Belize

Executive Summary

Belize is a constitutional parliamentary democracy. In 2015 the United Democratic Party won 19 of 31 seats in the House of Representatives following generally free and fair multiparty elections.

Police are responsible for internal security. The Ministry of National Security is responsible for oversight of police, prisons, the coast guard, and the military. Although primarily charged with external security, the military also provides limited domestic security support to civilian authorities and has limited powers of arrest that are executed by the Belize Defense Force (BDF) for land and littoral areas and by the coast guard for coastal and maritime areas. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included allegations of unlawful killings by security officers; allegations of corruption by government officials; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; and child labor.

In some cases the government took steps to prosecute public officials who committed abuses, both administratively and through the courts, but there were few successful prosecutions.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: In July a law firm representing Prime Minister Dean Barrow informed media outlets they could face legal action if they broadcast a statement from a foreign government agency related to Barrow. The statement, which was made public, was one of the court documents filed in a real-estate fraud case involving foreign investors. The prime minister and his law firm were named in the court document as having knowledge of the land scam. The opposition party criticized the prime minister’s letter, and Senator Osmany Salas described it as an attempt to restrain freedom of press.

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The government detained several unaccompanied minors who were transiting the country en route to the United States to join their families.

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The government does not distinguish between refugees and asylum seekers, as the law itself does not reference asylum seekers–only refugees and recognized refugees. During the year the government did not grant asylum status to any of the pending 3,740 applicants, although the Refugee Eligibility Committee recommended 517 persons for approval. Many applications were summarily denied because the applicants did not apply for asylum within 14 days of entering the country, as the law requires. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Help for Progress, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees implementing partner in the country, opened a resource facility near the western border to offer information on how to apply for asylum status, and it continued to assist by providing limited basic services, including shelter, clothing, and food to refugees and asylum seekers.

Employment: Persons awaiting adjudication of their refugee applications were unable to work legally in the country.

Access to Basic Services: Refugees were able to use the education system and the socialized medical system, but the government offered no assistance with housing or food except in extreme cases that involved children and pregnant women.

Temporary Protection: The Immigration Department issued renewable special residency permits for periods of 60 to 90 days to those who applied for refugee status within the 14-day deadline.

Not applicable.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

During the year the Elections and Boundaries Department conducted a reregistration of the entire electorate. A significant number of citizens claimed they were not allowed to register, and subsequently vote, because they lacked identification documents, which they said the government failed to provide.

Recent Elections: In the March 2018 municipal elections, the United Democratic Party retained 62 percent of all municipal seats, while the People’s United Party increased its share of municipal seats to 38 percent. The results of the San Pedro municipal election were challenged in court by the People’s United Party. The court did not find enough evidence to invalidate the results, and the case was dismissed. The law does not allow citizens to hold public office while seeking political office.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. Observers suggested cultural and societal constraints limited the number of women participating in government. Women remained a clear minority in government: two of 31 members of the House of Representatives and three of 13 senators were women.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year.

Corruption: Allegations of corruption in government among public officials, including ministers, deputy ministers, and chief executive officers, were numerous, although no substantial proof was presented in most cases. In September a foreign law enforcement agency detained the deputy director of the Belize Tax Service Department, Reynaldo Verde, for extortion and attempted extortion of a foreign national investor in Belize. The investor claimed that in 2017, Verde requested BZ$350,000 ($175,000) in exchange for erasing the taxes the investor owed to the government. Verde denied the accusations, and as of year’s end he continued detained abroad awaiting a court hearing.

The Senate Select Committee charged with investigating alleged corruption within the Immigration and Nationality Department failed to produce a report and recommendations to the government. Public hearings conducted during the 2017 investigation revealed several instances where high-ranking government officials, including ministers of government, approved the issuance of visas, citizenship, and passports to unqualified individuals. Citizens alleged corruption against the Lands and Surveys Department in the Ministry of Natural Resources for illegally distributing lands to party associates. Despite the accusations of political cronyism, the government insisted it maintained transparency in the distribution of land.

The 2017 case brought by the government against Andre Vega, the son of former deputy prime minister Gaspar Vega, concluded in July with a court ruling that Vega must repay BZ$400,000 ($200,000) in compensation he received for wrongfully being awarded a privately owned piece of land. Andre Vega and attorney Sharon Pitts were accused of unjustifiably enriching themselves from questionable land transactions while Gaspar Vega was minister. Pitts entered into mediation with the government in an effort to find an amicable solution to return money made in the scheme.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires public officials to submit annual financial disclosure statements, which the Integrity Commission reviews. At the same time, the constitution allows authorities to prohibit citizens from questioning the validity of such statements. Anyone who does so outside of the rigidly prescribed procedure is subject to a fine of up to BZ$5,000 ($2,500), three years’ imprisonment, or both. Many public officials did not submit annual financial disclosure statements and suffered no repercussions. In July the Integrity Commission published the names of 32 local government members who failed to file sworn declaration of assets for 2018. In accordance with the law, a report was also sent to the director of public prosecution for further action, but as of year’s end, none had been taken. As of September the commission continued to be staffed by only a secretary.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials often were cooperative and responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The ombudsman, although appointed by the government, acts as an independent check on governmental abuses. The Office of the Ombudsman holds a range of procedural and investigative powers, including the right to enter any premise to gather documentation and the right to summon persons. The office operated under significant staffing and financial constraints. The law requires the ombudsman to submit annual reports. The office does not have the power to investigate allegations against the judiciary. While the Office of the Ombudsman has wide investigative powers, it lacks effective enforcement authority; noncompliance by the offices being investigated severely limited its effectiveness.

The Human Rights Commission, an independent, volunteer-based NGO, continued to operate, but only on an ad hoc basis due to funding and staffing limitations. The commission provided human rights training for police recruits, prison officers, and the BDF.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Rape and Domestic Violence: The criminal code criminalizes rape of men or women, including spousal rape. The code states that a person convicted of rape shall be sentenced to imprisonment for eight years to life, although sentences were sometimes much lighter. Problems facing the wider justice system generally resulted in poor conviction rates for rape. According to the United Belize Advocacy Movement (UniBAM), 75 percent of sexual abuse crimes were against girls between the ages of 10 and 19.

Domestic violence was often prosecuted with charges such as harm, wounding, grievous harm, rape, and marital rape, but allegations of domestic violence were treated as civil matters. Police, prosecutors, and judges recognized both physical violence and mental injury as evidence of domestic violence. Penalties include fines or imprisonment for violations. The law empowers the Family Court to issue protection orders against accused offenders.

The government directed awareness campaigns against gender-based and domestic violence, a domestic violence hotline, and shelters for victims, and major police stations had designated domestic abuse officers, although these measures were not always effective.

Sexual Harassment: The law provides protection from sexual harassment in the workplace, including provisions against unfair dismissal of a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace. The Women’s Department recognizes sexual harassment as a subset of sexual violence, but no cases have ever been brought under the sexual harassment provisions.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no confirmed reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: The law provides for the same legal status and rights for women as for men. The law also mandates equal pay for equal work, but the labor commissioner verified that men earned on average BZ$90 ($45) more per month than women did because they held higher managerial positions. The law provides generally for the continuity of employment and protection against unfair dismissal, including for sexual harassment in the workplace, pregnancy, or HIV status.

Despite legal provisions for gender equality and government programs aimed at empowering women, NGOs and other observers reported women faced social and economic discrimination. Although participating in all spheres of national life and outnumbering men in university classrooms and having higher high school graduation rates, women held relatively few top managerial or government positions.

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived by birth within the country’s territory, regardless of the parents’ nationality. Citizenship may also be acquired by descent if at least one parent is a citizen of the country. The standard requirement is for births to be registered no later than a week after birth; registration after a month is considered late and includes a minimal fine. Failure to register does not result in any denial of public service, but it slows the process for receiving a social security card to access services such as health care. Children without birth certificates also had trouble registering for school and often had to move from school to school. The government’s Vital Statistics Unit expanded registration of newborns by establishing registration officers at all major hospitals, but due to inadequate funding and staffing, the offices were open only during the workweek from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. In 2017 UNICEF began a project to ensure all births in the country are registered.

Child Abuse: The law allows authorities to remove a child from an abusive home environment and requires parents to maintain and support children until the age of 18. Abuse of children occurred. There were publicized cases of underage girls being victims of sexual abuse and mistreatment, in most cases in their own home or in a relative’s home.

The Family Services Division in the Ministry of Human Development is the government office with the lead responsibility for children’s problems. The division coordinated programs for children who were victims of domestic violence, advocated remedies in specific cases before the Family Court, conducted public education campaigns, investigated cases of human trafficking in children, and worked with local and international NGOs and UNICEF to promote children’s welfare.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age to marry is 18, but persons between ages 16 and 18 may marry with the consent of parents, legal guardians, or judicial authority. According to UNICEF, 29 percent of women ages 20 to 49 were married or cohabitating before reaching age 18.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law establishes penalties for child prostitution, child pornography, child sexual exploitation, and indecent exhibition of a child. It defines a “child” as anyone younger than age 18. The law stipulates that the offense of child prostitution does not apply to persons exploiting 16- and 17-year-old children through exchanging sexual activity for remuneration, gifts, goods, food, or other benefits.

The legal age for consensual sex is 16, but prostitution is not legal under age 18. Sexual intercourse with a minor younger than age 14 is punishable by 12 years’ to life imprisonment. Unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor age 14-16 is punishable by five to 10 years’ imprisonment.

There were anecdotal reports that boys and girls were exploited through child prostitution, including through the “sugar daddy” syndrome whereby older men provided money to minors, their families, or both for sexual relations. Similarly, there were reports of increasing exploitation of minors, often to meet the demand of foreign sex tourists in tourist-populated areas or where there were transient and seasonal workers. The law criminalizes the procurement or attempted procurement of “a person” younger than age 18 to engage in prostitution; an offender is liable to eight years’ imprisonment. The government did not effectively enforce laws prohibiting child sex trafficking.

The law establishes a penalty of two years’ imprisonment for persons convicted of publishing or offering for sale any obscene book, writing, or representation.

