The Front

Challenging Guatamala 's Labor Abuses

IF ANY COUNTRY IN THE HEMISPHERE were to be held up as a model of economic inequity and social injustice, Guatemala would surely fit the bill. Seventy percent of Guatemala's arable land is owned by 2 percent of the population. A substantial portion of the country's population does not own enough land to subsist without migrating to Guatemala's southern coast to pick cotton or cut sugar cane. These workers at Guatemala's fincas, or plantations, are forced to labor under unbearable conditions. Union organizing is met with layoffs, "disappearances" and death squad killings. It is common practice for land owners to spray fields with dangerous pesticides as they are being worked. And the average wage is only $1-2 a day, far below the $56 a week necessary to keep the average family of five just above the poverty level. Most finca workers come from Guatemala's indigenous communities, which lose approximately 20 percent of their children to hunger or disease before the age of five.

 While the U.S. government has long overlooked the country's labor rights abuses, international workers' rights advocates hope that the United States will finally sanction Guatemala for its record: in August 1992, the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) placed the country's eligibility to receive U.S. trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) under review, meaning that those benefits could soon be suspended. Established under the 1974 U.S. Trade and Tariff Act, the GSP program grants developing countries the right to export certain goods to the United States duty-free. Congress amended the Act in 1984 to require that countries receiving GSP benefits respect international labor standards - the right to association, the right to organize and bargain collectively, prohibition against compulsory labor, minimum wage for the employment of children and regulations governing minimum wages, hours of work and occupational safety and health.

The United States is Guatemala's largest export market. In 1991, Guatemala exported approximately $900 million worth of goods to the United States; a substantial portion of those exports, $220 million, received preferential treatment under the GSP. According to Stephen Coats, executive director of the U.S./Guatemala Labor Education Project (U.S./GLEP), the decision to place Guatemala under review, or ultimately to suspend GSP benefits, is an important step in pressuring the government and private sector to respect labor rights: "U.S. companies are increasingly being held accountable for the working conditions in the factories and on the plantations from which they purchase goods for the U.S. market. ... If Guatemala fails to respect basic worker rights, it will increasingly find U.S. investment going elsewhere and will find ever-increasing efforts to deny Guatemala access to the U.S. market."

 GSP regulation allows any interested party to petition the USTR's GSP subcommittee to review the status of any country eligible for benefits on the basis of the country's labor rights record. Once a country is selected for review, the subcommittee then conducts its own investigation of labor conditions and decides whether or not the country will continue to receive GSP privileges. In the past, the subcommittee has suspended the Central African Republic , Chile , Nicaragua , Paraguay and Romania from the program. Guatemala's atrocious human rights record, probably the worst in the hemisphere, has made that country an obvious candidate for cutoff of benefits, but the subcommittee has refused to investigate Guatemala's labor rights abuses for six consecutive years despite repeated appeals by labor and human rights organizations.

 Since the late 1980s, petitioners have been rebuffed by the GSP subcommittee with arguments that made a mockery of the hearing process. In 1991, for example, the International Labor Rights and Education Fund (ILRERF), along with other labor and human rights organizations, filed a petition. The subcommittee refused to acknowledge that Guatemalan trade unionists were being targeted with death threats, torture and assassinations as a result of their labor activity, facts which were well documented by human rights organizations.

According to the Guatemala Bulletin, a quarterly human rights report put out by the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/U.S.A., government-sponsored violence remained staggeringly high in 1991. The Bulletin notes that 1991 was "unquestionably the bloodiest [year] since the start of civilian rule in 1986. ... Tensions increased between the government and labor and popular movements, when several thousand state workers were laid off and other unpopular measures were taken to restructure the economy according to a neo-liberal model. When unions resisted, several of their leaders were killed or arrested. Others were forced into hiding or exile."

 Even the U.S. State Department, in its 1990 Human Rights Report, was critical of the Guatemalan government. But the GSP subcommittee, in justifying its decision to deny the 1991 petition, used this report selectively, quoting that "the motive behind many of the abuses seems to be the belief that the victims were somehow supportive of or sympathetic to the guerillas." The Guatemalan government has for years attempted to discredit social activists by claiming they are somehow tied to Central America's rebel movement.

A key factor in the subcommittee's failure to recognize Guatemala's terrible labor rights record was the role of the former U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala, Thomas Strook. In 1991, Strook urged the GSP subcommittee not to place Guatemala under review. He told the subcommittee and labor representatives that he wanted to give the newly installed administration of President Elias Serrano a year to show improvements in labor rights. Serrano is closely linked to the former president General Rios Montt, whose regime massacred tens of thousands of civilians in the early 1980s. Predictably, the Serrano regime did nothing in 1991 to make improvements.

