Rt. Hon. William Hague
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
King Charles Street
International Labour Organisation Commission of Inquiry re Guatemala
On behalf of the Trades Union Congress, I write to urge the government, as a member of the Governing Body of the International Labour Organization (ILO), to support the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry on Guatemala at the March 2013 Governing Body Session.
Freedom of association has been consistently denied in law and practice in Guatemala. Over the last twenty years, the ILO supervisory mechanisms have detailed extremely serious and systematic violations of the right to freedom of association, up to and including death threats and murder. In that time, the ILO, and the social partners, has sought to engage in a constructive dialogue with the government in order to find practical solutions to extremely serious violations -- but to no avail. The fact remains that serious violations of the right to freedom of association continue unabated and without meaningful sanction, leading to a situation of near total impunity. Despite countless promises by the Guatemalan authorities to take the necessary steps to respond to this crisis, the situation only worsens with each passing year. The current government, in power since January 2012, has claimed that things will be different this time. However, workers still routinely suffer serious violations of fundamental labour rights with little effective legal recourse.
Here are the key facts:
Since 2007, there have been at least 64 documented assassinations of trade unionists. In 2012 alone, there were at least 6 such assassinations. Additionally, there have been numerous acts of attempted murder, torture, kidnappings, break-ins and death threats, which have created a culture of fear and violence where the exercise of trade union rights becomes impossible. To date, only a small fraction of these incidents have been investigated and not a single murderer has been successfully prosecuted.
The labour justice system remains fundamentally broken despite a substantial level of technical assistance and other support from the ILO and bilateral assistance from donor governments. Workers who suffer retaliation for their trade union activity have no effective remedy. While the government recently hired additional labour inspectors, it is still woefully inadequate given the size of the workforce. Workers report inspectors telling them that they will perform an inspection only if their travel, food and lodging expenses are covered - which means for a low-wage worker that no inspection will be undertaken. On the occasion that inspectors do carry out their work, they are often denied entry to factories or other worksites; however, they rarely seek the assistance of the police as is their right under law. Labour courts have proven incapable of guaranteeing respect for the labour laws. Frequent and often baseless appeals can drag out the legal process for several years, even decades. Even in those cases where workers are able to get a final judgment, they are rarely enforced.
The government has for several decades supported the maquila (light manufacturing) industry through tax holidays and the systematic failure to enforce its labour laws. Any company exporting more than 51% of their production can be classified as a maquila, thus qualifying for significant tax breaks for a 10-year period. Although the law requires these businesses to respect labour law in order to continue to receive tax breaks, this provision is almost never enforced in practice. Efforts to organize are quickly and sometimes violently brought to an end through targeted or mass firings, death threats, blacklists, or simply closing the plant (and sometimes reopening elsewhere under a new name).
Guatemalan workers have over the last 20 years exhausted every possible international mechanism available to them. Indeed, the Committee on Applications of Standards has since 1991 reviewed Guatemala's non-compliance with Convention 87 a total of 14 times (and double footnoted it twice) and 3 times on Convention 98. There have been 93 complaints filed with the Committee on Freedom of Association, with 17 on-going today. There was a high-level mission in 2011, which followed several technical missions in recent years. There is simply nowhere else for workers to turn except for a Commission of Inquiry.
Unless additional pressure is exercised, the government of Guatemala will likely continue to ignore the criticisms and recommendations of the ILO supervisory mechanisms, as it has done for the last twenty years. The 2012 report of the Committee of Experts and the High-Level Mission both reflect this exasperation, noting that several recommendations have been expressed for several years and expressing deep regret and deep concern at the present situation. As the ILO's highest-level investigative procedure, the Commission of Inquiry could promote the needed reforms in law and in practice. The Commission of Inquiry could help to open up needed space for debate and consultation.
Following the filing of the complaint to establish a Commission of Inquiry in June 2012, Guatemala rushed to adopt a Decent Work Country Programme (DWCP) in October 2012 and signed a framework for technical cooperation with the ILO. This does not lessen in any way the need for a Commission. In fact, a Commission could be a useful tool to investigate and diagnose the profound problems the country faces with regard to labour violations, violence and impunity. The DWCP could be a complementary vehicle through which the recommendations of the Commission are reviewed, adopted and implemented.
Thus, the Trades Union Congressstrongly urges the government to support the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry on Guatemala in March. We also call upon you to urge the other government members of the Governing Body members to support its establishment.
Issued: 23 January, 2013