Guatemala: where a union leader’s life costs just $195
I spoke today at #LatinAmerica15, the annual conference devoted to solidarity with our colleagues in South and Central America and the Caribbean. I was talking about Guatemala, in the company of Noé Ramirez, leader of banana workers’ union SITRABI, a truly brave man and an inspirational leader.
Noé set out just how bad the situation facing trade unions is in Guatemala, although he forebore to mention the personal tragedy of his own brother’s assassination in 2007. And he was not down-hearted by the daily struggle against harsh and sometimes murderous employers or a government that allows killers off scot free and facilitates the exploitation visited on the workers, often by hugely profitable multinational companies. He pointed to the collective bargaining deal secured with Del Monte, and the tripartite talks with employers and business that unions have won, thanks to support from TUC Aid, Italian and American trade unions and the global union movement the ITUC.
The culture of impunity in Guatemala means that, while the overall number killed is lower than in Colombia, the rate at which union leaders are murdered judged against membership numbers is actually worse. But the situation seems to have improved, with just one trade unionist killed so far this year (see below). Why is this?
The Guatemalan government claims that many of the trade unionists killed in the past decade were the victims of crimes of passion, although the Guatemalan people seem no less passionate, if Noé is anything to go by. Since most murders of union leaders are the responsibility of employers, have they become angels? Sadly not. The reduction in the death toll is the result of international pressure backing in the bravery of the trade unionists on the ground.
US trade unionists have persuaded their government to investigate the failure of the Guatemalan government to implement the requirements of the US-Central America Trade Agreement (CAFTA) to respect the freedom to join a union and bargain collectively. And global trade unionists got the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to pressurise the Guatemalan government to start the tripartite talks, holding the threat of a Commission of Inquiry over the government if it does. It abide by its promises.
One key test of the Guatemalan government will be its response to the murder of public sector workers’ unionistRamos Castillo, gunned down in front of his family home on 24 Septembet this year. Amazingly, the SITRAMJ activist’s family managed to apprehend the murderer – who confessed to being paid just $195 to kill him – and handed him over to the police. If Ramon’s killer escapes justice, and the police fail to investigate who paid him, then all the fine words and progressive pledges of the Guatemalan government will be exposed.
In the meantime, there is more we can do. Unions in the UK – working with their Global Union Federations and with NGOs like Banana Link who organised Noé’s visit – can link up with their Guatemalan opposite numbers and, more importantly, put pressure on employers who operate in both Britain and Guatemala to respect freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively. Trade unionists can fund union capacity-building projects through donations to TUC Aid, the channel through which we helped Banana Link to bring Noé over and, more importantly, helped his union SITRABI to organise and represent banana workers.
And we can raise awareness of what is going on in Guatemala, to put pressure on MPs and MEPs to get the European Commission to use its Association Agreement with Central America – which like CAFTA includes commitments to respect core ILO conventions on freedom of association and collective bargaining – to ensure the Guatemalan government and multinational brands live up to their obligations to the working people Noé Ramirez so bravely and brilliantly represents.