Guatemala: where trade unionists are murdered so that workers' rights can be abused

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has condemned the Government of Guatemala for not investigating the murders of trade unionists, or punishing those responsible. In a report drawn up to highlight Guatemala's appalling record on trade union rights, the ITUC argues that this culture of impunity undermines the rights of working people to organise in trade unions, because people are scared to offend their employers. As a result, only one in thirty Guatemalan workers is a union member, and abuses of workers' rights – such as pre-employment pregnancy tests – are common, especially in free trade zones known as maquiladoras (assembly plants).

The full report lists a number of murders:

  • in January 2007, dockworkers' union leader Pedro Zamorra was bruttally murdered after leading a campaign againt privatisation of the port of Quetzal – no one has been arrested;
  • in February 2007, street vendors' union leaders Anibal Ixcaquic Mendoza and Norma Sente de Ixcaquic were shot and killed in the centre of the capital city; and
  • in May 2008, a leader of the health workers' union was shot travelling to work by motorcycle.

Others have been subject to death threats, and in May 2008, the daughter of a union leader in the banana industry was gang raped by armed men.

This violence and harassment is not accidental, and the failure to investigate or prosecute makes a mockery of human rights in Guatemala. Employers set up yellow unions as alternatives to the real ones – but strangely, their leaders are not harassed, intimidated or murdered. And their members are not systematically sacked.

The result is not just low unionisation, but appalling abuses of workers' rights – like pre-employment pregnancy tests, widespread temporary and vulnerable employment, and endemic child labour especially in agriculture and domestic work (where many children report long hours, psychological mistreatment and sexual abuse).

In Guatemala, trade union rights would lead to a major improvement in human rights generally for working people, especially women and children.

Owen Tudor

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