a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of workers, with the exception of security force members, to form and join trade unions, conduct legal strikes, and bargain collectively. The law, however, places some restrictions on these rights. For example, legal recognition of an industrywide union requires that the membership constitute a majority of the workers in an industry and restricts union leadership to citizens. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and employer interference in union activities and requires employers to reinstate workers dismissed for organizing union activities. A strike must have the support of the majority of a company’s workforce. Workers are not restricted to membership in one union or one industry.
The president and cabinet may suspend any strike deemed “gravely prejudicial to the country’s essential activities and public services.” The government defined “essential services” more broadly than international standards, thus denying the right to strike to a large number of public workers, such as those working in education, postal services, transport, and the production, transportation, and distribution of energy. Public employees may address grievances by means of conciliation for collective disputes and arbitration directly through the labor courts. For sectors considered essential, arbitration is compulsory if there is no agreement after 30 days of conciliation.
The law prohibits employer retaliation against workers engaged in legal strikes. If authorities do not recognize a strike as legal, employers may suspend or terminate workers for absence without leave. A factory or business owner is not obligated to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement unless at least 25 percent of workers in the factory or business are union members and request negotiations. Once a strike occurs, companies are required to close during negotiations. Strikes have been extremely rare, but work stoppages were common.
The government did not effectively enforce the law. Government institutions, such as the Ministry of Labor and the labor courts, did not effectively investigate, prosecute, or punish employers who violated freedom of association and collective bargaining laws or reinstate workers illegally dismissed for engaging in union activities. The Public Ministry was ineffective in responding to labor court referrals for criminal prosecution in cases where employers refused to comply with labor court orders. Inspectors often lacked vehicles or fuel to carry out inspections, and in some cases they failed to take effective action to gain access to worksites in response to employers’ refusal to permit labor inspectors access to facilities. Inspectors were encouraged to seek police assistance as required. Inspections were generally not comprehensive, and if complaint driven, focused on investigating the alleged violation, rather than attempting to maximize limited resources to determine compliance beyond the individual complaint. Penalties for labor law violations were inadequate and rarely enforced.
In June 2017 passage of Decree 07-2017 restored sanction authority to the Ministry of Labor. Business groups complained the shortened time frame to investigate and verify compliance with Ministry of Labor remediation orders resulted in more cases being referred to the labor courts, without an opportunity to conciliate. The ministry indicated it had collected 1.06 million quetzals in fines ($141,000), but the lack of information about the law’s implementation made it difficult to assess its impact on improving labor law enforcement.
The Special Prosecutor’s Unit for Crimes against Unionists within the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Human Rights in the Public Ministry was responsible for investigating attacks and threats against union members as well as for noncompliance with judicial orders in labor cases. Staffing for the unit has increased, but successful prosecutions remained a challenge. The government reported some 2,000 cases involving noncompliance with labor court orders were under investigation.
An ILO special representative continued to monitor the 2013 roadmap, which includes indicators on increased compliance with reinstatement orders, increased prosecution of perpetrators of violence against trade unionists, reforms to national legislation to conform to Convention 87, and unimpeded registration of trade unions. In November 2017 a tripartite agreement was reached at the ILO, which calls for the formation of a National Tripartite Commission on Labor Relations and Freedom of Association, which would monitor and facilitate implementation of the 2013 ILO roadmap and its 2015 indicators. The commission would report, annually to the governing board and publicly, on progress implementing the ILO roadmap until 2020. In addition to establishing the commission, the parties also committed to submitting to Congress a consensus legislative proposal that would address the long-standing ILO recommendations on freedom of association, collective bargaining, and the right to strike.
The tripartite commission was established in February, but a lack of consensus remained between employers and workers on legislation seeking to address long-standing ILO recommendations related to freedom of association, collective bargaining, and the right to strike, particularly in industry-wide unions. The Ministry of Government convened the Interagency Committee to Analyze Attacks Against Human Rights Defenders, including trade unionists, on a regular basis. NGO participants complained the ministry imposed restrictions on civil society participation in the committee and reduced working-level officials’ authorities to respond to attacks.
Despite these efforts, the country did not demonstrate measurable progress in the effective enforcement of its labor laws, particularly those related to freedom of association and collective bargaining. The ILO noted the need for additional urgent action in several areas related to the roadmap, including investigation and prosecution of perpetrators of trade union violence; the adoption of protection measures for union officials; passage of legislative reforms to remove obstacles to freedom of association and the right to strike; and raising awareness of the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining, particularly in the apparel and textile industries. The ILO also called for greater compliance with reinstatement orders in cases of antiunion dismissals. Based in large part on the 2017 tripartite agreement, the ILO Governing Body closed the case in November.
Violence and threats against trade unionists and labor activists remained serious problems, with four killings of trade unionists, 20 documented threats, and two violent attacks reported during the year. Authorities did not thoroughly investigate most acts of violence and threats, and by often discarding trade union activity as a motive from the outset of the investigation, allowed these acts to go unprosecuted. Several labor leaders reported death threats and other acts of intimidation. The Public Ministry reported one conviction during the year related to a trade unionist killed in 2012.
Procedural hurdles, union formation restrictions, and impunity for employers refusing to receive or ignoring court orders limited freedom of association and collective bargaining. Government statistics on attempted union registrations indicated most registrations were initially rejected, and when they were issued, it was done outside the legally established period. In addition credentials of union leaders were regularly rejected and delayed. As a result union members were left without additional protections against antiunion retaliation.
Employers routinely resisted union formation attempts, delayed or only partially complied with agreements resulting from direct negotiations, and ignored judicial rulings requiring the employer to negotiate with recognized unions. There were credible reports of retaliation by employers against workers who tried to exercise their rights, including numerous complaints filed with the Ministry of Labor and the Public Ministry alleging employer retaliation for union activity. Common practices included termination and harassment of workers who attempted to form unions, creation of illegal company-supported unions to counter legally established unions, blacklisting of union organizers, and threats of factory closures. Local unions reported businesses used fraudulent bankruptcies, ownership substitution, and reincorporation of companies to circumvent legal obligations to recognize newly formed or established unions, despite legal restrictions on such practices.