2009 Survey of violations of trade union rights - Americas

Americas: increased attacks against trade unions

Americas: increased attacks against trade unions

Brussels, 10 June 2009 (ITUC Online): The situation facing trade unionists on the American continent is tragic and not improving, indeed it is worsening. That was the basic message of the “Americas” section of the Survey on worldwide violations of trade union rights, published today by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Once again, this part of the world has won the infamous prize of being the deadliest continent for trade unionists, thanks in particular to Colombia, where 49 workers lost their lives and over 200 were arrested owing to their trade union activities.
Assassinations, abductions, death threats, assault and attacks on their homes are the daily lot of too many trade unionists in the Americas.

Employers have used unfair dismissals and transferring of union leaders to other posts as reprisals for forming new unions. The economic and financial crisis that is crippling the whole world has also been used as pretext for unfair sacking of trade unionists.

The ITUC Survey stresses that Colombia is the most dangerous country for trade unionists. 60% of the reported worldwide figure for assassinations on account of trade union activities took place in that country. Many unreported cases should probably be added to those figures. Violent cases increased drastically (up 25% in 2008), though the government of President Alvaro Uribe has placed a special focus on security. Of the 49 murdered trade unionists, 4 were women and 16 were leaders of unions. The ITUC deplored the fact that there were 10 more assassinations of Colombian trade unionists than the previous year. In addition to the murders there were attempted murders, disappearances and death threats. But the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators and authors of these crimes needs particularly to be stressed, in view of the totally inadequate sentences that are passed, where indeed that happens. In addition, the labour laws and policies continue to deny over two thirds of the workforce any social and employment protection, thereby depriving more than 12 million workers of their most basic rights.

According to the ITUC report, Central America is also responsible for numerous violations of trade union rights, particularly in Guatemala, where there are constant abuses. Guatemala is close behind Colombia in terms of the level of danger faced by trade unionists. Assassinations, harassment, shootings at people’s homes, and raids and attacks on union offices took place throughout the year. More than 20 leaders of unions, indigenous groups and peasant farmers were murdered and impunity reigned. The union movement was subjected to a level of persecution reminiscent of the practices used during armed conflict. All this despite the fact that President Alvaro Colom had promised the year before at the International Conference against Impunity to tackle the problem, which is a real scourge in Latin America.

In Honduras, a country that is generally less noted for assassinations, Rosa Altagracia Fuentes, General Secretary of the Confederación de Trabajadores de Honduras (national confederation), was brutally murdered with 16 bullets. The ITUC reports that the police hold a list of recognised leaders, including indigenous leaders, journalists and even representatives of the international community, who are being kept under surveillance by the national intelligence services. The ITUC Survey highlights similar cases in Panama, where a union leader from the national building workers’ union SUNTRACS was murdered, against a background of extensive and serious violations of workers’ rights.

Organising and collective bargaining are undermined by a whole range of dubious practices. These include subcontracting workers using employment agencies or simply sacking union leaders as a means of destroying the union movement. It is not unusual for employers to offer payment in return for leaving a trade union. In Nicaragua, short-term contracts are common and a means of preventing any increase in the number of union members. In addition, trade union rights are non-existent in the export processing zones (EPZs), which are rights-free areas.

According to the ITUC annual survey, the fact that employers so frequently flout workers’ rights is definitely due to the lack of sanctions or the weakness of those penalties. Whilst El Salvador ratified ILO Convention 87 on freedom of association and the right to organise, it is still not being applied. The same is true in Costa Rica, where the exercise of trade union rights is strongly undermined.

The ITUC report explains that in certain cases failure to respect legislation can be an effective tool for thwarting trade union rights. In other cases, it is the legislation itself that enables those rights not to be respected. In the United States, tens of thousands of workers are sacked each year in breach of the labour law. And union -busting is a multi-million dollar business there. In various provinces of Canada, legislation does not provide certain groups of workers with the legal protection they need to organise themselves or contains restrictions on the right to strike.

In Mexico “protection contracts", which are fake collective agreements drawn up by employers, negotiated behind workers’ backs and filed with the Federal Conciliation and Arbitration Board, breach union rights by preventing the establishment of a union in the company, together with any collective bargaining and exercising of the right to strike. Things are similar in Peru, where the trend of subcontracting a large number of government services has continued, leading to a decrease in jobs in state enterprises and the public administration. Lastly, in Venezuela, the government has continued its interference in the internal affairs of the trade union centres.

The Caribbean does not get higher marks as a rule. Though the law recognises trade union rights, there is certainly no systematic application of those rights, particularly the right to strike. In Barbados, for instance, whilst trade union organisations are recognised they are unable in practice to negotiate a collective agreement, whilst the unions in Jamaica regularly complain of attempts to destroy them.

“Violations of the rights of trade unionists have been worsening in a disturbing manner on the American continent, which has been suffering for too many years”, stated Guy Ryder, General Secretary of the ITUC. “The union movement must be allowed to play its legitimate role of representing working people, not least as the world faces an economic and financial crisis.”

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