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Unions Under Siege in Guatemala

11:29 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Melvy Lizeth Camey Rojas, Secretary General of the SNTSG Santa Rosa Dept, shows the scars of the bullet wounds she suffered in an assassination attempt in August 2012 at her union office. (Photo from Public Services International)

Originally published at In These Times

Guatemala is beginning to emerge from a grim history of military dictatorship and civil strife, but its workers remain mired in the nation’s bloody legacy. Even today, as the country hobbles toward democracy and seeks justice for past atrocities, trade unionists are still a target of violence, with many killings hidden under a cloud of government impunity.

In 2011 and 2012, there were a string of murders of members of the banana workers union, SITRABI. Overall, 64 trade unionists have been murdered in Guatemala since 2007 and hundreds have been systematically terrorized. And the vast majority of such crimes are never prosecuted, let alone punished. Activists believe that unionists are targetedbecause they represent workers’ interests, which puts them this puts them at odds with powerful corporate and state institutions.

Following negotiations with the International Labour Organization and International Trade Union Confederation, the Guatemalan government reached an agreement earlier this year to cooperate with ILO monitors to address anti-union violence and strengthen labor protections. But the bloodshed has not let up.

In a new report, Public Services International, a global labor federation representing public-sector workers, recounts vicious attacks on fellow unionists:

In March 2013, three members of PSI affiliate unions were murdered just days after an ILO mission visited Guatemala to assess the situation of freedom of association. On March 8, 2013, Carlos Hernandez, executive member of the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de Salud de Guatemala (SNTSG) and leader in several peasant organizations, was shot dead by two men carrying 9mm firearms on motorcycles. Santa Alvarado, also a member of the SNTSG, was kidnapped on March 21 after finishing work in the kitchens at the national hospital in Totonicapán. She was later found strangled. Kira Zulueta Enriquez Mena, General Secretary of the Sindicato de Trabajadores Municipales de Nueva Concepción in the department of Escuintla, was assassinated on March 22 at the library where she worked.

While the culprits may be hidden, unionists say these are not singular incidents of criminality. Labor advocates see the killings as a byproduct of deep government corruption linked to both drug trafficking and the business world. The unions’ position as workers’ representatives, they say, makes them a threat to corrupt enterprises and officials, leaving them exposed to killings by hired criminals.

Speaking to In These Times through an interpreter, Luis Antonio Alpirez Guzmán, secretary of dispute resolution with the health worker’ union SNTSG, which has reported several members assassinated in recent years, says local activists believe government officials “are not ordering the assassinations, but they are not doing anything to avoid them. And they are not taking proper action to investigate these assassinations. Therefore the government is considered an accomplice.”

Local and international labor groups are some of the few civil society voices mobilizing todemand action amidst the official silence. Last week, an international delegation of labor activists traveled to Guatemala to demand full investigations of recent murders of trade unionists and pressure the Guatemalan government to prosecute the crimes. The delegation was coordinated by PSI and included representatives from affiliate unions in Europe, Latin America and the United States. PSI General Secretary Rosa Pavanelli says via email that a “historical anti-union feeling” is “present in some sectors of the government as well. As such, a climate of impunity and fear exists.”

The PSI delegation has called on Guatemala’s wealthy trade partners to suspend commercial ties in response to the human rights crisis. In particular, they want European governments to suspend a key program that facilitates trade between the two regions, the European Union Central American Association Agreement (EU-CAAA), which gives trade preferences to Guatemalan businesses.

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Backdoor Talks on Trans-Pacific Trade Deal Aim to Globalize Corporatocracy

4:28 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from In These Times

You might think corporate money corrupts our political system, but the international trade system is where money really talks.

Image via interoccupy.org

The White House is touting the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a “21st century” trade deal, but many activists see it as a regression into economic imperialism. The pact currently in negotiations—covering Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam, with Canada and Mexico recently joining the talks—aims to establish a new trade regime that could intrude on domestic laws that affect millions of workers and consumers, from their weekly paycheck to their prescription medicines.

Thanks to some intrepid activists with Public Citizen and the Citizens Trade Campaign, the public can glimpse at the closed-door negotiations through a batch of leaked documents. So far, what’s trickled out suggests that Washington is determined to scale up the controversial framework of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), creating a new trade regime that exploits inequality between workers and employers within countries, and global inequalities between the “developed” and “developing” worlds.

