From Tue Oct 2 18:17:01 2001
From: Campaign for Labor Rights <>
Subject: Guatemalan union supporters face criminal accusations
Date: Tue, 2 Oct 2001 15:56:44 -0400

Guatemalan union supporters face criminal accusations

CLR Labor Alert, 2 October 2001


Workers fighting for an independent union at the Cimatextiles and Choishin factories in Guatemala are facing accusations of criminal charges as the latest tactic in an on-going anti-union campaign by local management. Both of these factories produce for, among others, Liz Claiborne.

The workers are also reportedly facing intimidation to resign, threats of blacklisting and factory closure. Also, despite a July 25th agreement (and a renewed agreement on August 9th), those who participated in the mob attacks against union supporters have enjoyed impunity and have not faced appropriate disciplinary action agreed to by the company and the Guatemalan government. The continued impunity has led to a request that Guatemala's trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences be placed back under probation because of worker rights violations.

Accusations of Criminal Charges & Other Forms of Intimidation

With no prior notification of having any charges against them, two union leaders were interrogated by men who identified themselves as Public Ministry investigators on September 10, 2001. The union leaders were not told why they were being investigated and were not provided with a lawyer, both of which are violations of Guatemalan law. It was later discovered that the investigation is for the supposed robbery of cloth on July 13th, 2001, coincidentally just days after the union went public with its union campaign.

The accusations appear to be an obvious tactic to try to intimidate union members into resigning. Workers have also reported other kinds of intimidation:

These events have created a climate of concern among the workers that the company will simply shift its production elsewhere and close down if the union is allowed to establish itself. The intimidation tactics are obvious violations of the right to freedom of association. If the company does do a cut-and-run maneuver this would be a violation of the right to organize.

Impunity Reigns, Request for Review Renewed

Along with the new harassment, neither the company nor the government of Guatemala has moved to discipline the participants of the violent mobs that attacked the unionists on July 18th and 19th. (for information on these attacks, check CLR's website for out last Labor Alert on this issue: The lack of sanctions against the attackers is becoming a more pertinent issue because some union leaders and allies of the union, including their legal counsel, continue to receive death threats as recently as earlier this September.

According to the labor code of Guatemala, the proper disciplinary action for violence against a co-worker is dismissal without severance. While the company cannot fire anyone due to a court order that was imposed with the filing of the union for the protection of union supporters, the company does have the recourse of requesting authorization from a labor judge for dismissal or for suspending violent workers without pay. The company has not done so.

Also, the special prosecutor's office at the Labor Ministry has a responsibility to investigate and process the charges the union filed against the attackers. This process has not been started and witnesses have not even been interviewed. This lack of action, especially when confronted with the recent interrogations of the union leaders for the alleged theft of cloth, is part of a continuing trend of impunity for violence against trade unionists in Guatemala.

With the support of unions in Guatemala, the AFL-CIO has requested that the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) renew probation of Guatemala's eligibility for trade benefits under the Generalized system of Preferences (GSP). GSP is a trade law that has worker rights conditionality for the duty free tax benefits the law offers. In May 2001 the USTR lifted the review of Guatemala's GSP eligibility despite lack of progress on worker rights. (For more information about this case check the web at:

Union Keeps on Ticking

The unions at the Choi and Shin's factories are continuing to work to strengthen membership despite the intimidation tactics and continuous violation of the agreements to respect the right to freedom of association signed by the company, the union, and the Guatemalan Labor Ministry.

Once the membership reaches 25% of the workforce, management is obligated to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement. However, the intimidation tactics make it difficult to attract new members and to keep existing members. Currently, there are ZERO collective bargaining agreements in Guatemala's maquiladora sector. The only factory where a union was gained in recent years, Camisas Modernas, subsequently closed.

Take Action!

Suggested Actions:

1) Contact Liz Claiborne and let the company know that you are grateful for the steps the company has taken in the past to support the right to freedom of association at the Choi & Shin's factories (see below). Let Liz Claiborne know that you are aware of many new violations in the factory, including the trumped up charges against union leaders and the continued impunity enjoyed by the violent attackers. Urge the company to increase its pressure on Choi and Shin's to support that right and intervene to ensure that the legally binding July 25th & August 9th agreements be implemented.

**It is important that you contact Liz Claiborne--even if only through a short letter or email. Please send a copy of your letter to Campaign for Labor Rights:, so we can let you know how many were sent in all. Thanks!

Contact: Paul R. Charron, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Liz Claiborne, Inc., 1441 Broadway, New York, NY 10018. Tel: (212)-354-4900; Fax: (212)-626-3416. You can email Liz Claiborne through their webpage by going to


The workers at the Cimatextiles and Choishin factories, both owned by a Korean-based company call Choi & Shin's, went public with their effort to form a union at each plant at the beginning of July, 2001. Shortly afterwards, harassment and intimidation of the union supporters escalated into mob attacks reportedly orchestrated by company supervisors on July 18th and 19th. The Guatemalan Labor Minister facilitated negotiations between the union and the company, which resulted in a rapid agreement signed by the two unions, the factory management, MINUGUA (the United Nations body in Guatemala that oversees the peace process), and the Guatemalan Labor Minister on July 25th.

The agreement states that the company will respect the right of the workers to organize, reinstate union members who were forced to resign, and establishe measures to ensure safety to union supporters in the factory. The agreement was hammered out at the offices of the Guatemala maquiladora association (VESTEX) in a meeting attended by the Minister of Economy who told Choi management that failure to negotiate a resolution with the union could prompt the government to suspend the company's export license. The same day Labor Minister Juan Francisco Alfaro announced that each union was being legally recognized: SITRACIMA in the Cimatextiles factory and SITRACHOI in the Choishin factory.

The quick actions by the Guatemalan government were prompted in large part by concerns that the incident could lead to problems with the U.S. government over its trade benefits.

Liz Claiborne initially dismissed the reports of violent intimidation but largely because most of the initial reports were corroborated by COVERCO, a highly-respected independent Guatemalan non-governmental organization, Liz Claiborne moved quickly to intervene with its contractor. After the mob violence, Liz Claiborne took the unusual step of sending a letter directly to the workers that effectively disputed threats by local management to close. The letter stated that Liz Claiborne supports the right of workers to choose to join or to not join a union and, in an effort to counter threats of the plant closing, that Liz Claiborne will continue business at the Choishin and Cimatextiles factories as long as this right is respected (and the quality of the production remains satisfactory!). Liz Claiborne has also voiced its support for sanctions against those who participated in the violent intimidation.

Despite the risk to its export license and the intervention by their main client, Liz Claiborne, Choi & Shin management immediately began violating the agreement, according to the union, threatening criminal charges against union leaders (on which they have now taken the next step with accusations), moving union supporters to new job assignments and continuing its threats to close the factories if the unions formed.

Under pressure from the union and international supporters, management signed a second agreement on August 9, 2001 in which it agreed again to respect worker rights, but the anti-union campaign continued immediately.

The significance of the case

Liz Claiborne is at the forefront of brand-name U.S. apparel companies who are active in taking on the issue of corporate responsibility and sweatshops. The company is a key leader of the Fair Labor Association, the controversial partnership of companies and human rights organizations that seeks to ensure compliance with a code of conduct. This case is therefore a key one not only for Liz Claiborne and its own code of conduct but also for the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and its code.

This case is also a test for the role of local, independent non-governmental organizations engaged in monitoring codes of conduct. Liz Claiborne has had a pilot project with COVERCO for two years to monitor Choi operations but this is the first attempt by the workers to organize a union. COVERCO sees its role as accurate reporting of the facts, thereby making it difficult for employers to deny violations.