Labor unions marked International Workers Day on May 1 with marches across Central America. Thousands of demonstrators turned out in various countries across the region, despite facing repressive conditions in some cases, to commemorate the struggle of organized labor and to demand improved working conditions. But while the protests drew mass support, labor unions are facing systematic threats and deteriorating labor conditions.
Workers throughout Central America face extreme challenges and violence. Across the region, workers face dismal working conditions and low pay that make life difficult.
“The situation for workers at a general level has deteriorated, and more so with the pandemic,” Luis Fuentes, the national coordinator for the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center in Guatemala, tells The Progressive. Labor organizers, especially in Guatemala, face stigmatization for their attempts to organize workers and as a result many laborers work up to seventy-two hours per week and are often not even paid the minimum wage.
Ahead of the May Day march in El Salvador, workers faced threats of arrest under the country’s State of Emergency for “being associated with gangs.” The controversial State of Emergency declaration against gang members, initially approved by the national assembly in late March, was renewed for another thirty days on April 24.
“It is worrying and it is serious because they are restricting our right, our union freedom, and they are frightening the population more so that they cannot unionize,” Angelina, a maquila worker who asked for a pseudonym out of fear of reprisals, tells The Progressive. “This message launched by the Minister of Labor frightens more people who are not yet unionized.”
Angelina did not march out of fear. The majority of unions who marched, she says, were supporters and allies of President Nayib Bukele. She says that the Labor Ministry is demanding that they give their support for the embattled minister, Óscar Rolando Castro, who was listed on the U.S. Engels list of corrupt officials.
“They have called us asking us to support the minister,” she says. “They are asking that the unions align themselves to defend him. If you do not align with them they will not issue credentials [for the union].”
She adds, “They are practically dismantling the unions.”
They refused to back the Minister.
Workers throughout Central America also continue to face extreme challenges and violence. Across the region, workers face dismal working conditions and low pay that make life difficult.
The International Trade Union Confederation named Honduras as one of the top ten most dangerous countries in 2020. At least thirty-six union activists were killed in Honduras between 2009 and 2019. According to the confederation’s report, “Impunity prevailed as the government failed to provide timely and adequate protection to trade unionists who received death threats and failed to investigate and prosecute anti-union crimes.”
The administration of newly elected Honduran president Xiomara Castro has taken slight steps to improve the situation. The Honduran congress repealed a controversial law, approved in March 2014, known as the Ley de Empleo de Hora. The law permitted businesses to classify people as part-time and temporary with contracts in which the worker was paid for hours worked, rather than the daily rate. The law often violated the rights of workers, and often workers failed to receive a renewal of their contracts, contributing to job insecurity.
Guatemala is seeking to implement a similar program, which Fuentes argues is a violation of worker’s rights and denies them social security.
The situation is even more dire in Guatemala. The International Federation of Trade Unions declared Guatemala one of the top ten most dangerous countries for union members and union organizing in 2014 and again in 2017. The country has seen the largest systematic deterioration in the presence of organized labor in the years since the end of the internal armed conflict in 1996.
That year, labor unions represented around 12 percent of workers in Guatemala, but this has since fallen to between 1.2 and 2 percent. The majority of these unions are in the public sector. According to Fuentes, there are only thirty unions representing workers in the private sector and violations of labor rights all too often go uninvestigated.
For decades, efforts to organize workers in Honduras have been met with heavy-handed tactics, including campaigns of intimidation, firings, and even targeted killings. According to Fuentes, workers who try to organize also face being placed on a black list, which prevents them from finding new work opportunities.
“The responses are adverse,” Fuentes says. “There is retaliation of all kinds that range from dismissals to even blacklists being made where workers who try to organize in a union enter a database where they are prevented from working in other companies for the simple act of taking the initiative to organize a union.”
Limiting workers’ rights to unionize is part of an attempt to maintain the status quo.
In its foreign policy initiatives, the Biden Administration has focused largely on investment as a means to curb the massive migration from the region. In Guatemala, these efforts have led to the creation of 70,000 new jobs in key sectors, according to the White House.
Many of these jobs were created in areas, especially in the agriculture sector, where workers lack a living wage. The White House’s plan targets Guatemala’s southern coast, Fuentes says, where there are no unions representing workers on plantations producing sugar cane, bananas, coffee, and African palm oil.
Meanwhile, migration continues—and for many, one of the key factors is that minimum wages can not cover the rising cost of living, while many companies fail to pay even the minimum wage.
“The minimum wage in the country is really the maximum wage,” Fuentes says. “There are studies that indicate that the minimum wage is breached by 75 percent in the country.”
According to the Guatemalan Central Bank, the minimum wage for a traditional job, begins at 2,825 quetzales per month, or $365; others in agriculture labor earn 2,742 quetzales, or about $355; and maquilla labor earns only 2,581 quetzales per month, or $334. The country’s minimum cost of a month’s worth of essential food items currently sits at 3,100 quetzales, or $403.
The overall minimum cost of living for a family of five—including education and health care—is far higher. Currently, that minimum cost of living is around 7,000 quetzales, or $918 per month.
El Salvador faces a similar challenge, especially as prices increase. “Everything is very expensive,” Angelina says.
Besides food, Fuente says, “we also purchase clothes, pay for transportation, and attend to the education of our children. What this means is that the minimum wage does not cover even 50 percent of that cost of living.”
Jeff Abbott is an independent journalist currently based out of Guatemala. “The Other Americans” is a column created by Abbott for The Progressive on human migration in North and Central America.
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