It is the very first time in history that one country has sought international arbitration against another for a violation of labour standards.
The dispute started back in April 2008, when six Guatemalan unions and the AFL-CIO filed a complaint with the US Office of Trade raising a number of serious concerns, including trade union violence.
The petition argued that Guatemala failed to enforce its own labour laws and its commitments to respect, promote and realise core worker´s rights.
Since then, the situation has only deteriorated. From 2008 to 2013, there have been 30 documented assassinations of union members, according to the UN Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).
Furthermore, there have been numerous acts of attempted murder, torture, kidnappings, break-ins and death threats. This culture of intimidation and impunity has prompted the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) to name it the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists.
Even so, a compromise was reached in April 2013, when the US and Guatemala agreed on an 18-point enforcement plan to strengthen labour inspections, increase compliance by exporting companies, improve enforcement court orders, among other measures.
The plan was supposed to be completely implemented by April 2014. Guatemala has been granted several extensions up until now to give it “one last chance”.
By taking Guatemala to arbitration, the US Office of Trade has acknowledged that very little was done to comply with Guatemala’s obligation to simply enforce its own laws.
“Today the US government took the correct decision to make it clear that without workers´ rights, Guatemala cannot be inserted into the global economy”, said Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the ITUC.
“The business community pressed very hard for CAFTA, despite the well-known and serious violations. This move should give the employer community pause and hopefully provoke deep reforms in their supply chains”.
As well as the US, Guatemala has also an association agreement with the European Union.
The CAFTA-DR arbitration panel will issue an initial report with findings and recommendations. If the government fails to implement those recommendations, Guatemala could face fines and potentially trade sanctions if the fines are not paid.
A similar process is also taking place at the International Labour Organization (ILO), where a request for a Commission of Inquiry – the strongest investigative measure available under the ILO system – was filed by workers´ delegates. The decision should be taken in November 2014.