Under Pressure, Guatemala Addresses Labor Law Abuses

Article excerpt

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. …