Population: 6 200 000
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 - 87 - 98 - 100 - 105 - 111 - 138 - 182
Unions protested throughout the year about many violations of collective agreements by employers and the latter’s efforts to prevent organising. Trade union members and leaders in the private sector faced harassment. Some cases regarding dismissals of trade union representatives that go back as far as nine years are still pending in industrial tribunals. Employers often ignore court orders to reinstate workers.
Trade union rights in law
Many restrictions: The Constitution allows both private and public sector workers to form and join unions. Article 289 of the Labour Code stipulates that “workers cannot form company unions if they have less than 20 members or union committees if they have less than 30 members”. Workers may not be members of more than one union. Candidates for trade union office must work in the enterprise and be active members of the union. All unions must be registered with the Ministry of Justice and Labour, and the procedures are cumbersome. Employers can file a writ opposing the registration of a union.
Trade unions must comply with all requests for consultation or reports from the labour authorities.
The law provides for collective bargaining, and prohibits anti-union discrimination. There are few real sanctions to prevent discrimination, and labour courts are not obliged to reinstate unfairly dismissed trade unionists. Collective disputes must be submitted to compulsory arbitration.
The Constitution provides for the right to strike, but strikes can only be called for the sole purpose of the direct and exclusive protection of workers' occupational interests. A minimum service must be ensured in the event of a strike in essential public services. Article 353 of the Labour Code sets so many pre-conditions that it is very difficult to meet them all, and the employers use these requirements for declaring strikes illegal and sacking the strikers.
No progress on law reform: The government has failed to act on ILO recommendations to amend legal provisions not in compliance with the conventions on freedom of association and collective bargaining.
Trade union rights in practice
Harassment: Private sector employers have ignored anti-discrimination laws and have antagonised and sacked trade unionists. The industrial tribunals take a long time to respond to complaints, with dismissed trade unionists waiting for up to eight years for their cases to be settled. Even when the tribunals order the reinstatement of employees, such legal decisions are often ignored with impunity. Another practice on the rise, is for employers to sack workers before they have been employed long enough to be protected by law.
The unions have reported that in some cases management have created their own "parallel" unions to compete with bona fide unions.
Right to strike: Though the law provides for the right to strike, prohibits compulsory arbitration and reprisals against strikers and union leaders pursuing union activities, in practice employers often take reprisal measures. The courts are supposed to enforce decisions based on voluntary arbitration, however that procedure is virtually never used. Top-ranking officials of the Justice and Labour ministries are allowed to act as intermediaries in disputes.
Majority still excluded from right to organise: A large section of the workforce is involved in sub-contracted or informal employment. Given the legal restrictions on union rights, over half the workforce is unable to join unions or, therefore, to oppose the abuse of their rights by employers. The government claims that in practice it does not apply the minimum membership rule of 30 people before a union can be formed.
Violations in 2006
Background: In a historic move, five trade union centres agreed to form a single confederation in order to oppose the policy of the government. The governing Colorado Party won the municipal elections on 19 November and President Nicanor Duarte began a campaign to amend the Constitution in order to enable him to stand in the 2008 Presidential elections.
Unfair dismissal: On 25 August, Shirley Marisol Rojas, a bank worker and member of the Executive Committee of the union at Interbanco S.A., was dismissed before she could complete her ten years of service, which would have provided her with protection from dismissal except for a justified and proven reason. Marisol Rojas, who was eight weeks’ pregnant, discovered that she had been dismissed by the company whilst she was in an emergency ward after losing some blood.
Dismissed for forming a union at the Chaco dockyards: A number of workers and union leaders from the union at the Chaco dockyards were unfairly dismissed. The workers were on strike following the tragic death of Francisco Acuña owing to the inadequate health and safety measures at the company. Mariano Servín was also seriously injured in the accident and has still not completely recovered. The dispute started when the union insisted that the company comply with the labour laws and stop harassing workers benefiting from trade union protection.
Dismissed for forming a union at a pension fund: Four members of the public sector federation Unión Nacional de Trabajadores del Estado (UNTE) were dismissed from the organisation running the Municipal Workers Pension Fund. The dismissal of these employees took place after they had formed a union and accused the current administration of the fund of irregular practices. The harassment of trade unionists had been going on for some time and an official complaint had already been filed with the International Labour Organisation.
Failure to implement the collective agreement: The leaders and members of the union at the Social Security Institute (Sindicato de Empleados y Obreros del Instituto de Previsión Social, SEODIPS) are continuing to suffer pressure from the State. The dispute dates back to 2005 when the workers at the IPS started a strike in protest at the non-application of their collective agreement. More than 3,000 workers took part in the strike despite intimidation by state security forces. The IPS officials’ strike was declared illegal by the judge Julio César Centeno, following pressure from the government; the judge maintained that breach of a collective agreement was not sufficient grounds for a strike. The decision of the judge in the Court of First Instance was overturned in the Appeals Court of the Industrial Tribunal. At the time of writing of this report the case was before the Supreme Court.
Police repression: Relations between the leaders of the health union and the Minister of Health, Teresa León, have worsened. On 12 January, a fight broke out at the Ministry of Health between health workers and the police following the abrupt dismissal of 16 health workers from the Santaní hospital and the decision by the Health Minister that they would not be re-recruited. The pretext given for that decision was that they had not passed certain tests, despite the fact that all of them had five years’ seniority. The decision provoked considerable unrest and led to a pitched battle on the Ministry steps. The police injured several people in the course of the struggle, showing no compassion towards the women involved, some of whom were pregnant.