Displaced Children: There were reports of unaccompanied children who were detained by authorities as they made their way to the United States to join their families. Government agencies worked closely with the embassies of the respective children to provide them protection and services.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

The Jewish population was small, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

The law does not expressly prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities, but the constitution provides for the protection of all citizens from any type of discrimination. The law does not provide for accessibility accommodations for persons with disabilities, and most public and private buildings and transportation were not accessible to them. Certain businesses and government departments had designated clerks to attend to the elderly and persons with disabilities. There were no policies to encourage hiring of persons with disabilities in the public or private sectors.

Mental health provisions and protections generally were poor. Informal government-organized committees for persons with disabilities were tasked with public education and advocating for protections against discrimination. The country does not have a reliable system for identifying persons with disabilities who need services. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth, and Sports maintained an educational unit offering limited and segregated education programs within the regular school system. There were two schools and four education centers specializing in working with children with disabilities. Children with disabilities attended mainstream schools through secondary education at a significantly lower rate than other children and were placed with nondisabled peers.

The special envoy for women and children continued advocacy campaigns on behalf of persons with disabilities, especially children, and supported efforts to promote schools that took steps to create inclusive environments for them.

In June, Nestor Vasquez, an individual with a mental disability, died after receiving head injuries inflicted by another individual with a mental disability. The men had been placed together in the same holding cell at the Queen Street Police Station in Belize City. Vasquez’s attacker had been arrested for attempted murder. The two police officers who failed to intervene faced disciplinary charges and were dismissed from the BPD.

No separate legal system or laws cover indigenous people, since the government maintains that it treats all citizens the same. Employers, public and private, generally treated indigenous persons equally with other ethnic groups for employment and other purposes.

The Maya Leaders’ Alliance monitored development in the Toledo District with the goal of protecting Mayan land and culture. During the year the Maya in the southern part of the country and the government continued working on a way to implement a Caribbean Court of Justice consent order on Maya customary land tenure.

The law does not prohibit discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons in housing, employment, nationality laws, or access to government services such as health care, but the constitution provides for the protection of all citizens from any type of discrimination.

The Immigration Act prohibits “homosexual” persons from entering the country, but immigration authorities did not enforce the law.

The extent of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity was difficult to ascertain due to a lack of official reporting. UniBAM stated that discrimination and assault based on these factors were substantially underreported; however, the organization registered six cases of discrimination: two cases involving cyberbullying, one case in which a lesbian woman was denied a protective order, and three complaints of police harassment. UniBAM reported that LGBTI persons between the ages of 14 to 24 faced the most violence in rural communities, especially in very religious parts of the country. UniBAM’s executive director, Caleb Orozco, noted that in these religious communities, police often refused to take reports from survivors.

In July off-duty police officer Ralph Gillett faced discrimination when a woman refused to allow him to sit beside her on public transportation because she believed he was gay. A verbal confrontation ensued, which led to the woman physically attacking Gillett. Responding police officers physically assaulted Gillett by slapping him and placing him in a submission hold. The incident was recorded on video and prompted an investigation by the BPD. Gillett faced BPD disciplinary charges for prejudice of good order and discipline. Special Envoy for Women and Children (and the prime minister’s spouse) Kim Barrow issued a statement asserting “violence of this kind has no place in our society” and underscoring that the BPD should have offered protection and support to Gillett.

According to UniBAM, LGBTI persons continued to be denied medical services and education and encountered family-based violence.

There was some societal discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS, and the government worked to combat it through public education efforts of the National AIDS Commission under the Ministry of Human Development.

The law provides for the protection of workers against unfair dismissal, including for HIV status. The government provided free antiretroviral medication and other medical services to persons with HIV registered in the public-health system; however, the government sometimes had insufficient supplies of medication.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law, including related regulations and statutes, generally provides for the right to establish and join independent trade unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The Ministry of Labor, Local Government, and Rural Development (Ministry of Labor) recognizes unions and employers associations after they are registered, and the law establishes procedures for the registration and status of trade unions and employer organizations and for collective bargaining. The law also prohibits antiunion discrimination, dissolution, or suspension of unions by administrative authority and requires reinstatement of workers fired for union activity.

The law allows authorities to refer disputes involving public- and private-sector employees who provide “essential services” to compulsory arbitration, prohibit strikes, and terminate actions. The postal service, monetary and financial services, civil aviation, petroleum sector, port authority personnel (stevedores and pilots), and security services are deemed essential services by local laws, beyond the International Labor Organization definition of essential services. There were no reports of antiunion discrimination, but there were some reports workers were intimidated into either not joining a union or dropping union membership if they had joined. In July, 125 employees of the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital (KHMH), the country’s only referral hospital, walked out after learning the institution had no pension program for employees. The KHMH Workers’ Union stated the policy contradicted the law governing their employment and sought a legal opinion on the matter. On another matter, in September the union demanded that the hospital authority remove its director of medical services for arbitrarily withholding overtime payments to medical officers for two months. The union threatened to commence legal action if the director was not removed.

In August, Belize Water Service Limited (BWSL) signed a collective bargaining agreement for 295 employees that sought to promote efficient, safe, and effective working practices between the company and the union. BWSL, the only water and sewage utility for the country, is government owned.

Workers may file complaints with the Ministry of Labor or seek redress from the courts, although it remained difficult to prove that terminations were due to union activity. The ministry’s Labor Department generally handled labor cases without lengthy delays and dealt with appeals via arbitration outside of the court system. The court did not apply the law requiring reinstatement of workers fired for union activity and provided monetary compensation instead.

The Labor Department was hampered by factors such as a shortage of vehicles and fuel in its efforts to monitor compliance, particularly in rural areas. There were complaints of administrative or judicial delays relating to labor complaints and disputes. Penalties were insufficient to deter violations.

Antiunion discrimination and other forms of employer interference in union functions sometimes occurred, and on several occasions, unions threatened or carried out strikes. NGOs working in migrant communities asserted that in certain industries, particularly the banana, citrus, and construction sectors, employers often did not respect due process, did not pay minimum wages, and classified workers as contract and nonpermanent employees to avoid providing certain benefits. An NGO noted that both national and migrant workers were denied rights.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The constitution prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. Penalties for forced or compulsory labor are covered under the antitrafficking law and include penalties sufficient to deter violations, although the government did not effectively enforce the law. Resources and inspections to deter violations were limited. The government reportedly investigated three forced labor cases; it did not identify any forced labor victims during the year.

Forced labor of both Belizean and foreign women occurred in bars, nightclubs, and domestic service. Migrant men, women, and children were at risk for forced labor in agriculture, fishing, and in the service sector, including restaurants and shops, particularly among the South Asian and Chinese communities.

The International Labor Organization expressed concern that the Trade Unions Act allows the sanction of compulsory labor to be imposed as a punishment for breaches of labor discipline or for peaceful participation in strikes.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law does not prohibit all of the worst forms of child labor. The law sets the minimum age for employment at 14 years old generally, with the exception of work in wholesale or retail trade or business, for which the minimum age is 12. “Light work,” which is not defined in the law, is allowed for children ages 12 to 13. Children ages 14-18 may be employed only in an occupation that a labor officer determines is “not injurious to the moral or physical development of nonadults.” Children older than age 14 are explicitly permitted to work in “industrial undertakings,” which include mining, manufacturing, and construction. Children younger than age 16 are excluded from work in factories, and those younger than age 18 are excluded from working at night or in certain kinds of employment deemed dangerous. The Labor Department used a list of dangerous occupations for young workers as guidance, but the list was not adopted as law.

The law permits children to work on family farms and in family-run businesses. National legislation does not address a situation in which child labor is contracted between a parent and the employer. The National Child Labor Policy distinguishes between children engaged in work that is beneficial to their development and those engaged in the worst forms of child labor. The policy identifies children involved in the worst forms of child labor as those engaged in hazardous work, human trafficking and child slavery, commercial sexual activities, and illicit activities.

The Labor Department has primary responsibility for implementing labor policies and enforcing labor laws, but it was not effective in enforcing the law. Inspectors from the Labor and Education Departments are responsible for enforcing these regulations, with the bulk of the enforcement falling to truancy officers. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. There is also a National Child Labor Committee under the National Committee for Families and Children, a statutory interagency group that advocates for policies and legislation to protect children and eliminate child labor.

Some children were vulnerable to forced labor, particularly in the agricultural and service sectors. Commercial sexual exploitation of children occurred (see section 6, Children). According to the most recent data available from the Statistical Institute of Belize from 2013, the country’s child labor rate was 3.2 percent, with half of those children involved in hazardous work. The problem was most prevalent in rural areas. Boys accounted for 74 percent of children illegally employed, mostly engaged in hazardous activities.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings , and the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law and regulations prohibit discrimination with respect to employment on the basis of race, sex, gender, language, HIV-positive status or other communicable diseases, or social status. The government did not effectively enforce those laws and regulations. The law does not explicitly prohibit discrimination in employment with respect to disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity. There were reports discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to sexual orientation. One NGO reported that members of the LGBTI community often had problems gaining and retaining employment due to discrimination in the workplace. There were no officially reported cases of discrimination at work based on ethnicity, culture, or skin color, although anecdotal evidence suggested such cases occurred.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The national minimum wage was above the poverty-limit income level, according to statistics from 2009, the most recent year for which statistics were available. The law sets the workweek at no more than six days or 45 hours and requires premium payment for overtime work. Workers are entitled to two workweeks’ paid annual holiday. Additionally, there are 13 days designated as public and bank holidays. Employees who work on public and bank holidays are entitled to pay at time-and-a-half, except for Good Friday and Christmas, which are paid at twice the normal rate.

Several different health and safety regulations cover numerous industries. The regulations, which apply to all sectors, provide that the employer must take “reasonable care” for the safety of employees in the course of their employment. The regulations further provide that every employer who provides or arranges accommodation for workers to reside at or in the vicinity of a place of employment shall provide and maintain sufficient and hygienic housing accommodations, a sufficient supply of wholesome water, and sufficient and proper sanitary arrangements. In September, two men died after falling 40 feet from scaffolding while placing insulation in a public sporting facility. Four other men also fell but survived. The men, who were not provided harnesses, fell when the scaffold they were working on collapsed due to the condition of the wood.

The Ministry of Labor did not always effectively enforce minimum wage and health and safety regulations. The number of inspectors was not sufficient to secure compliance, especially in the more remote areas. Fines varied according to the infraction but generally were not very high and thus not sufficient to deter violations. In 2017 a labor tribunal was established, but it was unclear how many cases the tribunal had heard.

