Nicaragua has a highly centralized, authoritarian political system dominated by President Daniel Ortega Saavedra and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo Zambrana. Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) party exercises total control over the executive, legislative, judicial, and electoral functions. President Ortega was inaugurated to a third term in office in January 2017 following a deeply flawed electoral process. The 2016 elections expanded the ruling party’s supermajority in the National Assembly, which previously allowed for changes in the constitution that extended the reach of executive branch power and the elimination of restrictions on re-election for executive branch officials and mayors. Observers noted serious flaws in municipal, regional, and national elections since 2008. Civil society groups, international electoral experts, business leaders, and religious leaders identified persistent flaws in the March 3 Caribbean regional and 2017 municipal elections and noted the need for comprehensive electoral reform.
The Nicaraguan National Police (NNP) maintain internal security. The army is responsible for external security but also has some domestic security responsibilities. Both report directly to the president, pursuant to changes in the police and army code in 2014. Parapolice, which are nonuniformed, masked, and armed groups with tactical training and organization, act in coordination with government security forces, under the direct control of the government, and report directly to the NNP. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over police and parapolice security forces.
From February to June, the government released 494 purported political prisoners in the context of the national dialogue. Some of those released appeared to have been common criminals; human rights groups claimed only 344 of those released were actually political prisoners. Since April the government detained 161 new political prisoners, including reimprisoning some individuals who were previously released. On December 30, the government released 91 political prisoners, leaving 70 imprisoned.
Significant human rights issues included: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings, committed by the government or its agents; forced disappearance by parapolice forces; torture by prison guards and parapolice; physical abuse, including rape, by government officials; and arbitrary detentions by police and parapolice. There were harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary and unlawful interference with privacy; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; restrictions on free expression and the press, including threats of violence, censorship, and criminal libel; and substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including attacks on the Roman Catholic Church and church officials. The government continued to block nine nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations from recovering their legal status and illegally withheld their assets, preventing them from operating. Government restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and assembly precluded any meaningful choice in elections. There was widespread corruption; trafficking in persons; attacks against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; discrimination against ethnic minorities and indigenous communities; and child labor.
The government did not take steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights abuses, including those responsible for at least 325 killings and hundreds of disappearances during the prodemocracy uprising of April 2018. President Ortega actively strengthened impunity for human rights abusers who were loyal to him.
Parapolice and individuals linked to the Ortega regime carried out a campaign of harassment, intimidation, and violence toward perceived enemies of the regime, such as former political prisoners, campesino or farmers activists, prodemocracy opposition groups, and Roman Catholic clergy. Human rights groups alleged that between October 2018 and August, parapolice killed between 20 and 30 campesinos considered to be opponents of the ruling FSLN party. Crimes committed by parapolice against these individuals were not investigated or prosecuted.
Section 7. Worker Rights
The law provides for the right of all workers in the public and private sectors, with the exception of those in the military and police, to form and join independent unions of their choice without prior authorization and to bargain collectively. In practice the government violated the right by controlling established unions. The constitution recognizes the right to strike, although it places some restrictions on this right. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination but does not provide for measures to protect against rights violation. Burdensome and lengthy conciliation procedures impeded workers’ ability to call strikes. The government created parallel labor unions to confuse and diffuse efforts to organize strikes or other labor actions. In addition, if a strike continues for 30 days without resolution, the Ministry of Labor may suspend the strike and submit the matter to arbitration.
A collective bargaining agreement may not exceed two years and is renewed automatically if neither party requests its revision. Collective bargaining agreements in the free trade zone regions, however, are for five-year periods. Companies in disputes with their employees must negotiate with the employees’ union, if one exists. By law several unions may coexist at any one enterprise, and the law permits management to sign separate collective bargaining agreements with each union.
The government sought to foster resolution of labor conflicts through informal negotiations rather than formal administrative or judicial processes. The law does not establish specific fines for labor law violations, and penalties were generally insufficient to deter violations. Although the law establishes a labor court arbitration process, it was subject to long wait times and lengthy and complicated procedures, and many labor disputes were resolved out of court. The government claimed the vast majority of labor disputes were resolved favorably to workers, but labor and human rights organizations continued to allege rulings were often unfavorable to workers.
Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining were not respected, and the government often intervened for political reasons. Most labor unions were allied with political parties, and in recent years the government reportedly dissolved unions and fired workers not associated with the ruling FSLN.
Politically motivated firings continued to be a problem, and the government appeared to accelerate such firings during prodemocracy protests. After the prodemocracy uprising in 2018, the Nicaraguan Medical Association reported at least 405 doctors, including medical school professors, had been fired from the public health system without cause as of August. Many of those affected stated they were fired for rejecting government orders not to provide medical attention to protesters. In 2018 authorities similarly fired more than 40 public university staff, who also claimed that firings were in retaliation for expressing support for protests or in favor of university students participating in protests. A majority of the doctors and university staff from the public sector fired for political reasons had not received severance pay as of November. Party affiliation or letters of recommendation from party secretaries, family cabinet coordinators, or other party officials were allegedly required from applicants seeking public-sector jobs. Several sources highlighted similar instances of public-sector employees being fired without receiving severance pay.
There were no known high-profile documented instances of strikes being declared illegal. During a strike, employers may not hire replacement workers, but unions alleged this practice was common. Wildcat strikes–those without union authorization–have historically been common.
Employers interfered in the functioning of workers’ organizations and committed other violations related to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Labor leaders noted employers routinely violated collective bargaining agreements and labor laws with impunity.
