By Jeremy Silva, ILRF Intern
Representatives from Central American labor and human rights organizations came to the U.S. on November 4th to testify in front of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of the Regional Campaign Against Labor Flexibility. At the hearing, the campaign presented various cases demonstrating a systematic assault on workers’ basic labor rights throughout Central America. Before testifying on Friday, nine representatives covering all 6 countries in Central America gathered last Thursday at the AFL-CIO to share their struggles and develop strategies for the region. The discussion was sponsored by the AFL-CIO, the Solidarity Center, WOLA and the ILRF. While representatives detailed the unique cases of labor rights violations within their own countries, all agreed that a general failure to enforce labor rights existed throughout Central America as a result of almost universally deficient justice systems.
The worst indictment of the failure of the Central American legal system has been the violence against workers. Workers often face violent rebuttals to their attempts to organize and this has occasionally ended in tragedy. Cisneros described how the ALAP has been fighting to bring the murderers of 3 construction union workers to justice since 2007. The workers were shot while protesting the poor safety standards of the Panamanian construction industry. Panama’s government is conducting an investigation of the incidents; in an all-too-common theme for the meeting however, the fight for justice has been frustrated by the sluggishness of the courts.
Government impunity has left workers frustrated as they fight for even their basic legal compensation from companies who consistently violate labor laws. According to Flores, workers in many Central American countries suffer from their employers taking the Social Security (health coverage) contributions out of their paychecks but failing to pay this money to the government. The employees lose these benefits but risk their jobs if they complain. On a similar note, Minero said that factories in Honduras often close when workers are due to receive their health care benefits and the workers brave enough to complain to the government workers have received promises but no action.
Yadira Minero pointed out that the poor legal system and exploitation on the part of employers has left women workers especially vulnerable. Because women often work in largely informal sectors and face daily discrimination in many factories, they have suffered disproportionately from a lack of effective legal enforcement. Women are subject to discrimination if they become pregnant when or after they are hired, and a lack of day care makes it difficult for working mothers. Given the mentioned circumstances which have contributed to the pervasive problem of job instability, women remain in the lowest-paid, most precarious job positions. More explanation of the challenges facing women working in modern global economy can be found on the ILRF website.
The negative impact of an ineffective legal system on workers’ rights has been compounded by the recent economic crisis. Workers who attempt to organize risk their jobs and any attempt by workers to claim severance pay from an unwilling company is likely to spend many months in the court system. While high court costs and long delays in compensation put an onerous burden on the worker, the high unemployment brought on by the poor economy has made it difficult for laid-off workers to find new employment. In such a climate, workers are afraid to pursue their right to organize and risk their incomes and their family’s livelihood.
In one of the most personal moments of the discussion, Alicia Vargas described her struggle to seek compensation from her former company. Her union, UPINS, fought to prevent the privatization of the national insurance company which employed them but were ultimately unsuccessful. Those who were most active in the fight were then fired by the newly private company. Vargas and the head of the union were among those fired, despite their 15 and 30 years of experience, respectively. Vargas and the other received no compensation for their many years of service. Initially, she tried the administrative channels but eventually went to the courts when the company proved unresponsive. Her case remains pending, and the company is claiming her case to be a personal gripe rather than an infringement on her rights. More can be found on the case here (in Spanish).
The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) was a contentious issue amongst the group, with the members having mixed experiences that expressed an overall feeling of disappointment. Implementers of CAFTA’s White Paper, which was constructed to enforce labor laws throughout Central America have taken a quantitative approach to measurement and monitoring problems which fail to document and analyze many of the qualitative labor rights abuses that remain a problem.Even more disappointing to the representatives at the conference has been the poor use of capacity building funds set aside by the CAFTA agreement to enforce labor laws. A general lack of strategic focus has hindered the impact this money. There has been a failure to designate capacity building funds to local labor organizations/unions that understand the local labor environments and the issues affecting workers on the ground. Many of these complaints were foreseen by labor groups, click here for an especially prescient report on the problems with CAFTA.
The representatives all expressed worry that the same mistakes made with CAFTA would be repeated and even expanded by the trade agreement currently being negotiated between Central American countries and the European Union. As it stands, the agreement offers even fewer concessions to workers than CAFTA, and has been roundly criticized by European and Central American trade unions in an open letter to the negotiators.