The minimum wage was generally respected. Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence from NGOs and employers suggested that undocumented Central American workers, particularly young service workers and agricultural laborers, were regularly paid below the minimum wage.

It was unclear whether workers could remove themselves from situations that endangered health or safety without jeopardy to their employment, or whether authorities effectively protected employees in this situation.

Costa Rica

Executive Summary

Costa Rica is a constitutional republic governed by a president and a unicameral legislative assembly directly elected in multiparty elections every four years. In April 2018 voters elected Carlos Alvarado of the Citizen’s Action Party (PAC) as president during a second round of elections. All elections were considered free and fair.

The country has no military forces. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the 13 agencies that have law-enforcement components, including the judicial branch’s Judicial Investigative Organization. The Ministry of Public Security is responsible for the uniformed police force, drug control police, border police, air wing, and coast guard. The Immigration Office is responsible for the immigration police. The Ministry of Public Works and Transportation supervises the traffic police, the Ministry of Environment supervises park police, and the Ministry of Justice manages the penitentiary police. Several municipalities manage municipal police forces. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

There were no reports of significant human rights abuses.

The government investigated and prosecuted officials who committed abuses.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press. On August 9, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court rejected an effort from the association of journalists to restrict the practice of journalism through compulsory licensing of journalists.

Violence and Harassment: Police investigated an explosive device that on July 27 damaged the building of a news outlet. It was not clear if the perpetrator intended to target the news outlet, but indications as of October pointed to a deliberate attempt to suppress the outlet’s operations.

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private communications without appropriate legal authority.

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has an established system for providing protection to refugees. The law requires authorities to process the claims within three months of receipt, but decisions took an average of 14 months and an additional 12 months for the appeals process.

The number of persons seeking asylum increased significantly. The Migration Authority handled a growing number of migrants requesting refugee status, with the majority from Nicaragua. According to the Migration Authority, from April 2018 to September 2019, more than 70,000 claims were either actively pending or pending an initial appointment to submit a claim, with an average of 2,000 new applications per month since the beginning of the year. As of August migration authorities reported receiving 22,639 asylum claims, of which 18,170 were Nicaraguans, 1,586 Venezuelans, 933 Salvadorans, 777 Colombians, and 589 Cubans, among others. The average time for resolving a pending asylum claim was 18 months from the submission of the asylum request.

As of August the Appeals Tribunal, which adjudicates all migration appeals, had a backlog of 295 asylum cases but stated these figures would increase as pending claims at first instance moved to the appeals process. UNHCR provided support to the Refugee Unit and the Appeals Tribunal to hire additional legal and administrative personnel to assist with reduction of the backlog.

Employment: Refugee regulations provide asylum seekers an opportunity to obtain work permits if they have to wait beyond the three months the law allows for a decision on their asylum claim (which occurred in virtually all cases). The waiting period for a work permit was compounded by the months-long delay most asylum seekers faced in obtaining an appointment to file an asylum application, at which point the three-month period begins. Refugees and asylum seekers reported job opportunities were scarce. In the case of professionals, refugees and asylum seekers faced significant bureaucratic processes in obtaining a license to practice locally.

Access to Basic Services: By law asylum seekers and refugees have access to public services and social welfare programs, but access was often hampered by lack of knowledge about their status in the country, service providers failing to recognize the identification provided to asylum seekers by the Migration Authority, and feelings of xenophobia among some service providers. For example, asylum seekers without employers (who constituted the majority of asylum seekers) faced restrictions when enrolling voluntarily as independent workers in the public health system.

Asylum seekers received provisional refugee status documents legalizing their status after appearing for an interview with the General Directorate of Immigration, for which the estimated wait time was eight months. Provisional refugee identity cards do not resemble other national identity documents, and although government authorities generally accepted them, many private citizens did not. Upon receiving refugee status, which typically took two years, refugees could obtain an identity document similar to those used by nationals at a cost of 39,000 colones ($68), renewable every two years.

Refugees and asylum seekers reported that access to health services was difficult. They qualified for public health services only if they were minors, pregnant, or facing a life-threatening emergency, but some individuals reported being denied services even in emergency situations.

Displaced university students who had fled Nicaragua due to harassment for their political opposition activities reported difficulty registering for classes because Costa Rican institutions were inflexible in requiring academic records that they could not obtain from Nicaraguan authorities.

Durable Solutions: The government continued to implement a Protection Transfer Arrangement in coordination with UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration for refugee resettlement in third countries. The government was committed to local integration of refugees both legally and socially and to facilitating their naturalization process.

There continued to be problems of statelessness of indigenous children and children of seasonal workers in the border areas with Panama and Nicaragua derived from the difficulties linked to birth registrations. Members of the Ngobe-Bugle indigenous group from Panama often worked on Costa Rican farms and occasionally gave birth there. In these cases parents did not register Ngobe-Bugle children as Costa Rican citizens at birth because they did not think it necessary, although the children lacked registration in Panama as well. Government authorities worked together with UNHCR on a program of birth registration and provision of identification documents to stateless persons known as Chiriticos. Mobile teams went to remote coffee-growing areas for case identification and registration. UNHCR and the National Civil Registry continued a project along the northern border for individuals of Nicaraguan origin to facilitate procedures for late birth registration.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and laws provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Recent Elections: In April 2018 voters elected PAC’s Carlos Alvarado president during a second round of elections, after no candidate achieved 40 percent of the first-round vote. Presidential and legislative elections are simultaneous. In 2018 legislative elections, the National Liberation Party (PLN) gained the most seats, but it did not achieve majority in the National Assembly. In internal legislative elections in May, PLN won the presidency of the National Assembly for one year in an alliance that included PAC and the Christian evangelical National Restoration Party.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate.

Women and persons of African descent were represented in government, but indigenous persons were not. In national elections, political parties must guarantee gender parity across their electoral slates and confirm that gender parity must extend vertically. The electoral code requires that a minimum of 50 percent of candidates for elective office be women, with their names placed alternately with men on the ballots by party slate.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented the law effectively. There were isolated reports of government corruption during the year.

Corruption: The investigations into the 2017 corruption and influence peddling case (known locally as “Cementazo”), related to loans and policies benefiting cement importer Juan Carlos Bolanos, continued. On August 12, a special committee of the National Assembly recommended the Solicitor’s Office reopen the investigations related to a report submitted to the National Assembly in 2018 exonerating former president Solis.

Financial Disclosure: Public officials are subject to financial disclosure laws that require senior officials to submit sworn declarations of income, assets, and liabilities. The law requires income and asset disclosure by appointed and elected officials. The content of the declarations is not available to the public. The law stipulates administrative sanctions for noncompliance and identifies which assets, liabilities, and interests public officials must declare. Officials are required to file a declaration annually and upon entering and leaving office.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were often cooperative and responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Ombudsman’s Office reviews government action or inaction that affects citizens’ rights and interests. The ombudsman is accountable to the National Assembly, which appoints the person to a four-year term and funds office operations. The ombudsman participates in the drafting and approval of legislation, promotes good administration and transparency, and reports annually to the National Assembly with nonbinding recommendations. International institutions and nongovernmental organization observers recognized the Ombudsman’s Office as an independent and effective instrument for promoting human rights.

A special committee of the National Assembly studies and reports on problems relating to the violation of human rights, and it also reviews bills relating to human rights and international humanitarian law.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men or women, including spousal rape and domestic violence, and provides penalties from 10 to 18 years in prison for rape. The judicial branch generally enforced the law effectively.

The law prohibits domestic violence and provides measures for the protection of domestic violence victims. Criminal penalties range from 10 to 100 days in prison for aggravated threats and up to 35 years in prison for aggravated homicide, including a sentence of 20 to 35 years for persons who kill their partners.

Violence against women remained a serious problem, and as of August the government reported that nine women had been killed by a partner or spouse. The killing of a woman by her spouse garnered significant public attention, as the perpetrator stabbed the woman multiple times during a domestic dispute while two of her three children (ages five and 11) were present in the home. Authorities arrested the perpetrator. The government launched a public campaign in response to concern about gender-based violence.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace and educational institutions, and the Ministry of Labor and Social Security generally enforced this prohibition. The law imposes penalties ranging from a letter of reprimand to dismissal, with more serious incidents subject to criminal prosecution.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: Women enjoy the same legal status and rights as men. The law prohibits discrimination against women and obligates the government to promote political, economic, social, and cultural equality. The law requires that women and men receive equal pay for equal work. The government enforced the laws effectively, although an official study reported a pay gap of 13 percent for highly skilled jobs. On March 18, the National Assembly approved an amendment to the women’s equality law to establish pay equality between men and women in both the public and private sectors and to create an interagency commission for pay equality.

Birth Registration: Citizenship is obtained from birth within the country’s territory or can be derived if either parent is Costa Rican. Birth registration was not always automatic, and migrant children were especially at risk of statelessness since they did not have access to legal documents to establish their identity if their parents did not seek birth registration for them.

Child Abuse: The autonomous National Institute for Children (PANI) reported violence against children and adolescents continued to be a concern, but there was no marked increase in the number of cases of child violence or abuse. Judicial authorities investigated the death of a five-year-old minor who died of internal bleeding caused by parental abuse on May 9. A few days prior, the staff of PANI received a complaint of mistreatment by his parents but did not respond adequately.

Early and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age of marriage is 18. The law establishes penalties for sex with minors and prohibits child marriage. The crime carries a penalty of up to three years in prison for an adult having sex with a person under age 15, or under 18 if the age difference is more than five years.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The minimum age of consensual sex is 18 years. The law criminalizes the commercial sexual exploitation of children and provides sentences of up to 16 years in prison for violations. The law provides for sentences of two to 10 years in prison for statutory rape and three to eight years in prison for child pornography. The country was a destination for child sex tourism.

Institutionalized Children: The Ombudsman’s Office requested that PANI take immediate action to reduce overcrowding in shelters for children in government care, as shelters were 31 percent over capacity as of June.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

The Jewish Zionist Center estimated there were between 3,000 and 3,500 Jews in the country. There were isolated reports of anti-Semitic comments on social media, in particular posts that questioned Israel’s right to exist and posts featuring anti-Semitic stereotypes of the Jewish people, stating they controlled the economy, were accumulating excess wealth, and were practicing a new form of Nazism against Palestinians. In July a former presidential candidate made an anti-Semitic comment in a video against the Jewish owner of an online daily newspaper. Representatives from five political parties in the National Assembly and the editorial of a daily newspaper criticized the commentary.

