Americas: trade unions are an endangered species

The situation facing trade unions on the American continent is nothing other than dramatic. That was the main message of the “Americas’ section of the ITUC Annual Survey on Violations of Trade Union Rights, which was published today.

Brussels, 20 November 2008: The situation facing trade unions on the American continent is nothing other than dramatic. That was the main message of the “Americas’ section of the ITUC Annual Survey on Violations of Trade Union Rights, which was published today. This part of the world predictably retained its infamous reputation as the most dangerous continent for trade unionists, largely owing to Colombia, where 39 trade unionists lost their lives as a result of their union activities.

Many trade unionists in the Americas were victims of assassinations, abductions, death threats, assaults and raids on their homes. Employers often used arbitrary dismissals and transfers of union officials in reprisal for the establishment of new unions. In addition, police brutality during demonstrations and protest marches resulted in many injuries, and sometimes deaths, in countries including Brazil, Chile, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru and Argentina. And other, unreported cases should undoubtedly be added to the list.

Whilst Colombia saw a slight improvement in the number of murders of trade unionists, that relatively good piece of news was wiped out by the resurgence of other forms of violence, including a doubling of the number of attempted killings and increases in forced removals, illegal raids, arbitrary arrests and threats. The largest number of violations took place in the agriculture, education and health sectors.

Guatemala is hard on the heels of Colombia for the label of most dangerous country for trade unionists. The violence there is structural and the trade union movement is subjected to constant repression. Pedro Zamora, General Secretary of the union at the port of Quetzal (STEPQ), was murdered whilst leading a campaign against the privatisation of the port and to denounce the numerous violations of trade union rights, including the sacking of nine workers. Though the workers were reinstated after an international mission by the ITUC and the International Transport Federation (ITF), the murder of Pedro Zamora has so far remained unpunished. In January the ITUC organised an international conference against impunity in Guatemala, at which the President, Alvaró Colom, committed to fighting impunity, which is a real scourge in Latin America, and particularly in Guatemala.

Banana plantations are frequently the location for anti-union repression on the American continent, and especially in Ecuador, where the working conditions are particularly harsh. In Guatemala again, Marco Tulio Ramírez Portela of the banana workers’ union in Izabal (SITRABI) was assassinated on 23 September. Reports from SITRABI state that the workers in plantations belonging to BANDEGUA, a subsidiary of the transnational Del Monte Fresh, suffered many intimidation attempts, particularly at night, with no reaction from the security services. Similar intimidation was suffered by the banana workers’ union SITRABANSUR.

The ITUC’s Annual Survey reports one glimmer of hope for the unions in the Americas, since in Honduras the workforce managed to get Chiquita Brand to give way on certain points, obtaining satisfactory agreements with the company after the strike called by the union at the Tela Railroad Company (SITRATERCO) in protest at some unfair dismissals. An enquiry has been opened into these dismissals and the company has undertaken to respect the unions.

The public services are not immune to the anti-union climate on the continent. In many cases the culprit is the Ministry of Labour. A notable example is in Costa Rica, where the staff association of the Labour Ministry criticised the ministry for hindering collective bargaining and trade union representation rights. In addition the government of Oscar Arias used anti-union persecution to combat the opposition to its policy and the international campaigns for workers’ rights. In the USA, the “war on terrorism” was used as a pretext for the systematic reduction of the union rights of government employees. Also, tough campaigns are regularly organised to prevent the establishment of new trade unions.

Further breaches of fundamental trade union rights are the major restrictions throughout the region on the right to strike and the right to collective bargaining. In El Salvador, it was the Constitutional Court itself that ruled ILO Conventions 87 and 98 on freedom of association and collective bargaining, to be unconstitutional, despite their having been ratified by the country in 2006. In Haiti, a country ravaged by poverty, violence, high unemployment and a government and employers little inclined to enforce or respect the law, no progress was made on freedom of association or collective bargaining. The same applies to Peru, where anti-union harassment and mass and selective dismissals are everyday practice.

The ITUC Survey highlights the fact that enterprises in the export processing zones (EPZs) rarely respect the most basic trade union rights. In Honduras, textile companies have implemented policies that make it impossible to create new unions, whilst in Nicaragua, despite the pressure that the Ministry of Labour put on companies preventing unions from being formed, the worst forms of abuse continued to be committed in the EPZs.

The Caribbean is no exception to the rule. Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining are very limited, and anti-union campaigns have been waged to end strikes. In Trinidad and Tobago, the Ministry of Labour threatened striking teachers with legal proceedings, whilst in Belize the anti-union climate is widespread, both in the banana plantations and the maquiladoras.

“The trade union movement has been under attack for too long on the American continent”, declared Guy Ryder, General Secretary of the ITUC. “Protection of the social actors, and particularly trade unionists, is a vital condition for democracy. The trade union rights included in the core conventions of the International Labour Organisation must become an integral part of the process of strengthening the rule of law”, he added.

The ITUC represents 168 million workers in 155 countries and territories and has 311 national affiliates.

For more information, please contact the ITUC Press Department on: +32 2 224 0204 or +32 476 621 018.