In Guatemala, defending your rights at work can cost you your life. Workers who speak out against wage theft, exploitation and anti-union discrimination run the risk of facing serious retaliation, including intimidation, threats, physical violence, kidnappings and even murder.
In Guatemala, violence against worker rights defenders is the norm, not the exception. Since 2004, 87 labor leaders have been murdered, a reality that makes Guatemala one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a trade unionist.
The perpetrators of these crimes overwhelmingly go unpunished. According to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), 73 trade unionists were murdered in Guatemala between 2007 and 2014, but not a single person has been convicted for any of these heinous crimes. And although the Guatemalan government has signed agreements with the International Labor Organisation (ILO) committing itself to the protection of these activists, bloodshed and violence remain the status quo.
For Tomás Francisco Ochoa Salazar, attempts to organize workers at the meat-processing plant – Carnes Procesadas S.A. – where he worked in Guatemala City, led to two gunmen on a motorcycle shooting him and another union member as they left the factory on September 1, 2017. Andy Noel Godinez survived, suffering non-life-threatening injuries but Tomas was killed, leaving behind his wife and three children.
Tomás was the Secretary of Disputes for SITRABREMEN, a young union that recently received official recognition from the Ministry of Labor in February 2017. SITRABREMEN reports that their employer, Carnes Procesadas, S.A. has been engaged in an aggressive anti-union campaign, subjecting leaders and members to unjustified retaliation, harassment, and suspensions.
SITRABREMEN asked for international solidarity following the shooting of two of its members. The International Labor Rights Forum and Solidarity Center gathered 38 signatures from unions and NGOs across the United States and Europe, calling upon the Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales Cabrera to urge the Public Ministry to conduct a full and immediate investigation. The letter also expressed serious concern regarding the overall violence against human rights defenders in the country.
In Guatemala, everyday workers try to peacefully organize for wages that can sustain families, keep their children fed, housed and educated. And everyday, the people who try to change their countries for the better, create decent work and democratic dialogue, are silenced. Sometimes they are just harassed or fired and often times they are blacklisted, never being able to find work again. However, all too often worker right activists are murdered in cold blood, like Tomás Francisco Ochoa Salazar, shot outside the factory he worked at at 2:20 pm on a Friday. All for daring to try and win a collective bargaining agreement.
Violence and impunity have a chilling effect on the ability of workers to exercise their basic rights. Advocating for humane working conditions and jobs with dignity should never cost you your life. But violence against trade unionists throughout Central America is still not being effectively addressed by national governments, international institutions or employers. In the developing world, murder of a worker rights activist is too often treated as business as usual. It must be given higher priority, with zero tolerance.