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

The constitution and law prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities. The law also establishes a right to employment for persons with disabilities and sets a hiring quota of 5 percent of vacant positions in the public sector. The government did not effectively enforce the law.

Although the law mandates access to buildings for persons with disabilities, the government did not enforce this provision, and many buildings remained inaccessible to persons with disabilities. The Ombudsman’s Office reported inadequate sidewalks and difficulties in access to public transportation as factors hindering the mobility of persons with disabilities. The government policy on education and the national plan for higher education aimed to increase educational opportunities for students with disabilities. Children with disabilities were generally integrated in educational facilities serving children without disabilities.

The Supreme Elections Tribunal took measures (voting procedures, facilities, materials, and trained personnel) to provide for fully accessible elections for all persons with disabilities.

The constitution establishes that the country is a multiethnic and multicultural nation. According to the Ombudsman’s Office, however, the country lacked the legal framework to ensure adequate mechanisms to combat discrimination, facilitate the adoption of affirmative action for individuals who suffer discrimination, and establish sanctions for those who commit discriminatory acts. As of August the government had not appointed a new presidential commissioner for Afro-Descendant Affairs after the previous commissioner resigned in April.

Violence against indigenous people increased during the year. Land ownership continued to be a problem in most indigenous territories. The law protects reserve land as the collective, nontransferable property in 24 indigenous territories; however, 38 percent of that land was in nonindigenous hands.

Amid violent land disputes between indigenous inhabitants and nonindigenous persons, in March two unknown assailants killed indigenous leader Sergio Rojas, who had fought for restoring indigenous lands. On May 20, a delegation from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights met with President Carlos Alvarado, who had requested a formal meeting following Rojas’s death. Since 2015 the commission had recommended the government provide protective measures to the Bribri and Teribe indigenous peoples, and the government indicated it would comply with the recommendations. The Ombudsman’s Office increased its efforts to engage with indigenous communities in the wake of Rojas’ murder. Law enforcement authorities were still looking for suspects as of October.

On August 9, the Ombudsman’s Office reported concerns over access to potable water services in some indigenous communities and called on the government to meet security requirements in indigenous territories. During the year the government began a consultative process of a public policy for indigenous peoples (2019-24) to protect their individual and collective rights. On August 8, the government signed a law to protect the right of nationality of the Ngabe cross-border indigenous persons and approved an executive order declaring of official interest the genealogy database, which is used to establish claims to the Broran (Terraba) territory.

Discrimination against persons based on sexual orientation and gender identity is prohibited by a series of executive orders and workplace policies but not by national laws. Four executive orders and two directives provide for equal rights, including migration rights to same-sex couples and recognition of the right of sexual identity and gender for identification documents of foreign nationals; grant access to housing allowances for same-sex couples; and end the prohibition for public notaries to register same-sex marriages.

There were cases of discrimination against persons based on sexual orientation, ranging from employment, police abuse, and education to access to health-care services. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals experienced discrimination within their own families due to their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, and sex characteristics. On May 17, President Alvarado signed two directives aimed at strengthening protections in public-sector employment for LGBTI populations. The commissioner for LGBTI issues also presented new regional commissions focused on fighting homophobia and discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Although the law prohibits discrimination based on HIV/AIDS in health care, housing, employment, and education, some discrimination was reported.

Labor discrimination towards HIV patients continued; some persons reported losing their jobs due to discrimination, their deteriorating health, or both, although the problem was not widespread. The government had not taken concrete steps to combat discrimination based on HIV/AIDS status despite having adopted a National Strategic Plan on HIV and AIDS (2016-21).

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The government respected these rights. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and provides for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Unions must register, and the law provides a deadline of 15 days for authorities to reply to a registration request. Restrictions on the minimum number of employees (12) needed to form a union may have hampered freedom of association in small enterprises. The law permits foreign workers to join unions but prohibits them from holding positions of authority within the unions, except for foreign workers who are married to citizens of the country and have legally resided in the country for at least five years.

The labor code stipulates that at least 50 percent of the workers in an enterprise must vote to support a strike. The law, however, adds that even if there is no union at the enterprise or if the union lacks the support of 50 percent of the workforce, a strike may be initiated if 35 percent of the workers call for a vote, by secret ballot. The law restricts the right to strike for workers in services designated as essential by the government, including in sectors such as oil refineries and ports that are not recognized as essential services under international standards.

The law also permits two other types of worker organizations unique to the country: “solidarity associations,” legal entities recognized by the constitution that have both management and employee membership and serve primarily to administer funds for severance payments; and “permanent committees,” enterprise-level bodies made up of three workers elected to negotiate “direct agreements” with employers. Both entities may coexist and share membership with labor unions. The law also requires that permanent committee members be elected freely by secret ballot without intervention of the employer.

The law requires employers to initiate the bargaining process with a trade union if more than one-third of the total workforce, including union and nonunion members, requests collective bargaining, but the law also permits direct bargaining agreements with nonunionized workers. The law prohibits solidarity associations from representing workers in collective bargaining negotiations or in any other way that assumes the functions or inhibits the formation of trade unions. Although public-sector employees are permitted to bargain collectively, the Supreme Court held that some fringe benefits received by certain public employees were disproportionate and unreasonable, and it repealed sections of collective bargaining agreements between public-sector unions and government agencies, thus restricting this right in practice. In May the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court repealed sections of the collective bargaining agreement between the labor union (Sitrapequia) and the National Oil Refinery (Recope). The court’s decision also ratified the ceiling of 12 years for severance pay when an employee is terminated.

The government effectively enforced applicable laws, and penalties were sufficient to deter violations. While the law establishes sanctions (fines and fees) for infractions, only the judiciary has the authority to apply such sanctions. The amount of fines and fees is determined by the severity of the infraction and is based on the minimum wage. The reformed labor code requires labor claims to be processed within two years and sets up a special summary procedure for discrimination claims. The reformed labor code also strengthens protections for labor union members, including protections against discrimination based on labor affiliation and special protections via special expedited proceedings. The Labor Ministry reported an increase in the number of fines collected and in the scheduling of hearings since the reformed labor code entered into force in 2018.

Freedom of association and collective bargaining were generally respected. Labor unions asserted that solidarity associations set up and controlled permanent committees at many workplaces, which in turn conducted negotiations and established direct agreements. Labor unions also asserted that employers sometimes required membership in a solidarity association as a condition for employment. To the extent that solidarity associations and permanent committees displaced trade unions, they affected the independence of workers’ organizations from employers’ influence and infringed on the right to organize and bargain collectively. In recent years the International Labor Organization (ILO) reported an expansion of direct agreements between employers and nonunionized workers and noted its concern that the number of collective bargaining agreements in the private sector continued to be low when compared with a high number of direct agreements with nonunionized workers.

In some instances employers fired employees who attempted to unionize. The Ministry of Labor reported 16 cases of firing a labor leader and 22 complaints of antiunion discrimination (dismissal of labor leader) from January to July. There were reports some employers also preferred to use “flexible,” or short-term, contracts, making it difficult for workers to organize and collectively bargain. Migrant workers in agriculture frequently were hired on short-term contracts (five months) through intermediaries, faced antiunion discrimination and challenges in organizing, and were often more vulnerable to labor exploitation.

The ILO noted no trade unions operated in the country’s export-processing zones and identified the zones as a hostile environment for organizing. Labor unions asserted that efforts by workers in export-processing zones to organize were met with illegal employment termination, threats, and intimidation and that some employers maintained blacklists of workers identified as activists.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits and criminalizes all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The government effectively enforced the law. The law establishes criminal penalties for trafficking in persons crimes that are proportional to the severity of the crimes and were sufficient to deter violations. In 2018 the Attorney General’s Office reported two convictions of trafficking for labor exploitation involving two victims from Nicaragua and another from Guatemala.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The child and adolescence code prohibits labor of all children younger than age 15 without exceptions, including the worst forms of child labor; it supersedes the minimum working age of 12 established in the labor code. Adolescents between the ages of 15 and 18 may work a maximum of six hours daily and 36 hours weekly. The law prohibits night work and overtime for minors. The law prohibits children younger than age 18 from engaging in hazardous or unhealthy activities and specifies a list of hazardous occupations. The government generally enforced child labor laws effectively in the formal sector but not in the informal sector.

Child labor occurred primarily in the informal economy, especially in the agricultural, commercial, and industrial sectors. The worst forms of child labor occurred in agriculture on small third-party farms in the formal sector and on family farms in the informal sector. Forced child labor reportedly occurred in some service sectors, such as construction, fishing, street vending, and domestic service, and some children were subject to commercial sexual exploitation (see section 6, Children).

While the Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing and taking administrative actions against possible violations of, or lack of compliance with, child labor laws, the Prosecutor’s Office intervenes in cases regarding the worst forms of child labor. The government effectively enforced the law. As with other labor laws, the authority to sanction employers for infractions lies solely with the judiciary, and the law requires labor inspectors to initiate legal cases with the judiciary after exhausting the administrative process. The amount of fines and fees is determined by the severity of the infraction and is based on an equation derived from the minimum wage. Penalties were generally sufficient to deter violations.

On June 12, the government announced that 500 working minors returned to schools after receiving conditional cash transfers through an agreement between the Labor Ministry and the Welfare Institute.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor and List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The laws and regulations prohibit discrimination regarding race, color, sex, religion, political opinion, national origin or citizenship, social origin, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity, age, language, HIV-positive status, or other communicable diseases status. The labor code prohibits discrimination based on age, ethnicity, gender, religion, race, sexual orientation, civil status, political opinion, nationality, social status, affiliation, disability, labor union membership, or economic situation. The government effectively enforced these laws and regulations, and penalties were sufficient to deter violations. The Labor Ministry reported seven cases of discrimination from January to June. The ministry continued to implement a gender-equality perspective into labor inspections to identify areas of vulnerability.

Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to persons with disabilities and the LGBTI population. Discrimination against migrant workers occurred, and there were reports of instances of employers using threats of deportation to withhold their wages.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The wage council of the Ministry of Labor sets the minimum wage scale for the public and private sectors twice a year. Monthly minimum wages were above the poverty line. The national minimum wage applied to both Costa Rican and migrant workers. The law sets workday hours, overtime remuneration, days of rest, and annual vacation rights. Workers generally may work a maximum of eight hours a day or 48 hours weekly. Workers are entitled to one day of rest after six consecutive days of work, except in the agricultural sector, and annual paid vacations. The law provides that workers be paid for overtime work at a rate 50 percent above their stipulated wage or salary. Although there is no statutory prohibition against compulsory overtime, the labor code stipulates the workday may not exceed 12 hours, except in the agricultural sector when there is “imminent risk of harm…to the harvest” when work cannot be suspended and workers cannot be substituted.

The government maintains a dedicated authority to enforce occupational safety and health (OSH) standards. The OSH standards are appropriate for the main industries in the country, according to the National Council of Occupational Safety and Health. The Labor Ministry’s National Council of Occupational Health and Safety is a tripartite OSH regulatory authority with government, employer, and employee representation. Penalties were sufficient to deter violations, although the government did not enforce these standards effectively in either the formal or the informal sectors.

Workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardizing their employment. According to the Labor Ministry, this is a responsibility shared by the employer and employee. The law assigns responsibility to the employer, including granting OSH officers access to workplaces, but it also authorizes workers to seek assistance from appropriate authorities (OSH or labor inspectors) for noncompliance with OSH workplace standards, including risks at work.

The Ministry of Labor’s Inspection Directorate is responsible for labor inspection, in collaboration with the Social Security Agency and the National Insurance Institute. The directorate employed labor inspectors, who investigated all types of labor violations. The number of labor inspectors was insufficient to deter violations. According to the Ministry of Labor, inspections occurred both in response to complaints and at the initiative of inspectors. The directorate stated it could visit any employer, formal or informal, and inspections were always unannounced.

The Labor Ministry generally addressed complaints by sending inspection teams to investigate and coordinate with each other on follow-up actions. As with other labor laws, inspectors cannot fine or sanction employers who do not comply with laws on acceptable conditions of work; rather, they investigate and refer noncompliance results to labor courts. The process of fining companies or compelling employers to pay back wages or overtime has traditionally been subject to lengthy delays.

The Ministry of Labor generally enforced minimum wages effectively in the San Jose area but less effectively in rural areas, particularly where large numbers of migrants were employed, and in the large informal sector, which comprised 46 percent of employment as of June. The ministry publicly recognized that many workers, including in the formal sector, received less than the minimum wage, mainly in the agricultural sector. The ministry implemented labor inspections with an emphasis on minimum wage and social security registration to improve the quality of life of workers. Penalties were sufficient to deter violations.

Observers expressed concern about exploitative working conditions in fisheries, small businesses, and agricultural activities. Unions also reported systematic violations of labor rights and provisions concerning working conditions, overtime, and wages in the export-processing zones. Labor unions reported overtime pay violations, such as nonpayment of wages and mandatory overtime, were common in the private sector and particularly in export-processing zones and agriculture. There were reports that agricultural workers, particularly migrant laborers in the pineapple industry, worked in unsafe conditions, including exposure to hazardous chemicals without proper training. In April a private pineapple-producing company located in Upala closed and dismissed its employees without paying wages, severance, or social security fees, although the Labor Ministry mediated between the employees and employers.

El Salvador

Executive Summary

El Salvador is a constitutional multiparty republic. On February 3, voters elected Nayib Bukele as president for a five-year term. The election was generally free and fair, according to international observers. Free and fair municipal and legislative elections took place in 2018.

The National Civilian Police (PNC), overseen by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, is responsible for maintaining public security, and the Ministry of Defense is responsible for maintaining national security. Although the constitution separates public security and military functions, it allows the president to use the armed forces “in exceptional circumstances” to maintain internal peace and public security “when all other measures have been exhausted.” The military is responsible for securing international borders and conducting joint patrols with the PNC. In 2016 then president Sanchez Ceren renewed the decree authorizing military involvement in police duties, a presidential order in place since 1996. Civilian authorities failed at times to maintain effective control over security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: allegations of unlawful killings of suspected gang members and others by security forces; forced disappearances by military personnel; torture by security forces; arbitrary arrest and detention by the PNC; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; widespread government corruption; violence against women and girls that was inconsistently addressed by authorities; security force violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals; and children engaged in the worst forms of child labor.

Impunity persisted despite government steps to dismiss and prosecute abusers in the security forces, executive branch, and justice system.

Organized criminal elements, including local and transnational gangs and narcotics traffickers, were significant perpetrators of violent crimes and committed acts of murder, extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, intimidation, and other threats and violence directed against police, judicial authorities, the business community, journalists, women, and members of vulnerable populations. In some cases authorities investigated and prosecuted persons accused of committing crimes and human rights abuses.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, although the government at times did not respect this right. The law permits the executive branch to use the emergency broadcasting service to take over all broadcast and cable networks temporarily to televise political programming.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Allegations continued that the government retaliated against members of the press for criticizing certain policies. On September 6, President Bukele’s press and communications staff banned journalists of digital newspapers El Faro and Factum Magazine from a press conference in which President Bukele announced the launch of the Salvadoran Commission Against Corruption and Impunity (CICIES). The Bukele administration stated that journalists from both outlets had acted improperly in past press conferences, including shouting questions at speakers and behaving disrespectfully toward staff. On September 11, Factum Magazine journalist Rodrigo Baires was denied entry to a press conference at the same location. The refusals to admit journalists to presidential press conferences drew widespread criticism and concern regarding freedom of expression and freedom of the press, including by the United Nations, Organization of American States (OAS), and Committee to Protect Journalism. Following the criticism, a Factum Magazine reporter was allowed to attend and ask questions at a September 12 presidential press conference.

Violence and Harassment: On July 3, the Salvadoran Journalist Association (APES) reported on the rise of cyber intimidation and attacks against journalists. APES specifically criticized President Bukele for seeking to intimidate journalists Mariana Belloso and Roxana Sandoval. After they criticized the Bukele administration, accounts on social media associated with Bukele supporters targeted Belloso and Sandoval with insults, intimidation, threats, and attempts to discredit their work.

As of August 22, the PDDH had received six complaints of violence against journalists by government officials. APES reported 77 cases of aggressions against journalists during the year, an increase of 18 percent over the 65 cases reported in 2018.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government advertising accounted for a significant portion of press advertising income. According to media reports, the Bukele administration cancelled all government advertising in the newspaper El Diario de Hoy after it reported on the banning of journalists from El Faro and Factum Magazine from President Bukele’s press conferences. According to APES, media practiced self-censorship, especially in reporting on gangs and narcotics trafficking.

Nongovernmental Impact: APES noted journalists who reported on gangs and narcotics trafficking were subject to kidnappings, threats, and intimidation. Observers reported that gangs also charged print media companies to distribute in their communities, costing media outlets as much as 20 percent of their revenues.

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights, except with respect to labor unions (see section 7.a.).

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights, although in many areas the government could not guarantee freedom of movement due to criminal gang activity.

In-country Movement: The major gangs (MS-13 and two factions of 18th Street) controlled their own territory. Gang members did not allow persons living in another gang’s area to enter their territory, even when travelling via public transportation. Gangs forced persons to present government-issued identification cards (containing their addresses) to determine their residence. If gang members discovered that a person lived in a rival gang’s territory, that person risked being killed, beaten, or not allowed to enter the territory. Bus companies paid extortion fees to operate within gang territories, often paying numerous fees for the different areas in which they operated. The extortion costs were passed on to customers.

As of October 22, the Attorney General’s Office had filed 1,515 new cases charging an illegal limitation on the freedom of movement, an increase from the 920 new cases brought in the same period 2018. The Attorney General’s Office reported 50 convictions for such charges through October 22, compared with 13 through October 22, 2018.

As of August the PDDH reported 148 complaints of forced displacement, 28 of which arose from the same incident. Nearly all of the complaints were from gang-controlled territories, with 84 cases from San Salvador, although in three cases, the complaint alleged the PNC caused the displacement. As of October 2018, the government acknowledged that 1.1 percent of the general population (approximately 68,060 persons) was internally displaced. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimated there were 71,500 internally displaced persons (IDPs) and reported the causes of internal displacement included abuse, extortion, discrimination, and threats.

As of October 24, the Legislative Assembly had failed to pass court-ordered legislation addressing internal displacement by no later than January 2019. In July 2018 the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ruled that the government violated the constitution by not recognizing forced displacement or providing sufficient aid to IDPs. The court also called on the government to retake control of gang territories, develop protection protocols for victims, and uphold international standards for protecting victims.

f. Protection of Refugees

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, including an established system for providing protection to refugees. Between January 1 and August 15, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs received 10 asylum petitions, compared with 31 refugee/asylum claims in 2018.

Not applicable.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Recent Elections: The most recent presidential election occurred on February 3. Nayib Bukele, of the center-right Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) party, was elected to a five-year term. The election reports published by the OAS and the EU electoral mission noted the election generally met international standards.

While the law prohibits public officials from campaigning in elections, the provision lacked consistent enforcement.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials. Although the Supreme Court investigated corruption in the executive and judicial branches and referred some cases to the Attorney General’s Office for possible criminal indictment, impunity remained endemic, with courts issuing inconsistent rulings and failing, in particular, to address secret discretionary accounts within the government.

On September 6, President Bukele launched CICIES to combat corruption and impunity. Foreign Minister Alexandra Hill and OAS Strategic Counsel Luis Porto signed a Letter of Intent to create the commission. The letter stated that the parties would sign a formal agreement within three months. The letter focused on strengthening the judiciary and Attorney General’s Office and creating a special anticorruption unit under the PNC. The letter promised that CICIES and the OAS would coordinate with local judicial institutions in creating guidelines for selecting cases. In Bukele’s announcement, he noted that CICIES would be financed with assistance from the OAS and other international organizations. As of October 29, there was an anticipated cost of $15 million and OAS was asking for funding, but no other details had been confirmed. In November the OAS reported that CICIES had established a headquarters in the country.

