This week, the U.S. government made the deeply troubling decision to grant the government of Guatemala four additional months to come into compliance with “Mutually Agreed Enforcement Action Plan between the Government of the United States and the Government of Guatemala,” signed between the two countries in April 2013. The plan was enacted in response to a 2008 complaint filed by the AFL-CIO and six Guatemalan unions under the labor provisions of the Dominican Republic–Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA), which requires that countries “effectively enforce”their own labor laws. For years, Guatemala has done nothing of the kind, a fact and confirmed by a 2009 investigation conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor. In addition to persistent violence and impunity, workers face extreme barriers to enforcing the law against unscrupulous employers, who often pay below legal wages or skirt required benefits, including overtime, social security payments and severance, knowing the government will not hold them accountable. The plan was supposed to be completely implemented by April 2014.
As detailed in an April 19 letter from the AFL-CIO and a broad coalition of Guatemalan unions, the plan has done nothing to improve the situation on the ground over the last year, and there is no indication that a four-month extension will yield better results. Under CAFTA, a persistent failure to honor labor commitments should lead to an independent arbitral panel. The decision to instead grant yet more time further delays justice for Guatemalan workers and calls into question the U.S. government’s commitment to bringing real meaning to the labor provisions in trade agreements.
Egregious violence against union activists continues. Marlon Dagoberto Vásquez López, a 19-year-old youth leader and member of the construction workers’ union of Guatemala (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Construcción y Servicios de Guatemala), was murdered Jan. 5. Four other Guatemalan trade unionists have been assassinated this year, and many more have been subjected to threats and intimidation.
Required reform measures have not been enacted. Labor inspectors hired under the plan have come forward to report that they have not been given adequate resources to do their job. Employers continue to evade legal responsibilities and rob workers of hard-earned wages and pensions. Judgments against companies, which in themselves are still a rarity, often go uncollected. Workers continue to report that the Ministry of Labor and judges often refuse to even hear their cases.
The government of Guatemala has demonstrated a consistent indifference to the plight of its workers, who face systematic violence, intimidation and the denial of basic rights to a fair wage and benefits. Attempts at reaching a voluntary solution to the problem have failed and will continue to fail absent real political will to right these injustices. An arbitral panel alone will not correct the years of abuse, but it would be an important step forward. As it is, six years after the original complaint, workers still wait for justice. The U.S. Government must send a strong, consistent message not only to the Guatemalan government but also to our current and potential trading partners that there will be repercussions for ongoing worker rights violations.