Int’l Labour Organization Reponse Awaited

June 16, 2006

The Labor Ministry and Costa Rican unions yesterday afternoon were still waiting for a response from the International Labuor Organization (ILO) to the controversy over public-worker benefits that brought thousands to the streets in protest last week.

The issue: whether the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) was right to annul certain benefits in public workers’ collective-bargaining agreements because justices found them unconstitutional.

Labor Ministry spokeswoman Ana Isabel Gardela told The Tico Times this week that Minister Francisco Morales, who spoke before the ILO’s Committee on the Application of Standards June 9 and returned to Costa Rica the following day, is awaiting the group’s response, which is expected “in the next few days.”

Gardela added that Morales will not comment on the collective-bargaining controversy or his ILO appearance until the committee renders a decision.

The committee added Costa Rica last week to a list of 25 countries including the United States, Guatemala, Cuba and Ethiopia with labor-related issues the group would study during its annual meeting in Geneva. The purpose of the group is to study adherence to international labor treaties by the ILO’s 178 member countries.

Andrés Avalos, secretary of the Sala II, which handles labor issues, said an ILO decision that the high-court rulings violated international labor treaties would mean the workers’ benefits in question cannot be annulled.

On June 7, workers marched down Ave. 2 in San José and protested in front of the Sala IV, arguing that the high-court justices are stripping workers of hard-won privileges such as severance packages larger than those established by law.

In recent weeks, the court has ruled to annul certain benefits such as discounted insurance for employees of the National Insurance Institute (INS) and is still debating at least 20 other cases regarding the constitutionality of worker benefits, most filed by Federico Malavassi in 2004, when he was a Libertarian Movement legislator seeking to cut government spending. Fear that the court will annul more benefits prompted mass resignations at INS and last week’s protest.

Former Sala IV justice Eduardo Sancho told The Tico Times that while the Constitution does protect collective bargaining agreements, it also excludes certain public workers from such agreements, and the court can annul benefits it finds excessive or unreasonable (TT, June 9).

The financial weekly El Financiero reported this week that the collective bargaining agreements for 12 public institutions cost the government approximately ¢49.5 billion ($96.9 million) per year. A total of 17 public institutions have collective bargaining institutions, but the paper was able to obtain information about the cost of worker benefits from only 12, including the Insurance Institute, the National Oil Refinery (RECOPE), the National Power and Light Company (CNFL), the four public banks, and other institutions.

According to El Financiero, this total is 1.4 times the amount needed to repair all the nation’s roads, and means that each public worker, on average, receives ¢2.4 million ($4,706) in additional pay each year.

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