Corruption: In January the Supreme Court issued an order limiting its Probity Section investigations of public officials to those who had left public office within the last 10 years. On May 6, Factum Magazine published an article underlining that, due to this decision, 79 cases were due to expire on May 31. According to Factum, in four of these, the Probity Section had already completed the investigation, and it required only a decision from the Supreme Court. The four investigations involved former Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) legislator Sigfrido Reyes; GANA legislator Guillermo Gallegos (regarding actions taken in 2006-09); former vice president Oscar Ortiz, when he served as FMLN legislator in 1994 and 1997; and also of Ortiz when he served as Santa Tecla mayor in 2006 and 2009. As of June 30, the Supreme Court’s Probity Section had opened six illicit enrichment cases against public officers.

On June 20, the Attorney General’s Office filed a corruption complaint against Rafael Hernan Contreras, former chief of the Court of Accounts, one of the six agencies that oversees corruption investigations and cases. According to the attorney general, Contreras issued a false document that certified former president Antonio Saca, serving 10 years in prison for misappropriating more than $300 million, had managed funds effectively during his presidency. Saca still faced charges for bribing a judicial official for access to information. Six other officials from the Saca administration also received prison sentences in September 2018 for misappropriating public funds while in government.

In December 2018 a judge sentenced former attorney general Luis Martinez (2012-15) to five years in prison and ordered him to pay $125,000 in restitution on corruption-related charges of purposely and unlawfully disclosing recordings obtained in a wiretap investigation. In 2016 Martinez was fined $8,000 by the Government Ethics Tribunal for inappropriately accepting gifts from businessman Enrique Rais. Martinez faced a number of pending corruption charges, including allegations he took bribes from former president Mauricio Funes, who received citizenship from Nicaragua in July after fleeing corruption charges in El Salvador.

The Attorney General’s Office reportedly investigated past misuse of a presidential discretionary fund, established in 1989 and used by six presidents, to fund the national intelligence service. The fund, totaling one billion dollars since the accounts’ inception, had never been audited by the Court of Accounts. Former presidents Saca and Funes allegedly misappropriated more than $650 million from this fund during their terms in office.

As of September 16, the Ethics Tribunal reported that between September 2018 and August 21, it had opened 438 administrative proceedings against 426 public officials. During that same period, the tribunal imposed fines against 41 sitting and former public officials. As of September 3, the Attorney General’s Office had filed claims against three judges for committing crimes involving corruption or for violating public administration laws.

Financial Disclosure: The illicit enrichment law requires appointed and elected officials to declare their assets to the Probity Section of the Supreme Court. The law establishes fines for noncompliance that range from $11 to $571. The declarations were not available to the public unless requested by petition. The Supreme Court established three criteria for selecting investigable cases: the age of the case (that is, proximity to the statute of limitations); relevance of the official’s position; and seriousness and notoriety of the alleged illicit enrichment.

The law requires public officers to present asset certification reports no later than 60 days after taking a new position. In August the Supreme Court Probity Section reported that 8,974 public officers had failed to present their assets certifications in the 10 previous years. This included 16 legislators who took office in May 2018 and who had failed to present their assets reports by June 30, 2019.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Although government officials generally were cooperative and responsive to these groups, officials expressed reluctance to discuss certain issues, such as extrajudicial killings and IDPs, with the PDDH.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The principal human rights investigative and monitoring body is the autonomous PDDH, whose ombudsman is nominated by the Legislative Assembly for a three-year term. The PDDH regularly issued advisory opinions, reports, and press releases on prominent human rights cases. The PDDH generally enjoyed government cooperation and was considered generally effective except on problems relating to criminal groups and gangs.

The PDDH maintained a constructive dialogue with the Office of the President. The government publicly acknowledged receipt of reports, although in some cases it did not act on recommendations, which are nonbinding. The PDDH faced threats, including two robberies at its headquarters targeting computers containing personally identifiable information.

On October 16, the Legislative Assembly nominated a new PDDH ombudsman who was facing three criminal cases for “fraud, bribery, and arbitrary acts,” as well as a Court of Accounts case from his time as a civil court judge. International organizations, NGOs, several legislators, the San Salvador mayor, and President Bukele criticized the nomination.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men or women, and the criminal code’s definition of rape may apply to spousal rape, at the judge’s discretion. The law requires the Attorney General’s Office to prosecute rape cases whether or not the victim presses charges, and the law does not permit the victim to withdraw the criminal charge. The penalty for rape is generally imprisonment for six to 10 years. Laws against rape were not effectively enforced.

The law prohibits domestic violence and generally provides for sentences ranging from one to three years in prison, although some forms of domestic violence carry higher penalties. The law also permits restraining orders against offenders. Laws against domestic violence remained poorly enforced, and violence against women, including domestic violence, remained a widespread and serious problem. In July 2018 the Salvadoran Organization of Women for Peace (ORMUSA) reported that in 2016 and 2017, only 5 percent of the 6,326 reported crimes against women went to trial.

On April 24, a woman died in Guazapa after being beaten by her husband days earlier. The Attorney General’s Office charged her husband with femicide. According to the woman’s children, her husband had been previously deported from the United States after being implicated in a similar case of violence against women.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment and establishes sentences of five to eight years’ imprisonment. Courts may impose fines in addition in cases in which the perpetrator held a position of trust or authority over the victim. The law mandates that employers take measures against sexual harassment and create and implement preventive programs. The government, however, did not enforce sexual harassment laws effectively.

On April 4, following an abbreviated trial, the Third Sentence Tribunal of San Salvador sentenced a PNC chief inspector to three years in prison following his conviction for sexual assault, sexual harassment, and threats of violence against three female subordinates.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: The constitution grants women and men the same legal rights, but women did not receive equal pay or employment opportunities. The law establishes sentences of one to three years in prison for public officials who deny a person’s civil rights based on gender and six months to two years for employers who discriminate against women in the workplace, but employees generally did not report such violations due to fear of employer reprisals.

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship by birth within the country and from their parents. The law requires parents to register a child within 15 days of birth or pay a $2.85 fine. Failure to register can result in denial of school enrollment.

Child Abuse: Child abuse remained a serious and widespread problem. The law gives children the right to petition the government without parental consent. Penalties for breaking the law include losing custody of the child and three to 26 years’ imprisonment, depending on the nature of the abuse. As of August the PNC had received 2,081 child abuse complaints.

On February 19, Judge Jaime Escalante was charged with the crime of sexual aggression against a 10-year-old female child. On March 4, the Legislative Assembly voted to remove his immunity from criminal prosecution. On October 31, the Criminal Chamber determined that Escalante’s actions did not constitute a felony but rather a misdemeanor, because the encounter happened quickly and in a crowded place. The attorney general appealed the decision and asked the Criminal Chamber to overturn the ruling, admit all evidence, and send Escalante to trial.

According to a 2016 National Health Survey, more than half of households punished their children physically and psychologically.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18. The law bans child marriage to prevent child abusers from using legal technicalities to avoid imprisonment by marrying their underage victims. The law allows for marriage of a minor in cases of pregnancy.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Child sex trafficking is prohibited by law. Prison sentences for convicted traffickers stipulate imprisonment from six to 10 years.

The minimum age for consensual sex is 18. The law classifies statutory rape as sexual relations with anyone younger than 18 and includes penalties of four to 13 years’ imprisonment for violations.

The law prohibits paying anyone younger than 18 for sexual services. The law prohibits participating in, facilitating, or purchasing materials containing child pornography and provides for prison sentences of up to 16 years for violations. Despite these provisions, sexual exploitation of children remained a problem.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

The Jewish community totaled approximately 150 persons. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities. The National Council for Comprehensive Attention to Persons with Disability (CONAIPD), composed of representatives from multiple government entities, is the governmental agency responsible for protecting disability rights, but it lacks enforcement power. According to CONAIPD, the government did not effectively enforce legal requirements for access to buildings, information, and communications for persons with disabilities. Few access ramps or provisions for the mobility of persons with disabilities existed.

According to CONAIPD, there is no mechanism to verify compliance with the law requiring businesses and nongovernment agencies to hire one person with disabilities for every 25 hires. CONAIPD reported employers frequently fired persons who acquired disabilities and would not consider persons with disabilities for work for which they qualified. Further, some academic institutions would not accept children with disabilities.

No formal system existed for filing a discrimination complaint involving a disability with the government.

Indigenous communities reported they faced racial discrimination and economic disadvantage. According to community leaders, gangs pushed out of urban centers by police mounted incursions into and appropriated indigenous land. They also reported gang members threatened their children for crossing gang territorial lines artificially drawn across ancestral indigenous land, forcing some children to drop out of school or leave home.

According to the 2007 census (the most recent), there were 60 indigenous groups, making up 0.4 percent of citizens, mainly from the Nahua-Pipl, Lencas, Cacaopera (Kakwira), and Maya Chorti groups. A 2014 constitutional amendment recognizes the rights of indigenous peoples to maintain their cultural and ethnic identity. The law, however, does not include the right to be consulted regarding development and other projects envisioned on indigenous land, nor does it provide indigenous peoples rights to share in revenue from exploitation of natural resources on historically indigenous lands. The government did not demarcate any lands as belonging to indigenous communities. Because few indigenous individuals possessed title to land, opportunities for bank loans and other forms of credit remained limited.

The law provides for the preservation of languages and archeological sites. During the year the municipalities of Cacaopera and Yucuaiquin, in the eastern part of the country, approved special laws to recognize their indigenous cultural heritage.

The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, which also applies to discrimination in housing, employment, nationality, and access to government services. Gender identity and sexual orientation are included in the criminal code provisions covering hate crimes, along with race and political affiliation. NGOs reported that public officials, including police, engaged in violence and discrimination against sexual minorities. Persons from the LGBTI community stated that the PNC and the Attorney General’s Office harassed transgender and gay individuals when they reported cases of violence against LGBTI persons, including by conducting unnecessary and invasive strip searches.

On January 31, a transsexual woman, Camila Diaz Cordova, identified in her national identification card as Nelson Arquimides Diaz Cordova, was allegedly killed by three police officers with the National Civil Police’s 911 System in San Salvador. In July, at an initial hearing in the Fifth Peace Court, the Prosecutor’s Office accused the officers of committing a “hate crime.”