Many employers in the formal sector, which declined during the year, continued to blacklist or fire union members and did not reinstate them. Many of these cases did not reach the court system or a mediation process led by the Ministry of Labor. Employers often delayed severance payments to fired workers or omitted the payments altogether. Employers also avoided legal penalties by organizing employer-led unions lacking independence and by frequently using contract workers to replace striking employees. There were reports FSLN party dues were automatically deducted from paychecks.
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. Penalties were generally insufficient to deter violations. There was no information available regarding government enforcement of these laws. Despite reported political will to combat human trafficking, including labor trafficking, during the year the government did not take sufficient action to address the scope of the problem and provided only limited information about its law enforcement efforts.
Observers noted reports of forced labor, including of men, women, and children in agriculture, construction, mining, street begging, and domestic servitude.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The law establishes the minimum age for employment at 14 and limits the workday for any individual between the ages of 14 and 18 to six hours and the workweek to 30 hours. Those between the ages of 14 and 16 must have parental approval to work or enter into a formal labor contract. The law prohibits teenage domestic workers from sleeping in the houses of their employers. It is illegal for minors to work in places the Ministry of Labor considers harmful to their health or safety, such as mines, garbage dumps, and night entertainment venues, and to undertake certain agricultural work. The government mostly enforced the law in the formal sector, which was significantly smaller than the informal sector, in which child labor was more prevalent. Legal penalties for persons employing children in dangerous work were sufficient to deter violations.
The government used its limited resources to concentrate on child labor violations in select sectors in narrow geographic areas, such as coffee-growing regions, and gave only limited attention to the large informal sector.
The government continued Programa Amor, which aimed to eradicate child labor by reintegrating abandoned children into society. Information on the program’s activities, funding, and effectiveness was unavailable.
Child labor remained widespread. According to organizations that worked on children’s rights, this likely increased to almost 320,000 children working in some form of child labor. A common feature of child labor was the prevalence of unpaid family work, and the National Institute of Development Information stated 80 percent of children and adolescents were unpaid workers.
Most child labor occurred in forestry, fishing, and the informal sector, including on coffee plantations and subsistence farms. Child labor also occurred in the production of dairy products, oranges, bananas, tobacco, palm products, coffee, rice, and sugarcane; cattle raising; street sales; garbage-dump scavenging; stone crushing; gold mining and quarrying of pumice and limestone; construction; drug production and trafficking; street performing; domestic work; and transport.
Children working in agriculture suffered from sun exposure, extreme temperatures, and dangerous pesticides and other chemicals. Children working in the fishing industry were at risk from polluted water and dangerous ocean conditions.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law and regulations prohibit discrimination regarding race, sex, gender, disability, language, sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV or other communicable disease status, or social status. The government did not deter such discrimination because it did not effectively enforce the law and regulations.
Discrimination in employment took many forms. Although women generally had equal access to employment, few women had senior positions in business and worked in the informal sector at higher levels than men; in the public sector or in elected positions, women’s independence and influence were limited. In addition, women’s wages were generally lower when compared with those of male counterparts, even for the same position and work performed. Workplace challenges for persons with disabilities included inadequate infrastructure, lack of educational opportunities, and a generally low rate of public-services positions, despite a legal requirement that a certain percentage be available to them. LGBTI organizations complained that sexual orientation and gender identity continued to be a basis for discriminatory behavior.
The Special Rapporteurship on Economic, Social, Cultural, and Environmental Rights of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights expressed its deep concern over discrimination on political grounds in the exercise of the rights to work. Workers who disagreed with government recommendations were fired, and only those with a membership card of the ruling party were hired.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The law establishes a statutory minimum wage for 10 economic sectors. According to the Ministry of Labor, the average legal minimum wage covered only 35 percent of the cost of basic goods. The ministry, together with workers’ unions aligned with the ruling party, agreed to freeze minimum wage raises for the year.
The minimum wage was generally enforced only in the formal sector, estimated to be approximately 20 percent of the economy, and in contracting. The Ministry of Labor is the primary enforcement agency, but the government did not allocate adequate staff or other measures to enable the Office of Hygiene and Occupational Safety to enforce occupational safety and health (OSH) provisions. Established penalties were generally sufficient to deter violations.
The standard legal workweek is a maximum of 48 hours, with one day of rest. The law dictates an obligatory year-end bonus equivalent to one month’s pay, proportional to the number of months worked. The law mandates premium pay for overtime, prohibits compulsory overtime, and sets a maximum of three hours of overtime per day not to exceed nine hours per week.
According to International Labor Organization guidelines, the number of labor inspectors was insufficient for the size of the workforce, which included approximately three million workers.
The National Council of Labor Hygiene and Safety, including its departmental committees, is responsible for implementing worker safety legislation and collaborating with other government agencies and civil society organizations in developing assistance programs and promoting training and prevention activities. OSH standards did not deter violations in the formal sector because they were infrequently enforced.
OSH standards also were not widely enforced in an expanding large informal sector, which represented 77 percent of employment and 88 percent of businesses, according to 2016 reports from the Consultants for Business Development and the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development. The informal sector included the bulk of workers in street sales, agriculture and ranching, transportation, domestic labor, fishing, and minor construction. Legal limitations on hours worked often were ignored by employers, who claimed workers readily volunteered for extra hours for additional pay. Violations of wage and hour regulations in the informal sector were common and generally not investigated, particularly in street sales, domestic work, and agriculture, where children continued to work in tobacco, banana, and coffee plantations. Compulsory overtime was reported in the private security sector, where guards often were required to work excessive shifts without relief.
By law workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger their health or safety without jeopardy to their employment. It was unclear if authorities effectively protected employees in such cases.