Press release: The Americas: impunity and a climate of terror for trade unionists

The findings of the 2011 ITUC Survey of violations of trade union rights in the Americas are irrevocable. The situation for trade unionists has far from improved and impunity remains for those responsible for violations of trade union rights. The American continent remains the most dangerous continent for the exercise of trade union rights, particularly Colombia, where 49 trade unions lost their lives in 2010.

Anti-trade union practices are becoming commonplace, particularly because of the poor protection of trade union rights by governments and the courts and practices expressly aimed at by-passing these rights: solidarismo (the setting up of pro-management associations) in El Salvador, Ecuador and Costa Rica; protection contracts (pseudo-collective agreements created by employers) in Mexico; or the use of temporary workers in Colombia and Honduras.

Employer tactics to repress trade union activities, such as the setting up of trade unions, collective bargaining or strikes, are numerous; arbitrary dismissals, discrimination and anti-trade union campaigns. In Venezuela, many workers lost their jobs because they took part in trade union activities. Collective bargaining is practically non-existent in many countries due to the absence of binding legislative measures.

For years, the Americas has been renowned for the danger associated with the exercise of trade union rights. The murder rate is high, particularly in Colombia, Guatemala (10), Panama (6), Brazil (3) and Honduras (3), but there are also a significant number of kidnappings (in excess of 100), death threats, attacks and home break-ins. In excess of 1,000 workers were attacked during demonstrations and approximately 300 were dismissed. In Colombia, 20 attacks or attempted murders were identified, in particular against trade unionists in the mining sector. Even if the economic and financial crisis has had profound repercussions on the economy in Latin America, the Survey criticises the attitude of many governments who use the crisis as a pretext to undermine trade union and workers’ rights.

More than 55% of the trade unionist murders took place in Colombia, the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. Despite the adoption of new laws designed to increase protection against anti-trade union discrimination and interference in trade union affairs, the situation has not improved, quite the opposite. The impunity that the perpetrators and the sponsors of these violations enjoy, results in systematic persecutions and prevents the eradication of the anti-trade union climate.

Central America is no exception: in Panama, more than 700 people were injured, 100 were arrested and six people were killed during the brutal repression of demonstrations against the Chorizo law.

Guatemala is poised to catch up with Colombia in terms of danger. In addition to the anti-trade union culture fostered by employers and tolerated by the authorities, trade unionists are practically speaking, victims of persecution. Murders, death threats and arrests have become commonplace. Trade union organisations are systematically victims of smear campaigns and exclusion from social dialogue forums. In Honduras tensions have been running at a new high since the 2009 coup d’état. Violence and an anti-trade union climate reign. Threats and attacks on the lives of Resistance Front members, including leaders of trade union organisations and popular movements, are frequent and three trade unionists have been killed.

In Belize, Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador, trade union rights are seldom respected or even granted in the Export Processing Zones and the governments of these countries do not take any action to ensure that they are implemented. Sub-contracting and outsourcing to third party companies continue to seriously hinder organising and collective bargaining.

On a positive note, despite the anti-trade union position of DHL in the region, in May, the Sindicato de Empleados de Líneas Aéreas de Panamá (SIELAS) succeeding in negotiating a collective agreement on behalf of the workers.

The 2011 ITUC Survey stresses that the tendency in the Americas is clearly opposed to organising. In the United States, employers have the right to campaign to dissuade and intimidate workers, thus preventing them from fully exercising their trade union rights. At the end of 2010, the Free Choice Act amending the national law on labour relations was almost entirely shelved as a result of the Republican’s victory in the House of Representatives. In Canada, faced with the federal and provincial government’s refusal to modify the legislation to include collective bargaining despite a 2007 Supreme Court decision, the Canadian trade unions have submitted complaints to the ILO. The use of strike breakers is widespread in both the United States and Canada.
“The American Continent is the most dangerous in the world for trade unionists. It is time for this to change. Democracy also includes the respect for trade union rights. Trade unionism is a legitimate counterbalance to power and is necessary for its functioning” said Sharan Burrow, the ITUC General Secretary.

Read the complete survey