Guatemala "must do more" to protect trade unionists

By Anna-Claire Bevan - Equal Times. The Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina has promised to continue investigating crimes against trade unionists and to provide them with more security if they consider their lives to be in danger.


<p>Workers and their unions face widespread violations of the most basic rights in Guatemala</p>

Workers and their unions face widespread violations of the most basic rights in Guatemala

(AP/Moises Castillo)

The pledge follows increasing international pressure to end impunity in the Central American nation and seek justice for the 73 trade unionists murdered there in the past few years.

On a per capita basis, Guatemala remains the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist.

Workers and their unions face widespread violations of the most basic rights, such as the right to organise and to negotiate on behalf of the workers they represent.

A number of the trade unionists killed for campaigning for better labour rights had previously sought government protection after receiving death threats.

However, the protection was not given and they were subsequently murdered.

Under international pressure, the government has consequently created protection programmes to provide trade unionists with security if they feel they are at risk.

But many trade unionists say this response alone is not enough.

“We are still worried because there are no firm sentences,” said Luis Lara, general secretary of the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Salud de Guatemala (SNTSPG), which is a part of the Frente Nacional de Lucha people’s movement.

“In the case of the assassination of our colleague Carlos Hernandez Mendoza, it continues without a sentence. In the case of our colleague Ovidio Ortiz Cajas there isn’t a sentence either.”


Ongoing failure

Both Guatemalan trade unions and the international trade union movement have repeatedly voiced their concerns over the ongoing failure of the judicial system to bring sentences against those responsible for the assassinations of trade unionists.

During the past year, a number of high-level international delegations have travelled to the country to meet with the president and urge his government to put an end to the wave of trade unionist deaths or risk losing its favoured trade status with Europe and the United States.

Public Services International (PSI) recently held its annual regional conference in Guatemala City and confronted Pérez Molina about the lack of advances made since its previous visit six months ago.

“Although some cosmetic changes have been made and numerous bodies and institutions created, this has not led to substantive change,” said Sandra Vermuyten, PSI Equality and Rights Officer.

“On the contrary, impunity continues and the government refuses to implement the agreements that it has signed.

“The United Nations High Commissioner [for Human Rights] very clearly pointed out the continued mass murders, displacing of indigenous people [and] violence against trade unionists. These are all signs of a failing state that is an accomplice of the interests of a handful of people, for whom no rules exist.”

Last month, the ILO decided to postpone a vote on whether or not to instigate a Commission of Inquiry in Guatemala until November, giving the country more time to address all of the issues raised in the road map that it signed at the end of October.

President Pérez Molina assured the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) general secretary, Sharan Burrow, that it is Guatemala’s intention to comply with the international convention that guarantees the right to freedom of association, and committed to send out a circular to all government institutions, calling for respect of freedom of Association and collective bargaining.

“Time is long overdue for Mr Pérez Molina to start to deliver on more than good intentions for the working women and men of Guatemala,” said Burrow.

“The international trade union movement will otherwise need to intensify its lobby for a Commission of Inquiry (the highest level of investigative procedure in the ILO) to be created.”

This will eventually have an impact on Guatemala’s free trade agreements, especially the CAFTA Arbitration Board, and significantly raise the possibility of a complaint procedure with the European Union.