Impunity rules supreme among the champions of trade union rights violations

There has been no improvement in the plight of trade unionists on the American continent, undoubtedly owing to the impunity enjoyed by those responsible for trade union rights violations. This is, in substance, the main conclusion that can be drawn from the „Americas“ section of the International Trade Union Confederation’s 2010 report on trade union rights violations around the world. It is not surprising that this continent continues to be the most deadly for trade unionists, especially in Colombia, where 48 were killed this year alone.

The American continent has long been the scene of anti-union murders, chiefly in Colombia, Guatemala (16) and Honduras (12), together with abductions, death threats, attacks and even raids on trade unionists’ homes.

Whilst Latin America may have shown greater resistance to the financial turmoil than other parts of the world, the global financial and economic crises have had a profound impact on the region’s real economy. The ITUC annual survey explains that many governments, such as that of Costa Rica, have used the crisis as a pretext for further weakening trade union rights, adopting measures, for example, to increase labour flexibility.

In Colombia, the world’s most dangerous country for trade unionists (Colombia accounts for 60% of all the murders committed around the world on the grounds of trade union activities), the endemic climate of anti-unionism would appear to have become even more deeply rooted. In addition to the many reported murders, there are the cases that have not been registered, as well as the attempted murders, disappearances and death threats. Violence against women is also on the rise: five of the 48 trade unionists assassinated were women. The facts established in the ITUC report point clearly to the fact that the impunity enjoyed by those responsible for these crimes erases any hope of eradicating the anti-union climate in Colombia.

In Brazil, tensions were particularly high in the rural regions, where the ITUC survey reports on a significant increase in the violence against agricultural workers.

Central America also saw an escalation in trade union rights violations, especially in Guatemala, which over recent years has become one of the most dangerous countries for trade unionists, alongside Colombia. The repression levelled against members of the Guatemalan labour, indigenous and campesino movement, the MSICG, has also been seriously stepped up. Trade unions find themselves under siege, with murders, death threats, detentions and torture becoming the daily lot of their members. In Mexico, the ITUC survey reports on the unwavering anti-union strategy deployed by the government in recent years. Four members of the national miners’ union were killed during a long-standing strike.

The ITUC survey highlights the growing opposition to unionisation in the Americas. Employers are using a wide range of union-busting tactics, such as dismissals, harassment and blacklists. Over 200 workers were arrested during 2009 on account of their union activities, most of them in Honduras, and 2000 union members, mainly in Colombia, were dismissed. Although there are many obstacles to the exercise of trade union rights in the United States and Canada, the use of violence is rare. Other tools used to counter unionisation in Latin America include direct negotiations with non-unionised workers, solidarismo (the formation of employer-controlled workers’ associations) and „protection contracts“ or bogus collective agreements drawn up by employers, especially in Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Panama.

The ITUC annual survey highlights the plight of informal economy and unprotected workers, most of whom cannot unionise, as a result either of legal restrictions or the pressure exercised by employers. In Central America, trade union rights are not always applicable in export processing zones (maquilas) and employment arrangements such as subcontracting and outsourcing Outsourcing vgl. Contracting Out remain a major obstacle to unionisation and collective bargaining.

The ITUC report shows that in some instances, the laws in force in certain countries are used as anti-union tools. There are many laws imposing excessive restrictions, and in the United States, Mexico or Ecuador millions of employees such as public servants and agricultural workers are denied the most fundamental rights. Employers often take advantage of inadequate legal provisions to reject collective bargaining negotiations, such as in Trinidad and Tobago. Where strong laws do exist, inefficient or poor implementation and enforcement often render them ineffectual.

The ITUC also highlights a number of positive developments. In El Salvador, the decisions of the new government have facilitated unionisation, especially in the public sector, and in Bolivia, the 2009 constitution has introduced improvements in terms of trade union rights, although some restrictions remain. In Argentina, the Supreme Court extended the protection formerly granted only to the leaders of unions with official status to all representatives of registered trade unions.

The ITUC points out that the repeated violence and constant violations of trade union rights are a clear consequence of the blatant impunity that rules supreme in so many countries of the Americas. „The persistent impunity depicted in the ITUC’s annual survey allows us to call into question the will of certain governments to actually protect trade union rights and effectively prevent violations,“ said ITUC General Secretary Guy Ryder. „Every action must be taken to ensure that the trade union movement can exercise its legitimate role as a counterpower and as a representative of working people,“ he added. Although many violations involve the police and security forces, only a minority of those responsible for the crimes are brought to justice.

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