTUR has established National Committees in 23 countries. The work of these Committees is complemented by a network of international correspondents including journalists, lawyers, trade union leaders and academics. ICTUR publishes the quarterly journal "International Union Rights". If you would like more information about our activities, subscription details for International Union Rights, or to affiliate to ICTUR please write to: Tom Sibley, Executive Secretary 177 Abbeville Road London SW4 9RL tel: 0171-498-4700/fax: 0171-498-0611 The Central American Human Rights Committee (CAHRC) is an independent organisation which has nearly 15 years of experience in promoting respect for human rights in Central America. During 1995 CAHRC has become increasingly concerned about assassinations and intimidations of trade unionists in Guatemala, as well as the excessive use of force against strikers in Nicaragua, and threats being issued by death squads in El Salvador. CAHRC has used its Rapid Response Network to respond to several serious violations of workers' rights in recent months. This puts pressure on the relevant governments to protect individuals and bring perpetrators to justice. CAHARC is lobbying in Central America for the ratification and implementation of ILO Conventions and in Europe for the inclusion of social clauses in trade and aid agreements. If you are interested in supporting CAHRC's work, or would like more information, please contact Pauline Jones or Andrew Whitmore at 83 Margaret Street, London W1N 7HB. Tel: 0171-631-4200