The TPP, if current proposals are enacted, would grant extreme powers for corporations to act as quasi-legal entities, and potentially to take states to court in order to dismantle environmental, consumer safety, or labor protections that they feel “unfairly” pinch their profit margins. Building on previous trade agreements like NAFTA that have given foreign investors sweeping powers to circumvent domestic regulations, the proposed framework would establish a litigation system designed to protect the “rights” of investors above citizens. Read the rest of this entry →

Trans-Pacific Trade Deal Opens Eastern Front for Neoliberalism

8:49 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Image: Citizens Trade Campaign

Cross-posted from In These Times.

With the U.S. economy stuck in a constant rut and Europe going into a tailspin, President Obama is looking to escape to the East. While the nations of the Asian Pacific rim face strains of their own, from massive inequality to climate change, their growth rates look positively zen compared to the stagnant economies that used to run the world.

So for the past several days President Obama has been charming Asia-Pacific officialdom, hoping these “emerging” economies can prop up the West’s sagging empires. At home, the White House has sold its vision for the “Pacific Century” as a boon for U.S. jobs, and abroad, he’s looking to consolidate influence over Asian leaders with subtle overtures toward checking China’s regional power.

The centerpiece of this program is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that would involve Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, in addition to the U.S. While it would build on existing trade ties in the region, critics see it as an unprecedented supersized neoliberal agenda repackaged with the bow of modernization and “development.”

But according to fair trade activists, the deal may end up not only failing to bring significant job opportunities, but laying the groundwork for an economic regime built on offshoring, deregulation and the swapping of national sovereignty for corporatocracy. Read the rest of this entry →

It’s NAFTA x3 as Free Trade Deals Sweep Through Congress

1:38 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from Colorlines.com

One day in September, Isidro Rivera Barrera, a contract worker and labor organizer who was campaigning at an Ecopetrol refining facility in Barrancabermeja, Colombia, was reportedly gunned down outside his home. His death was met with the usual silence—just business as usual in a country with one of the world’s worst human rights records for attacks on trade unionists. But now, the hushed suffering of Colombian workers reverberates in the U.S. Capitol, which has just passed a deal to bring even more business-as-usual to Colombia.

Congress last week approved three long-pending trade deals with Panama, South Korea and Colombia. The rationale behind each of them is dubious; there’s little evidence that the agreements will lift up the U.S. economy and plenty that they could lead to massive job loss in key sectors. But free trade deals have always been less about creating jobs than exporting neoliberal ideology to the Global South, thereby accelerating poor nations’ cascade toward low labor standards, environmental exploitation and deregulation. Read the rest of this entry →

Labor Day Showdown: Can Advocates Stop ‘NAFTA of the Pacific’?

4:27 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from Colorlines.com

This Labor Day, the Pacific Rim will wash into the Midwest’s flagship city, and activists will confront the tides of global commerce with a demand for global economic justice.

At trade talks in Chicago, the Obama administration will work with other officials to develop a trade agreement that will incorporate Vietnam, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, New Zealand, Australia, Chile and Peru. Labor, environmental and human rights groups will gather in the city to warn that the structure, and guiding ideology, of the emerging trade deal could expand a model of free-marketeering that has displaced masses of workers across the globe and granted multinationals unprecedented powers to flout national and international laws.

The provisions of the Trans-Pacific Free Trade Agreement or Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are still under wraps. But the general outline seems to mimic the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and similar pacts that have brought political and economic turmoil to rich and poor countries alike. The new negotiations are also taking place amid political friction over pending trade deals with South Korea and Colombia, which have run into opposition over concerns about labor abuses abroad and offshoring of U.S. jobs. Yet the White House continues to push free trade as a path toward the country’s economic revitalization.

So on Monday, activists with Stand Up! Chicago and other groups hope to get ahead of political deal-making by demanding that any new trade deal give greater priority to environmental, labor, and health concerns. The ongoing trade talks offer a tiny opening for advocates to put forward ideas for making trade less hostile to ordinary people. In a way, they’re taking the Obama administration on its own word, because the TPP has been billed as a “21st century” trade pact that will presumably improve on previous trade agreements.

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