From the TUC

Nicaragua dances to South Korean tune as union protest is criminalised

09 Dec 2016, By

Nicaragua’s good recent reputation on union freedom and workers’ rights has taken a massive blow as twelve workers, including young union activists, face gaol after riot police stormed their protest at an Enterprise Processing Zone (EPZ) in the country’s capital, Managua.

EPZs, already subject to criticism from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Committee on Global Supply Chains this summer (who said “long working hours, forced overtime and pay discrimination are common practices in EPZs” and that “decent work deficits are pronounced in a significant number of EPZs”), are frequently hotbeds of human rights abuse, “often characterized by exemptions from labour laws and taxes, and restrictions on trade union activities and collective bargaining.”

In this case, workers were complaining about conditions at the South Korean-owned Tecnotex factory, demanding access to things like drinking water and health care, as well as more realistic production targets. The South Korean company clearly viewed the request for such luxuries are wholly unacceptable, and fired the union leadership.

Rather than sitting out the inevitable protest – 3,000 workers strong – that followed, Tecnotex management called the police, who had never before intervened in a protest in Nicaragua’s EPZs. According to reports, “police arbitrarily and indiscriminately detained a dozen workers, including workers from other factories who had gathered peacefully outside the factory or were simply passing by, as well as a taxi driver who had nothing to do with the protest.”

It seems as though this sudden change in behaviour from the Nicaraguan government is more to do with the nationality of the factory owners than the behaviour of the workers. Tecnotex’s home country has recently concluded a FTA with Central America and, if this is anything to go by, Nicaragua’s workers are at risk of finding their rights subdued in efforts to keep the regions’ latest free trade partner happy. Certainly in this case, a South Korean company has whistled and Nicaragua’s authorities have stuck the boot in on command.

South Korea’s record on workers’ rights has seen them ranked by the ITUC as the worst a country can be without suffering a total breakdown of the rule of law. Korea’s score of 5 in the annual Global Rights Index puts them alongside Belarus, Guatemala, Qatar and Swaziland as offering no guarantee of rights. This major human rights failure is even more galling because Korea promised to abide by the key ILO conventions on labour rights when it joined the OECD almost exactly 20 years ago. It also signed up to respecting those conventions, enshrining to right to join a union, in the FTA it signed with the EU in 2011. Having completely failed to do that, some fear that South Korea may instead be exporting its own bargain basement standards to the rest of the world.

Given Nicaragua’s previous warmth towards its trade union movement (certainly the most amenable attitude by far in Central America), there is the very real danger that it felt it necessary to put up a show of hard-line enforcement to reassure its new FTA partners that this warmth would not extend to their interests in EPZs. While stability in industrial relations is an understandable goal for a country seeking to end its status as the poorest in the western hemisphere, the South Korean/EPZ model of rights and conditions is not a good place to start, and cracking down on dissent will soon lose the country the international supporters it has gained by its previously open attitude to unions.

Meanwhile, the twelve workers (presumably still including the unfortunate taxi driver) have yet to be sentenced, with their case being deferred several times. The charge of obstructing police, when the police were in the process of breaking up a legitimate and peaceful labour protest, and the charge of criminal damage pinned on two of the group, would set a worrying precedent for union freedom, as well as being grossly unfair on these workers if they end up with the maximum sentence of three years imprisonment.

With Nicaragua under pressure from the US after lobbying by the disgruntled opposition persuaded Congress to make it hard for the country to gain international finance, it would be sadly ironic if the government’s response was to seek other allies by embracing right wing policies to fight off challenges to its socialist agenda.

IndustriALL, the global union federation representing the garment sector, has written to President Daniel Ortega asking him to intervene, and to the company, stating:

“This unjust sentencing of workers for doing nothing more than defending their rights sets an appalling precedent.

“The company must drop the charges and negotiate in good faith with the union to renew the collective agreement.”

With pressure from less progressive interests clearly also at play, it is more important than ever to remind the Nicaraguan government that their duty to workers’ rights extends across the whole country and not just outside EPZs. There is still a chance that the case could be dropped or the sentences remitted, and – as ever – international attention will help remind the country that its decisions are under scrutiny.

The TUC is seeking a meeting with the Nicaraguan ambassador.