San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Unionizing in C. America Hazardous to Workers

Central American labor leaders yesterday denounced the constraints and sometimes fatal conditions for unionizing in the region following a damning report by the International Labor Organization (ILO).

This region and the Dominican Republic constitute the world’s most dangerous nations for union activists, according to the report by ILO, a United Nations agency. The report was released Monday in San José during the Promotion and Defense of Union Freedom and Collective Bargaining conference here.

Salvadoran Amanda Villatora, policy secretary of the Union Confederation of the Americas, told the news agency EFE that workers’ rights are “violated in a systematic way” by employers and governments.

Villatora singled out the conference’s host country, Costa Rica, where she said union organizing in a private company is “almost impossible.”

Union pressure, strikes and marches most commonly spring from organizing by public sector employee groups.

She noted that in Guatemala, however, the situation is even worse.

José Pinzón, secretary general of the Central General Confederation of Workers of Guatemala, spoke of the danger of union activity in a country where nearly 20 union activists have been killed this year.

He also said Guatemalan union membership has dived from about 9 percent in the 1980s, a period marred by armed conflict in the country, to less than 1 percent, during democratic peacetime.

Since 2000, the ILO’s committee on labor rights has received 89 formal complaints from unionists in the region, up from 72 last decade.

Labor commitments included in the region’s 2004 free-trade treaty with the United States, or CAFTA, “have not helped (bring) an improvement in the practical conditions of the exercise of union freedom and collective bargaining,” according to the U.N. labor agency, whose officials announced an awareness-raising campaign to this effect in the region.

Among the main limitations on union freedom in the area are restrictions on the right to strike, the “disproportionate” demands regarding the minimum number of workers required to form a legally recognized union and the prohibition on allowing foreigners to head unions.

Another problem is slow justice systems, the report said, referring to the time it takes to resolve cases, reinstate workers who have been illegally dismissed or prosecute those who do violence against union members.


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