In August 1992, however, the GSP subcommittee made a dramatic about face, agreeing to place the country under review. The process usually takes one year, at which time the country is either removed from review and further scrutiny, placed under extended review for additional investigation or has its trade benefits revoked.

 The subcommittee made the decision to review Guatemala's labor rights record following a highly successful congressional lobbying campaign by human rights groups, including U.S./GLEP, the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala, the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/U.S.A., the Central America Working Group and ILRERF. Seventy-one House members signed on to a July 1992 letter from Representatives Jim Moody, D-Wisconsin, and the late Representative Ted Weiss, D-New York, to then-USTR Carla Hills, urging action on Guatemala; eight senators signed on to a similar letter from Senator James Jeffords, R-Vermont, and three more senators wrote letters of their own.

The House letter states that the 1992 petition, co-filed by 10 labor organizations, "amply documents violations of the internationally recognized worker rights defined in U.S. law, including freedom of association, the right to organize and bargain collectively, the prohibition against child labor and the right to acceptable conditions with respect to a fair wage and adequate worker safety standards. It also raises concerns about the complicity of U.S. companies in these violations. ... The repression is so effective that there is not a single active union in the maquila [factories which manufacture solely for export] sector." [See Made in Guatemala: Union Busting in the Maquiladoras," Multinational Monitor, November 1991 and Zones of Exploitation: Korean Investment in Guatemala," Multinational Monitor, December 1992 ].

 When the GSP subcommittee accepted the 1992 petition for review in June, the Guatemalan government took action on a few high-profile labor disputes. For the first time in 40 years, the Guatemalan Congress made some changes in the national labor code, including the authorization of slightly higher fines for breaking labor laws and the imposition of a requirement that the Ministry of Labor respond to petitions for the formation of labor unions within 30 days as opposed to the previous time-frame of 60 days. But these changes are largely meaningless since the original regulations have never been respected by the private sector or the government.

 More significant were concessions to workers who have sought to organize unions at two textile factories. Unionists who were illegally fired at the U.S.-owned Inexport textile maquila in 1988 were finally reinstated in 1992. The workers - all of whom were women - were fired for their union activities and then fought back publicly to assert their legal rights. They held regular vigils and set up a shack in front of the plant to draw attention to their cause. The police destroyed the shack, and police and company managers physically attacked union activists. The company rehired 27 women after the subcommittee decided to go forward with the review process.

And, for the first time in six years, a union in the maquila sector, at Phillips-Van Heusen (PVH), was legally recognized by the Guatemalan government. Workers at two PVH textile maquilas have been fighting to gain union recognition since 1991. U.S./GLEP has been leading an international effort on behalf of the PVH workers, and has documented PVH's tactics: these have included attempts to bribe union leaders, firings, threats to close the plants and personal harassment, as well as the attempted murder of one of the union organizers. Only weeks after the GSP subcommittee put Guatemala under review, the government legally recognized the union at PVH. Currently there are 400 maquila factories with a workforce of 60,000. Only two of these factories are unionized.

 Nevertheless, Phillips-Van Heusen continues its tactics of intimidation. According to U.S./GLEP, union members at one factor were recently branded as "communists" by the plant director, personnel manager and two line supervisors. Union members were reportedly told that "communists sometimes have to go into exile." U.S./GLEP's Coats says, "Such charges are extremely dangerous in Guatemala, and are interpreted by right- wing forces as a license to kill." According to Coats, in September 1991 a PVH union leader was shot by unknown assailants following a summer of alleged death threats by a PVH supervisor. PVH has also been threatening to leave Guatemala altogether because the workforce has been unionized.

 Yet the possible cutoff of GSP benefits has forced the Guatemalan government to address labor and human rights issues in a public forum. The tariff issue has struck a sensitive nerve in the Guatemalan business community and has exerted considerable pressure on the government to demonstrate some regard for the lives of Guatemalan workers.

Labor rights petitioners are pushing for a six-month extension of the review process to pressure the Guatemalan government and the private sector to make substantial improvements. The subcommittee is expected to reach a decision concerning Guatemala's status in May.

 Pharis Harvey, executive director of ILRERF, pointed out in October 1992 testimony before the GSP subcommittee that "there has been progress of sorts. What is most noticeable however, is that it has been directly and proportionately in response to the possibility, the threat, and then the actuality of a review of the country's GSP status. One can only speculate what the labor rights situation in Guatemala might be today if this committee had accepted the petitions we first filed seven years ago."