As of August 22, the PDDH reported four accusations by the LGBTI community of homicides, one complaint of torture, four complaints of violations to human integrity, one complaint each of physical abuse and harassment. The PDDH was unable to determine whether the incidents were bias motivated. Activists also reported receiving death threats on social media. Police generally failed to act on these reports. The PDDH reported it was processing a case against security personnel at a prison in Sensuntepeque, Cabanas Department, for deprivation of liberty and inhuman treatment of transsexual prisoners based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Media reported killings of LGBTI community members in October and November. On October 27, Anahy Rivas, a 27-year-old transwoman, was killed after being assaulted and dragged behind a car. Jade Diaz, a transwoman who disappeared on November 6, was assaulted prior to her killing. Her body was found submerged in a river. On November 16, Manuel Pineda, known as Victoria, was beaten to death and her body left naked in the street in Francisco Menendez, Ahuachapan Department. Uncensored photographs of the body were circulated on social media.

In 2017 the Supreme Electoral Tribunal announced guidelines stating individuals cannot be denied the right to vote because the photograph on their identification card does not match their physical appearance. Nonetheless, media documented cases of transgender persons who faced harassment while voting in the presidential elections because their name and photograph on their national identification did not match their expression of gender identity.

Although the law prohibits discrimination on the basis of HIV/AIDS status, Entre Amigos, an LGBTI NGO, reported HIV-related discrimination was widespread. As of August 31, the PDDH reported one alleged case of discrimination against persons with HIV or AIDS that purportedly took place at a public health union in La Union Department.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of most workers to form and join independent unions, to strike, and to bargain collectively. The law also prohibits antiunion discrimination, although it does not require reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Military personnel, national police, judges, and high-level public officers may not form or join unions. Workers who are representatives of the employer or in “positions of trust” also may not serve on a union’s board of directors. The law does not define the term “positions of trust.” The labor code does not cover public-sector workers and municipal workers, whose wages and terms of employment are regulated by the 1961 civil service law. Only citizens may serve on unions’ executive committees. The labor code also bars individuals from holding membership in more than one trade union.

Unions must meet complex requirements to register, including having a minimum membership of 35 individuals. If the Ministry of Labor denies registration, the law prohibits any attempt to organize for up to six months following the denial. Collective bargaining is obligatory only if the union represents the majority of workers.

The law contains cumbersome and complex procedures for conducting a legal strike. The law does not recognize the right to strike for public and municipal employees or for workers in essential services. The law does not specify which services meet this definition, and courts therefore apply this provision on a case-by-case basis. The law requires that 30 percent of all workers in an enterprise must support a strike for it to be legal and that 51 percent must support the strike before all workers are bound by the decision to strike. Unions may strike only to obtain or modify a collective bargaining agreement or to protect the common professional interests of the workers. They must also engage in negotiation, mediation, and arbitration processes before striking, although many unions often skipped or expedited these steps. The law prohibits workers from appealing a government decision declaring a strike illegal.

In lieu of requiring employers to reinstate illegally dismissed workers, the law requires employers to pay the workers the equivalent of 30 days of their basic salary for each year of service. The law specifies 30 reasons for which an employer can terminate a worker’s contract without triggering any additional responsibilities, including consistent negligence, leaking private company information, or committing immoral acts while on duty. An employer may also legally suspend workers, including for reasons of economic downturn or market conditions. According to the Ministry of Labor, through September 30, 7,495 persons had filed complaints of dismissal without justification. In addition, the Ministry of Labor reported that from January 1 through June, it received 15 complaints of failure to pay wages owed, one complaint of an employer’s improper retention of social security contributions, and eight complaints of a failure to pay overtime.

The government did not effectively enforce the laws on freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Penalties remained insufficient to deter violations. Judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals. According to union representatives, the government inconsistently enforced labor rights for public workers, maquiladora/textile workers, food manufacturing workers, subcontracted workers in the construction industry, security guards, informal-sector workers, and migrant workers. Between January 1 and June 3, the ministry received 36 claims of violations for labor discrimination.

As of August 15, the inspector general of the Ministry of Labor had reported 124 alleged violations of the right of freedom of association, including 72 such violations against members of labor unions and 39 resulting complaints of discrimination.

Unions functioned independently from the government and political parties, although many generally were aligned with the traditional political parties of ARENA and the FMLN. Workers at times engaged in strikes regardless of whether the strikes met legal requirements. On June 10, the International Labor Organization Conference Committee on the Application of Standards discussed, for the fifth consecutive year, the nonfunctioning of the country’s tripartite Higher Labor Council. In September the Ministry of Labor reactivated the council.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The government generally did not effectively enforce such laws. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. The lack of sufficient resources for inspectors reduced their ability to enforce the law fully. The Ministry of Labor did not report on incidents of forced labor. Gangs subjected children to forced labor in illicit activities, including selling or transporting drugs (see section 7.c.).

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits the employment of children younger than 14 but does not prohibit all of the worst forms of child labor. The law allows children between the ages of 14 and 18 to engage in light work if it does not damage the child’s health or development or interfere with compulsory education. The law prohibits children younger than 16 from working more than six hours per day and 34 hours per week; those younger than 18 are prohibited from working at night or in occupations considered hazardous. The Ministry of Labor maintained a list of types of work considered hazardous, which included repairing heavy machinery, mining, handling weapons, fishing and harvesting mollusks, and working at heights above five feet while doing construction, erecting antennas, or working on billboards. Children age 16 and older may engage in light work on coffee and sugar plantations and in the fishing industry so long as it does not harm their health or interfere with their education.

Child labor remained a serious and widespread problem. According to the Ministry of Labor, the percentage of children and adolescents between the ages of five and 17 who were working decreased from 8.4 percent in 2017 to 6.8 percent in 2018.

The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing child labor laws but did not effectively enforce the law. Penalties for violations of child labor laws were insufficient to act as a deterrent in the informal sector. Labor inspectors focused almost exclusively on the formal sector. According to the ministry, from January through August, officials conducted 669 child labor inspections in the formal sector that discovered 10 minors working, all of whom were authorized to work. By comparison, as of September 2017, according to the ministry, there were 140,700 children and adolescents working, of whom 91,257 were employed in “dangerous work” in the informal sector. No information on any investigations or prosecutions by the government was available. The ministry did not effectively enforce child labor laws in the informal sector, which represented almost 75 percent of the economy.

There were reports of children younger than 16 engaging in the worst forms of child labor, including in coffee cultivation, fishing, shellfish collection, and fireworks production. Children were subjected to other worst forms of child labor, including commercial sexual exploitation (see section 6, Children) and recruitment into illegal gangs to perform illicit activities in the arms and narcotics trades, including committing homicide. Children were engaged in child labor, including domestic work, the production of cereal grains and baked goods, cattle raising, and sales. Orphans and children from poor families frequently worked as street vendors and general laborers in small businesses despite the presence of law enforcement officials.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The constitution, labor laws, and state regulations prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, political opinion, national origin (except in cases determined to protect local workers), social origin, gender, disability, language, or HIV-positive status. The government did not effectively enforce those laws and regulations. Penalties were insufficient to deter violations. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not included in the constitution or labor law, although the PDDH and the Ministry of Labor actively sought to protect workers against discrimination on those grounds.

Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to gender, disability, and sexual orientation or gender identity (see sections 6 and 7.e.). According to the Ministry of Labor, migrant workers have the same rights as citizens, but the ministry did not enforce them.

As of June the Ministry of Labor had received one complaint of disability discrimination and six complaints of gender-based discrimination. In August the Legislative Assembly approved an “equal job, equal pay” reform to the labor code that provides for equal pay for women and persons with disabilities who perform the same duties as others. The law, reformed in 2018, prohibits the dismissal of women returning from maternity leave for up to six months.

On February 14, the Legislative Assembly reformed the labor code in order to grant employment stability to persons suffering from chronic diseases that require frequent medical checks and rehabilitation. The reform applies to women who are pregnant and ensures job security during pregnancy. The guarantee of job stability starts from the issuance of the corresponding medical diagnosis and is extended for three months after the respective medical treatment has ended, except for the causes established in Article 50 of the labor code, which include serious immoral acts, breaches of confidentiality and recurring negligence.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is no national minimum wage; the minimum wage is determined by sector. In 2018 a minimum wage increase went into effect that included increases of nearly 40 percent for apparel assembly workers and more than 100 percent for workers in coffee and sugar harvesting. All of these wage rates were above poverty income levels. The government proved more effective in enforcing the minimum wage law in the formal sector than in the informal sector. As of June the Ministry of Labor had registered three complaints of noncompliance with the minimum wage.

The law sets a maximum normal workweek of 44 hours, limited to no more than six days and to no more than eight hours per day, but allows overtime, which is to be paid at a rate of double the usual hourly wage. The law mandates that full-time employees receive pay for an eight-hour day of rest in addition to the 44-hour normal workweek. The law provides that employers must pay double time for work on designated annual holidays, a Christmas bonus based on the time of service of the employee, and 15 days of paid annual leave. The law prohibits compulsory overtime. The law states that domestic employees, such as maids and gardeners, are obligated to work on holidays if their employer makes this request, but they are entitled to double pay in these instances. The government did not adequately enforce these laws.

The Ministry of Labor is responsible for setting and enforcing workplace safety standards, and the law establishes a tripartite committee to review the standards. The law requires employers to take steps to meet health and safety requirements in the workplace, including providing proper equipment and training and a violence-free environment. Employers who violate most labor laws could be penalized, but penalties were not sufficient to deter violations; some companies reportedly found it more cost effective to pay the fines than to comply with the law. The law promotes occupational safety awareness, training, and worker participation in occupational health and safety matters. While the laws were appropriate for the main industries, the government did not effectively enforce them.

Unions reported the ministry failed to enforce the law for subcontracted workers hired for public reconstruction contracts. The government provided its inspectors updated training in both occupational safety and labor standards. As of June the ministry conducted 13,315 inspections, in addition to 3,857 inspections to follow up with prior investigations, and had levied $777,000 in fines against businesses.

The number of inspectors was insufficient to deter violations and allegations of corruption among labor inspectors continued. The Labor Ministry received complaints regarding failure to pay overtime, minimum wage violations, unpaid salaries, and cases of employers illegally withholding benefits (including social security and pension funds) from workers.

Reports of overtime and wage violations existed in several sectors. According to the Labor Ministry, employers in the agricultural sector did not generally grant annual bonuses, vacation days, or days of rest. Women in domestic service and the industrial manufacturing for export industry, particularly in the export-processing zones, faced exploitation, mistreatment, verbal abuse, threats, sexual harassment, and generally poor work conditions. Workers in the construction industry and domestic service reportedly experienced violations of wage, hour, and safety laws. According to ORMUSA, apparel companies violated women’s rights through occupational health violations and unpaid overtime. There were reports of occupational safety and health violations in other sectors, including reports that a very large percentage of buildings did not meet safety standards set by the General Law on Risk Protection. The government proved ineffective in pursuing such violations.

