Under Pressure, Guatemala Addresses Labor Law Abuses

IT looks like progress.

Under stiff pressure from local and international labor unions, human rights groups, and, most significantly, the office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), Guatemala is taking steps to rectify labor-rights abuses here.

* A new labor code was passed by Guatemala's Congress last month with clauses to protect women workers from discrimination, outline redress for unjustly fired workers, set guidelines for union-organizing procedures, and stiffen fines for employers who violate the code.

* The booming textile assembly industry recently allowed workers to organize labor unions in two factories - the first unions allowed into the more than 250 factories that manufacture clothes for Levi's, The Gap, K mart, and others.

* The Ministry of Labor promises to increase the number of labor courts and factory inspectors.

"The labor law package is one of the most complete in Latin America. But you must consider the circumstances: It's a product of US pressure. The reforms wouldn't have been passed without it," says Guatemalan Congresswoman Caterina Reyes Soberanis.

For six years, labor rights groups have sought US help in improving working conditions. Violations of Guatemalan law range from paying less than the minimum wage to death threats, kidnappings, and alleged murder of trade unionists. "Perpetrators of these criminal acts are seldom prosecuted," the US State Department's 1991 Human Rights Report states.

This year, the USTR agreed to review Guatemala's eligibility for beneficial trade access to the US market. The review could mean cancellation of duty-free access for many Guatemalan products under the US Generalized System of Preferences. Similar benefits derive from the US Caribbean Basin Initiative. Of Guatemala's $900 million of exports to the US in 1991, $219 million were allowed in duty-free under these programs.

Reaction to the labor reforms is mixed.

"The reform is definitely progress. It was the result of union leaders working with Congress. But it's just the first step," says Sergio Guzman of the Syndicated Union of Guatemalan Workers.

"This was a collaborative effort," says Marco Augusto Garcia Noriega, president of the Coordinating Committee of Agriculture, Industrial Commerce, and Finance Associations. "Both the unions and the business community worked together. That in itself is an important opening."

But a leading women's workers group was less sanguine. "The Ministry of Labor is fashioning a propaganda solution, not a real solution. We don't trust the government or the factory owners," says Olga Rivas, president of the Feminine Group for Family Betterment.

About 80 percent of the workers in clothing assembly plants are women who earn $1 to $2.25 per day, interviews with workers reveal. Ms. Rivas wonders if adding underpaid inspectors will result in better compliance with laws. "If there are 30 or 60 new posts and they are bought off by the factory owners with bribes, then more inspectors means nothing."

Pharis Harvey, executive director of the Washington-based International Labor Rights Education and Research Fund, testified before the USTR in October. Commenting on sudden government permission to allow two new unions in the clothing assembly industry, Mr. Harvey said it "smacks more of a tactical retreat by the anti-labor union forces in the Guatemalan government."

Guatemalan government spokesman Arturo Alvarado says Guatemala is committed to improving labor conditions.

More than three-fourths of all Guatemalans live in poverty. President Jorge Serrano Elias has embraced the burgeoning assembly industry as an important step toward industrialization and job creation: 80,000 people are employed in the assembly plants today.

By April the USTR must choose between three options: taking away Guatemala's preferential trade status, monitoring Guatemala's progress for one year, or dropping the issue. The inclination now is toward granting a year's reprieve.

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