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What's Happening to Workers in Guatemala?

Every day, Guatemalan workers and trade unionists face harassment, abuse, intimidation and violence. Their rights are disrespected, and over the past five years, more than 50 Guatemalan trade unionists have been killed in acts of violence.

That is why, in April 2008, the AFL-CIO and six Guatemalan trade unions filed a complaint under the Dominican Republic–Central America Free Trade Agreement (known as CAFTA or DR-CAFTA) about the suppression of workers' basic rights in Guatemala. Although the case was accepted in 2009 and advanced to the dispute resolution phase in 2011, the arbitration panel never heard the case. Instead, the U.S. and Guatemalan governments negotiated a “Mutually Agreed Enforcement Action Plan between the Government of the United States and the Government of Guatemala,” (or simply, “Enforcement Plan”).  The Enforcement Plan provided for a review period at the end of the first six months, at which time the arbitration process could begin, or monitoring progress on the Enforcement Plan could continue. 

Because of inadequate progress on the Enforcement Plan, the AFL-CIO submitted a letter together with several Guatemalan trade unions asking the Department of Labor to proceed immediately to arbitration. Unfortunately, the U.S. government opted instead to continue to monitor progress for another six months.

The letter was the latest stage in a five-year-long process in which the AFL-CIO has worked with its Guatemalan partners to protest the government of Guatemala’s failure to meet its CAFTA obligations to strive to protect fundamental labor rights and to enforce its own labor laws (the bare minimum any worker should expect).

The Enforcement Plan, however, was flawed from the beginning. Developed with too little input from Guatemalan workers and their unions, it included no provisions to provide justice for murdered Guatemalan union leaders and their families. Instead, the violence against workers has continued while Guatemalan workers are harassed, abused and denied basic workplace protections every day.

Meanwhile, Guatemalan employers routinely refuse to pay minimum wages and rob workers of their right to organize and freely associate. Public and private employers consistently refuse to make Social Security payments, and they refuse to acknowledge court orders and escape financial obligations. The Enforcement Plan has not ended these unfortunate practices, and for their part, Guatemalan judges and prosecutors have declined to advance criminal charges against employers who refuse to comply with the law.

Despite the ongoing violations, workers in Guatemala have not lost hope. During the next six months, the United States should make clear that it will continue to lobby the government of Guatemala  to become a more reliable regime to protect workers' rights. 

What happens in this case should concern workers, no matter where they live: In a global economy, unfair labor standards against workers anywhere drag down fair labor standards for workers everywhere. Guatemalan workers, like workers everywhere, deserve a government that ensures they can exercise the right to organize and bargain collectively without harassment and intimidation.

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