For Guatemalan Workers, a Ray of Hope

Filed in International Labor, Workplace Rights by on April 30, 2013 0 Comments

Trade agreements between the United States and other nations are not just about the free exchange of goods and services; they’re also about protecting the workers who produce and provide them. In a global economy, protecting workers’ rights abroad helps protect workers’ rights here at home by ensuring a fairer global playing field.

In a landmark enforcement plan signed last Friday, Guatemala and the United States took an important step toward fully putting these principles into practice. Guatemala committed to take concrete actions within specific time frames to better enforce its labor laws. The plan addresses the concerns that were raised in a labor dispute case against Guatemala under the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement, known as CAFTA-DR.

Guatemala on the mapThe enforcement plan is the culmination of a long process that started in 2008 with allegations from the AFL-CIO and Guatemalan labor organizations that Guatemala was not effectively enforcing its labor laws, a violation of CAFTA-DR. The process involved exhaustive and careful research and reporting, countless meetings with the Guatemalan government, and extensive interviews with workers.

But when I think about what this enforcement plan really means, I don’t think of that process. I think of the Guatemalan workers my staff met on fact-finding trips who made an enormous leap of faith by taking a chance on that very process, hoping that just maybe it could make a real difference in their lives and the lives of their families. It takes courage, grit and patience to speak out; these workers faced possible employer retaliation, the forfeiture of at least a day’s pay, and long journeys from remote towns to tell my team their stories.

Coffee beans - Guatemala

A worker harvests beans for coffee, a major cash crop for Guatemala.

I think of people like Eswin, who was born and who had worked since age 17 on the coffee plantation where his father, Carmelino, worked his whole life. When they tried to form a union, they both were illegally fired and evicted from their homes on the plantation. In addition, Eswin’s young children were expelled from the plantation school. Even when a court ordered that Eswin and Carmelino be reinstated and given back pay, the company refused. It faced no consequences for disregarding justice.

I think of Zulma, a soft-spoken, young apparel factory worker who endured four years of mistreatment and intimidation. She was fired, reinstated by the courts, then fired again – ­all because she had formed a legally constituted committee with her coworkers to seek better working conditions.

Such accounts not only helped substantiate the claims of weak labor law enforcement in Guatemala, but they reminded us, starkly, of what was at stake. Eswin, Carmelino, Zulma and so many others like them became the human faces and living consequences of these enforcement gaps. And because of their courage, we now have a way forward.

Under the enforcement plan, inspectors will have more resources and better access to work sites. An expedited process for sanctioning labor law violators and ordering them to remedy the violations is in the works. Exporters who break labor laws will have their tax benefits revoked, and mechanisms will be established to help ensure that workers get the money they are owed when factories close. Labor courts will be made more accountable for enforcing their orders.

But this process is far from over. The dispute settlement panel is currently suspended to allow Guatemala time to follow through on these commitments. If it fails, the panel resumes. The United States will be watching and monitoring closely. And here is where I take inspiration from the steadfast commitment of the Guatemalan workers my staff has met along the way — we owe it to them and to workers here at home to follow through and get this right.

Carol Pier is the acting deputy undersecretary of the Labor Department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs.


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