Guatemalan banana worker. Photo copyright: www.speedy.photography
Is international pressure finally forcing Guatemala to act over murders of trade unionists?
Since 2007, 68 trade unionists have been murdered in Guatemala, with the Government seemingly reluctant to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Just as we launched an online action to show the Guatemalan government that we expected them to drive forward investigations into the deaths of banana union members, we’ve had potentially encouraging news in the case of assassinated health worker Carlos Hernandez Mendoza.
Hernandez was gunned down by two motorcyclists in March 2013, and the most interesting aspect of the arrests is that three men have been detained, suggesting that the murder’s instigator may also have been arrested, as well as those who were simply hired killers. Details are hard to come by, however.
Progress in investigating Hernandez’ assassination could be seen as a sign that the new Attorney General is being forced to respond to external pressure, albeit slowly.
When British unions met with the previous Attorney General – shortly before she was seemingly ousted by conservative elements of the Guatemalan Government – in March this year, we were promised that some arrests were imminent, so this continues the positive trend that started with her establishment of a specialist unit to investigate crimes against trade unionists.
However, it also fits into the established pattern of the Guatemalan government taking cosmetic action at times of particular pressure on them. At the International Labour Organisation (ILO) conference last week, the ITUC launched their 2014 Global Rights Index. Guatemala, you won’t be surprised to learn, scored a highly negative 5 on the index:
“Countries with the rating of 5 are the worst countries in the world to work in. While the legislation may spell out certain rights workers have effectively no access to these rights and are therefore exposed to autocratic regimes and unfair labour practices.”
Indeed, only countries in the grip of armed conflicts, such as Syria, Ukraine and the Central African Republic, scored worse.
The Guatemalan government was, predictably, outraged: (Spanish link)
Carlos Contreras, Labour Minister rejected the contents of the document and said that it is not objective and informed: “There are actions that have been advanced, because it takes time to reverse history as do government efforts to guarantee rights,” he said.
It may be no coincidence that these arrests came three days before the official launch of the Index, and just before a scheduled meeting between the Labour Minister and the ILO Workers’ Group, who have been at the centre of an attempt to get the ILO to invoke its most serious response to transgressions of workers’ rights by sending a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) to Guatemala. If the ILO finds evidence of widespread abuse of workers’ rights, the impact on the Free Trade Agreements with the US and the EU could be highly damaging for Guatemala.
Meanwhile, nothing has changed for banana workers contemplating organising the lawless south of Guatemala, and their plight continues to undermine wages and conditions across the region.
Whatever the cause of this latest move, the fact remains that Guatemala seems to give slightly whenever pressure is put on them – it was the threat of the ILO Commission and the lobbying of international trade unions that led to the agreement to create the trade union crimes unit in the first place.
The only sensible response is to keep pushing until they run out of easy moves and start making some real changes.