Violence Against Trade Unionists in Guatemala

Guatemala is the second most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist, according to the International Trade Union Confederation. In each of 2011 and 2010, 10 trade unionists were murdered; 16 trade unionists were assassinated in 2009 and nine in 2008. Other forms of violence have escalated: 76 violent, non-deadly acts were committed against unionists in 2009, an increase of 475% from the 16 acts committed in 2008.

Six banana union members from SITRABI, the largest private sector union in Guatemala, were murdered in 2011; a 7th was murdered in February 2012.  SITRABI represents Del Monte banana workers and is one of six Guatemalan unions which filed a CAFTA labor complaint in 2008.

Impunity Remains at Nearly 100%

In spite of the government’s claims that unionists are killed as a result of the general upsurge of violence sweeping the country and not for their work protecting labor rights, the facts say otherwise. According to a 2010 report from the Guatemalan Labor, Indigenous, and Campesino Movement (MSICG), 75% of union leaders were threatened prior to their assassinations, and 98% were assassinated within a few weeks of advocating for worker rights.

Nevertheless, impunity remains at nearly 100% and companies, the courts, and the Guatemalan government continue to deny the connection. The Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Journalists and Trade Unionists has repeatedly refused repeatedly to investigate crimes against trade unionists, unilaterally determining, without investigation, that the individual or family was attacked and/or assassinated for non-union activity.

Labor Courts Virtually Useless

Under Guatemalan law, labor courts, not labor inspectors, sanction employers who violate labor laws. The Labor Inspectorate turned over 8,606 cases to labor courts in 2009. Employers rarely abided by the relatively few court decisions that ruled in favor of workers, and authorities almost never sanction employers for ignoring the ruling. The labor courts report a backlog of applications for the reinstatement of workers fired for organizing that could last more than 10 years.

Rise in Violence Following Passage of CAFTA

Violence has increased significantly since the implementation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2006. No trade unionists were murdered in 2006. Four were murdered in 2007, then nine in 2008, and 16 in 2009. Illegal detentions of unionists and violence directed towards the families of trade leaders have also increased.

In April 2008, the AFL-CIO and six Guatemalan unions filed a CAFTA complaint with the U.S. Office of Trade, citing labor law violations and violence against trade unionists. After over three years of informal and formal consultations that yielded little progress on worker rights, the U.S. government in August 2011 announced it would take Guatemala to arbitration but the two governments subsequently resumed confidential talks as of the end of 2012. 

The Obama Administration has made clear in their public communications that it does not consider violence against trade unionists a violation of worker rights subject to the CAFTA labor complaint process, e.g. in a 2010 letter to the Guatemalan government, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis announced they wanted consultations on the CAFTA labor complaint and were “also” concerned about labor-related violence. USLEAP has strongly objected to treating violence against trade unionists as outside the CAFTA complaint process.

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