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With international solidarity, Guatemalan unions can seize a new chance for workers’ rights

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Unions are still under fire in Guatemala, while its government faces renewed anger on the streets, but there’s compromise at the ILO

Guatemalan banana worker. ©

As Guatemala’s government wobbles but refuses to fall, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has hatched a new plan to make progress on a roadmap intended to end the persecution of trade unionists: the country vies with Colombia for the status of the most dangerous place in which to be one.

Guatemala’s trade unions slammed the government’s claims of progress at the ILO’s meeting in Geneva last month, reporting continued failures to prosecute violent crimes against trade unions, to reinstate dismissed trade unionists and to promote freedom of association.

This is a crucial time for Guatemala and its trade unionists. With the government trying to stem a revolving door of ministerial resignations, the violent free-for-all that has left activists vulnerable to threats and murder is not being addressed.

The ILO was left in a difficult position following the protracted crisis afflicting President Jimmy Morales’ government. The former comedian, elected on the uninspiring slogan of “neither corrupt nor a thief” has been accused of failing to live up to even this meagre standard.

The National Assembly has protected him from prosecution, bringing the enraged population onto the streets in a protest supported by the trade unions. Finally, his Labour Minister quit the chaos, leaving a vacuum that it was feared would leave no one able to deal authoritatively with the ILO. Instead, the Labour Minister reversed her resignation only eight days later, and the government agreed a new commission, with trade union involvement, that will see reporting on Guatemala’s progress hard-wired into the ILO governing body agenda for at least the next three years.

Chaos is nothing new to the Guatemalan government, which has used the smoke screen of the country’s out of control crime rate to obscure the glaring facts of a campaign of trade union repression going back years. Although more than 80 trade unionists have been murdered this century, only 11 convictions have been secured, none of them of the people ultimately behind the killings, while the trade union motive has been widely downplayed.

Random, uncontrolled violence, the state reckons, is less controversial than a concerted effort by nefarious interests to keep labour costs low and workers disempowered. In reality, it’s another indicator that the government lacks the will to enforce the rule of law.

While the government strives to avoid disintegration, its lack of action on impunity continues to harm the lives of trade unionists and their families. Most recently, Tomas Salazar, a union organiser at meat processing company Bremen, was gunned down as he left work.

The union is brand new, having succeeded in navigating the lengthy registration process required by the government, but had already seen one general secretary step down in suspicious circumstances. When the new union head, and organisers like Salazar, held firm against bribery attempts, Tomas was murdered. The public prosecutors’ office, however, insist that the apparent causality is coincidence – just another victim of Guatemala’s violent culture.

While the government prioritises covering its own back over protecting its people, it’s hard to see how this ends well.

Even the new committee, the National Tripartite Commission on Labour Relations and Trade Union Freedom, contains the institutional disadvantage of the government’s close association with the employer lobby. Trade unions may have a voice on a high-profile commission able to propose legislation, but they will be out numbered every time they sit round the table, and their industrial power remains small and under pressure. 

But there is hope. Salazar’s union, SITRABREMEN, has pledged to continue his work and keep pressing their employer for a collective agreement. The country’s once-beleaguered banana unions have stabilised their relationships with their employers, and are now seeking more workers to support and protect, with international solidarity key to helping them change their fortunes.

And an ITUC survey showed that the Guatemalan people, despite the country’s trade union traditions being shredded by years of violence and propaganda, firmly backed trade union rights. 68 per cent of them supported the right to join a union (63 per cent more than are actually members), with 54 per cent also firmly behind the right to strike. Other trade union causes got support too, with a huge 97 per cent backing a minimum wage.

With the unions playing a part in the new spirit of defiance that has put successive governments under the spotlight for corruption, it’s clear that the ILO’s intervention could liberate people already struggling to make their country a better place. With international solidarity behind them, Guatemala’s unions can play a stronger hand on the Tripartite Commission; the government may have the domestic numbers, but in the end, only the international community can decide if they’ve met their obligations.  

The government must stop looking after itself, and respond to the real challenge before it.

TUC Aid and British unions have been actively supporting Guatemala’s banana unions since 2013, and is closely watching the treatment of all trade unionists.

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