Sen. Wyden positioned to secure rights for Guatemalan workers

In August 2015, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) traveled to several Latin American countries, including Guatemala, Argentina and Cuba, to discuss trade while protests continue against the current Guatemalan government.

While he was in Guatemala, he took time out to meet with labor unionists to discuss the Central American Free Trade Agreement (also known as DR-CAFTA). In April 2008, Guatemalan and U.S. trade unions jointly filed a complaint alleging that the government of Guatemala was failing to comply with the labor obligations of DR-CAFTA. This complaint was a key topic of the meeting. After the meeting, Wyden stated:

“This visit reinforced just how important it is to include strong labor protections in our trade deals and to make sure the U.S. follows through with robust enforcement of those rules.”

America’s working families, who have joined in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Guatemala, will be watching carefully to make sure Wyden turns his statement that the U.S. must follow through with robust enforcement into meaningful action. To date, the United States has not engaged in anything close to “robust enforcement.” (A U.S. Government Accountability Office report, published in November 2014, describes years of lackluster efforts to enforce labor provisions in trade deals.)

Today, more than seven years after the initial case against the Guatemalan government was filed, it remains unresolved. In June 2015, a hearing was finally held to determine whether Guatemala was in violation of its extremely minimal obligation to enforce its own labor laws. This is not a very difficult question to discern the answer to, given that during the seven years this case has been open:

Guatemala has been cited as one of the worst labor violators in the world by the International Trade Union Confederation;

Workers from around the world requested that the International Labor Organization open a Commission of Inquiry (the highest sanction possible) to review Guatemala’s non-observance of the fundamental right of freedom of association;

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has had an office in Guatemala to monitor and provide assistance in the human rights sphere, specifically with respect to rule of law, impunity and the protection of human rights in the economic sphere; and

For 2015, Freedom House ranks Guatemala only a 6/12 for Association and Organizational Rights and a mere 5/16 for Rule of Law.

Despite the mountain of evidence of workers’ rights abuse compiled in the initial complaint and since then, the U.S. government recently agreed to delay the final hearing report until Dec. 15, 2015. This is only the latest in a long line of delays that stand between Guatemalan workers and justice. 

The labor problems in Guatemala are serious and widespread. For example, when workers try to organize themselves to protest the wage theft, they often face reprisals, sometimes violent ones. The Guatemalan government’s failure to act is actually counter-development and does nothing to grow a middle class, create trust in government or to promote a stable, secure future for its citizens. Such abdication of responsibility cedes power to employers who choose to violate workers’ rights and creates a disincentive for other employers (either in Guatemala or elsewhere) to treat and pay workers fairly. Despite the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative’s lofty rhetoric, Guatemalan workers have yet to see a meaningful improvement in their circumstances. 

Wyden, as the ranking member of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, has a lot of influence over U.S. trade policy and enforcement. If the senator uses his considerable influence to ensure that Guatemalan workers receive the protections guaranteed to them in CAFTA, he could make an enormous difference toward leveling the playing field and improving the lives of workers in both the United States and Central America. 

If you live in Oregon, you can contact Sen. Wyden here

Celeste Drake is a Trade & Globalization Policy Specialist at the AFL-CIO. This article appeared on the AFL-CIO NOW Blog

Photo: A demonstrator carries a sign that reads in Spanish “Guatemala bleeds” during a protest in Guatemala City. (AP/Moises Castillo)