San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Guatemala: The worst place in the world to be a trade unionist

GUATEMALA CITY – Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina has promised a delegation of international trade unionists that he will speak out about the need to respect and protect the lives of union members in the country.

Guatemala is considered to be the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist, according to the International Trade Union Confederation. In the past five years at least 58 union members have been killed in this Central American nation of 15 million, and to date, no one has yet been brought to justice for the crimes.

In a meeting with Public Services International (PSI), a global trade union federation representing 20 million public-service workers across the world, Pérez Molina acknowledged that, “It is very shameful for us that our country is the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists today.”

PSI traveled to Guatemala to urge the government to investigate the country’s high number of trade-union deaths.

“Defending the rights of our affiliate trade-union members in Guatemala is our top priority, and it will remain so until the situation for trade unionists and workers in this country improves,” said Rosa Pavanelli, PSI general secretary.

Earlier this year, the Guatemalan government signed an agreement with the International Labour Organization to investigate and prosecute crimes against union members. However, just days after the mission left the country, three union members were murdered.

On March 21, Santa Alvarado, a member of the National Syndicate of Health Workers in Guatemala (SNTSG), was found strangled after masked gunmen intercepted the vehicle in which she was travelling as she returned from working in the department of Totonicapán, 270 kilometers northwest of the capital, Guatemala City.

Trade union violence Guatemala

Luis Lara, center in red shirt, has been a trade unionist for more than 20 years. His son was killed and his daughter kidnapped as a result of his work with trade unions in Guatemala. Teresa Marshall/The Tico Times

Luis Lara has been a trade unionist for 20 years. In 1994 his 12-year-old son was killed while waiting at a bus stop with his uncle, and the following year, his daughter was kidnapped and shot.

“This all happened because I was involved in el sindicato,” Lara said. “I felt that my life changed completely when they killed my son. … But we keep on fighting because there’s no justice for workers here.”

The delegation hopes its visit to Guatemala will spur the Guatemalan government to take action over the trade unionist deaths and ensure workers’ lives and legal rights are respected.

Guatemala’s attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, has agreed to meet with SNTSG to review a list of 221 names of trade union and community leaders who have been threatened, and to hear new evidence in a series of murder cases.

In addition, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has committed to providing training to PSI affiliate members on how to more effectively document and report threats and attacks against trade unionists.

PSI will meet with members of the European Parliament next month to request that special trade agreements between the EU and Guatemala are not implemented until there is “an end to impunity” in the country and full respect for international trade-union rights conventions.

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