Population: 9 100 000
Capital: La Paz
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 - 87 - 98 - 100 - 105 - 111 - 138 - 182
The election of Evo Morales as President raised hopes within the country’s social and trade union movements. A number of initiatives aimed at re-establishing trade union rights were introduced by the government in its first year, but the radical changes that the unions have been calling for in recent years have not yet materialised. A Constitutional Assembly is being held, which is expected to make major changes to national legislation.
Trade union rights in law
Government authorisation required: Workers may form and join organisations of their choosing and bargain collectively. The law contains many restrictions on these rights, however. The General Labour Act, dating back to 1942, requires prior government authorisation to establish a union and permits only one union per enterprise. It denies public servants the right to organise, with the exception of workers in the health, education and oil sectors. The ILO has insisted that civil servants not involved in the State administration be given the right to join unions, but the government has failed to act. Peasant farmers and agricultural workers are also denied freedom of association. Company or branch unions can only be formed if there is a minimum of 20 workers, while industrial unions need the support of at least 50 per cent of the workforce in order to be established. The General Labour Act provides for labour inspectors to attend union meetings and monitor union activities. Members of trade union executive boards must be Bolivian by birth, thereby discriminating against foreigners and other workers who have acquired Bolivian nationality. Trade union officials must work for the same company. The law does not allow trade unions to join international organisations.
Decree promotes freedom of association: The promulgation of Law 3352 on 21 February 2006 transformed Decree No. 38 of 7 February 1944, which covers trade union protection, into a full Law, whilst introducing a number of changes. Article 5 is particularly significant since it states that “any employer or representative of an employer who breaches the provisions of Article 1 of this Law, or who impedes directly or indirectly the free exercise of trade union activities, shall be fined by the Labour Judge, following a summary procedure, the sum of between 1000 and 5000 bolivianos”. That legislation also removes the decree that allowed the government to dissolve a trade union via an administrative decree and takes into account the ILO recommendations to increase the fines for the offences of anti-union discrimination or interference by employers in union affairs.
Right to strike – strict conditions: Strikes in public services, including banks and public markets, are banned by law. For other workers, the right to strike is subject to strict conditions. In order for a strike to be declared legal within a company, the strike must be supported by three quarters of the workers. General strikes and sympathy strikes are entirely prohibited and violators face prosecution. Compulsory arbitration, which according to international labour standards should only apply to essential services, may be imposed in order to put an end to a strike in sectors that are not always essential. Public service workers are denied the right to strike, as are employees in the banking sector. Those workers who disagree with a strike may continue their normal duties and may even ask for police assistance. Where a strike is declared illegal, those who took part in it may be sentenced to prison terms of one to five years, with forced labour as an additional punishment, in line with the Bolivian Criminal Code (art. 234).
New legislation overturns labour flexibility: On 1 May 2006 Decree No. 28699 was passed, which re-establishes the rights of all public and private sector employees to employment stability, fair pay and social benefits. The Decree annulled articles of previous laws which stated that “private companies and private and public bodies may freely conclude or cancel employment contracts that are governed by the General Labour Act”.
Removal of many legal restrictions delayed: During an ILO technical assistance mission to Bolivia in April 2004, a tripartite meeting was held at which it was agreed to remove some, but not all, of the restrictions on trade union rights. The key problem areas that still needed to be addressed at the time of writing of this report were: the exclusion of agricultural workers/peasant farmers from the scope of the General Labour Act, the denial of the right to organise for public servants.
Trade union rights in practice
In practice, the minimum requirement of 20 workers to form a union has proved a heavy restriction, as an estimated 70 per cent of enterprises have fewer than 20 employees.
Inefficient labour courts: The sluggishness of labour law proceedings is typified by the National Industrial Tribunal, whose cases usually take more than one year to complete. As a result, rulings on cases of discrimination against union leaders and members are frequently too late to have any effect.
Strikes: In practice, strikes do take place. In the months of March and May 2006 there were a number of 24-hour strikes in the public transport, mining, education and air transport sectors, supporting claims for collective bargaining, better wages, and so on.
Peasant farmers: Peasant farmers have formed their own associations in order to protect their interests, although these are not recognised in law as trade unions. They are particularly angry at what they see as an unfair crackdown by various governments on coca leaf production - a traditional crop and their only form of livelihood - as part of the war on drugs. Union action and peasant farmers’ protests are often closely linked. The national trade union centre, the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), includes coca growers among its members, and has often joined forces with the farm workers’ association, the Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia (CSUTCB), when organising social protests. There is likely to be a different relationship with the new government, which is strongly supported by coca growers and indigenous peasant farmers.