United Against Silence

Puerto Quetzal (Credits: Stan Shebs)
Puerto Quetzal (Credits: Stan Shebs)

Chapter 1: Deadliest Place on Earth

A Report published by the International Trade Union Confederation in June 2013 names Guatemala as the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist. The death of Marlon Dagoberto Vàsquez Lòpez, last January, is only the last in a long series of episodes of violence against trade unions. Murders, torture, kidnappings, breaks-in and death threats have sadly become part of trade unionists’ daily life in Guatemala.

Enrico Tortolano, PCS Policy Officer, talks about the history of unionism in Guatemala.

Chapter 2: A Union in the Making

Sayaxche is a small town on the edge of the jungle that runs from the sandy banks of the Rio de la Pasion river down to the Mexican border. There’s a ferry docked at the river’s quay. For centuries it was used to transport food, livestock, and timber. That was before trucks loaded with palm oil began to drive across the town’s main roads, before hectares of jungles were eradicated to leave space for endless plantations of African palms. Arranged in straight lines the palm trees grow in valleys surrounded by cobble-stoned hills. Every hectare produces 7 tons of palm oil, the cheapest and most popular source for agrofuel.

Meeting of African palm workers and trade unionists in Sayaxche
Sam Jones, member of Peace Brigades International, talks about the difficulties that workers in Sayaxche had to face in their attempt to set up a union.

Chapter 3: Banana Unions under attack

Guatemala is the land of the palms. While the north is well known for its extensive production of African palm oil, the rest of the country is filled with endless plantations of banana palm trees. Despite the agricultural sector accounting with 38% of the labour force, unions keep struggling to protect workers’ rights as they deal with continuous episodes of violence. In most cases the Labour courts are incapable of guaranteeing the respect of labour laws and the authors of the violence end up unpunished. Impunity is, in fact, one of the most serious problems affecting Guatemala.

Banana plantations

Chapter 4: International Help

he Trade Union Congress is located in a tall building in central London, only 10 minutes from Euston Station. Inside, the atmosphere is calm and friendly.

SITRABI: banana workers’ union / “Which bananas would you eat? Non-union or union?” (Credits: Giorgio Trucchi | Rel-UITA)

Chapter 5: The Importance of Solidarity

The TUC and Banana Link are now aiming to get more UK organisations involved in order to raise awareness. On the 31st of May 2014, TUC in partnership with Banana Link, Amnesty International, Guatemala Solidarity Network and Peace Brigades International will organise a conference in London about the violation of human rights in Guatemala. Kevin Hayes, one of the organisers of the conference, seems to share TUC’s view on the importance of building links of international solidarity between Guatemalan and British organisations. “The Guatemala Conference in May will be a wonderful opportunity to hear TUC’s first-hand reports on the situation of workers’ unions in the country. Fresh from their fact-finding delegation, TUC and Banana Link members will help people understand the reasons behind the campaign of violence against trade activists in Guatemala and the importance of strengthen links of solidarity between British and Guatemalan unions.”

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Camilla Capasso

Camilla Capasso

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Non-profit communications consultant, freelance writer and content creator. www.camillacapasso.com