In some cases the country’s high crime rate undermined acceptable conditions of work as well as workers’ psychological and physical health. Some workers, such as bus drivers, bill collectors, messengers, and teachers in high-risk areas, reported being subject to extortion and death threats by gang members.

Through September 30, the Ministry of Labor reported 6,771 workplace accidents. These included 3,069 accidents in the services sector, 2,090 in the industrial sector, 785 in the commercial sector, 605 in the public sector, and 222 in the agricultural sector. The ministry did not report any deaths from workplace accidents.

Workers may legally remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment, but authorities lacked the ability to protect employees in this situation effectively.

Guatemala

Executive Summary

Guatemala is a multiparty constitutional republic. In 2016 James Ernesto Morales Cabrera of the National Convergence Front party was sworn into office for a four-year term as president. On August 11, Alejandro Giammattei was elected president for a four-year term set to begin on January 14, 2020. International observers considered the presidential election held in 2019 as generally free and fair.

The National Civil Police (PNC), which is overseen by the Ministry of Government and headed by a director general appointed by the minister, is responsible for law enforcement and maintenance of order in the country. The Ministry of National Defense oversees the military, which focuses primarily on operations in defense of the country, but the government also used the army in internal security and policing as permitted by the constitution. The defense ministry completed its drawdown of 4,500 personnel from street patrols to concentrate its forces on the borders in 2018. Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; substantial problems with the independence of the judiciary, including malicious litigation and irregularities in the judicial selection process; widespread corruption; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats thereof targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons, persons with disabilities, and members of other minority groups; and use of forced or compulsory or child labor.

Corruption and inadequate investigations made prosecution difficult. The government was criticized by civil society for refusing to renew the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala’s (CICIG) mandate, which expired on September 3. Impunity continued to be widespread for ongoing human rights abuses, endemic government corruption, and for mass atrocities committed during the 1960-1996 internal armed conflict.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. The intimidation of and violence against journalists resulted in significant self-censorship, however.

Freedom of Expression: On March 21, a court dismissed a case in which President Morales filed a criminal complaint against social activist Roberto Rimola. Morales accused Rimola of defamation and insult after Rimola verbally insulted him. The court ruled that insulting leaders of the three branches of government could not be considered a crime due to limitations to freedom of expression. Morales appealed the court decision and attended a May 29 hearing in court. As of October 1, the case remained open, and a lower court declared the case must be judged specifically under the freedom of expression act, normally reserved for cases involving journalists.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Nonetheless, reporters covering organized crime, including its links to corrupt public officials, acknowledged practicing self-censorship, recognizing the danger investigative journalism posed to them and their families. Public security forces continued imposing more stringent identification checks on journalists covering government events and activities, a practice initiated in August 2018.

On May 9, presidential candidate Sandra Torres filed a criminal complaint against the daily newspaper elPeriodico after it published several editorials against her. Torres based her lawsuit on the law against femicide and violence against women for attempted violation of her physical and psychological integrity. On May 13, she tried to rescind the lawsuit, but the femicide law does not permit withdrawal of cases, and consequently the Public Ministry must conclude an investigation.

Violence and Harassment: Members of the press reported receiving pressure, threats, and retribution from public officials regarding the content of their reporting. Online attacks against independent journalists and media outlets continued throughout the year. These included hacking of journalists’ private accounts, publishing stolen or falsified personal information, and apparent coordinated attempts to undermine specific journalists and the press. On May 20, a blog page appeared against Henry Bin, journalist for the radio and weekend television program ConCriterio, and several other independent journalists, alleging Bin was gay and engaged in pedophilia and child pornography. Several attacks against journalists in April and May included videos alleging various forms of corruption and immorality by journalists Juan Luis Font, Claudia Mendez, and Pedro Trujillo.

Members of the press continued to report threats and violence from public officials and criminal organizations, which impaired the practice of free and open journalism. The government failed to establish a journalist protection program, a voluntary commitment the country accepted in 2012 during the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council. According to the Public Ministry, 51 complaints were filed for attacks or threats against journalists; none were killed by the end of August, compared with two killings in 2018.

On June 4, Judge Miguel Angel Galvez of High-Risk Court B found sufficient cause to bring to trial the case of Julio Antonio Juarez Ramirez, accused of ordering the killing of journalist Danilo Efrain Zapon Lopez in 2015 in Mazatenango, Suchitepequez Department.

The Public Ministry employed a unit dedicated to the investigation of threats and attacks against journalists, but the NGO Center for Reporting in Guatemala noted it had few prosecutions.

Nongovernmental Impact: Organized crime exerted influence over media outlets and reporters, frequently threatening individuals for reporting on criminal activities.

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

Human rights defenders, as well as judges and lawyers on high-profile cases, reported social media attacks, including the hacking of their private accounts, publishing of stolen or falsified personal information, publishing of photographic surveillance of them and family members, and online defamation and hate speech. The government took little action to protect these individuals.

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights, with a few exceptions. On September 4, in response to the killing of three soldiers in the municipality of El Estor, Izabal Department, President Morales declared a state of siege in 22 municipalities across five departments. Congress ratified the measure, which limited the freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of association, and the right to protest for more than one million citizens living in the area under siege. The president and congress renewed the state of siege for a second 30-day period ending on November 4.

The law provides for freedom of assembly, and the government generally respected this right, except during the declared state of siege noted above.

The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right, except during the declared state of siege noted above. There were reports, however, of significant barriers to organizing in the labor sector (see section 7.a.).

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution and the law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The state of siege in Izabal and parts of four other departments temporarily limited rights to freedom of movement (see section 2.b.).

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expressed concern regarding violence against internally displaced persons (IDPs) and strengthened its efforts to monitor the problem and provide assistance to the displaced. The country does not officially recognize the existence of IDPs within its borders, with the exception of those displaced by climate change and natural disasters. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights characterized as IDPs 400 farmers the government evicted from the Maya Biosphere Reserve in 2017. Media and civil society groups reported the evictees did not receive adequate government assistance and continued to struggle with poverty and landlessness.

f. Protection of Refugees

Access to Asylum: The laws provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. UNHCR reported that identification and referral mechanisms for potential asylum seekers were inadequate. Migration authorities lacked adequate training concerning the rules for establishing refugee status. The government and UNHCR signed a memorandum of understanding, published on September 4, to significantly strengthen the asylum and protection system and increase capacity to process asylum seekers.

Access to Basic Services: UNHCR reported access to education for refugees was difficult due to the country’s onerous requirements for access to formal education, including documentation from the country of origin.

Not applicable.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on nearly universal and equal suffrage for those ages 18 and older. Members of the armed forces, police, and incarcerated individuals are not eligible to vote.

Recent Elections: In August, Alejandro Giammattei of the VAMOS for a Different Guatemala party defeated National Unity of Hope candidate Sandra Torres in a second round of voting and was to be sworn in as president in January 2020. The Organization of American States and other international observers found some irregularities in the electoral process, but none were significant enough to discredit the legitimacy and validity of the elections. During the presidential campaign, however, two of the top candidates in the polls were disqualified from being placed on the ballot. Zury Rios, daughter of former president Efrain Rios Montt, and Thelma Aldana, former attorney general, both claimed the rulings against them were politically motivated. The Attorney General’s Office continued to investigate allegations of illicit campaign financing in the 2015 elections, including a case against Sandra Torres and the National Unity of Hope party.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. Traditional and cultural practices, in addition to discrimination and institutional bias, however, limited the political participation of women and members of indigenous groups.

There was one woman serving in the 13-member cabinet, 30 in the 158-member Congress, and 10 among the 340 municipal mayors. While the indigenous population constituted an estimated 43 percent of the population, according to the 2018 government census, indigenous representation in national government was minimal. There was one indigenous member on the Constitutional Court and one on the Supreme Court. There were approximately 18 indigenous members of Congress, of whom two were women. Indigenous individuals composed a larger share of elected local government officials, filling approximately one-third (113 of 333) of the mayoral seats elected in 2015.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, but officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year, many of which the Public Ministry, with support from CICIG, investigated and prosecuted on charges including money laundering, illegal political party financing, and bribery.

Corruption: On July 16, the Public Ministry brought charges against more than 50 persons, including 10 members of Congress, for receiving kickbacks from construction and medical supply procurement and for awarding public jobs by irregular means. Those charged included a former presidential candidate and a former minister of health. Charges included the acceptance of bribes for hospital construction after the 2012 earthquake in the western region, the acceptance of bribes in the purchase of unnecessary medical equipment, and the creation of phantom positions at the Ministry of Health. The case continued in the pretrial stage, and some of the accused remained at large.

In the Odebrecht case, involving bribes allegedly paid to former presidential candidate Manuel Baldizon and former communications minister Alejandro Sinibaldi, on July 23, High Risk Court A sentenced three persons close to Baldizon and Sinibaldi to six years in prison for money laundering, and two of them to an additional eight years for illicit association. Baldizon continued to be detained in the United States on an international arrest warrant on separate money laundering and conspiracy charges. Sinibaldi remained a fugitive and was implicated in another case of bribery and influence peddling linked to former president Otto Perez Molina’s administration.

The government was criticized by civil society for refusing to renew CICIG’s mandate, which expired on September 3. Despite the government’s request for CICIG to transfer capacity to the Public Ministry by the end its mandate, many in civil society believed the Public Ministry did not yet have the capacity to investigate corruption cases on its own and the decision to terminate CICIG’s mandate was made for political reasons. At the end of CICIG’s mandate, it had a public approval rating of approximately 70 percent.

Financial Disclosure: Public officials who earn more than 8,000 quetzals ($1,040) per month or who manage public funds are subject to financial disclosure laws overseen and enforced by the Comptroller General’s Office. The financial disclosures were available to the public upon request. Administrative and criminal sanctions apply for inadequate or falsified disclosures of assets.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were often cooperative and responsive to their views.

A number of NGOs, human rights workers, and trade unionists reported threats, violence, and intimidation. UDEFEGUA reported 12 killings of human rights defenders from January through July. The NGO also reported 361 attacks against human rights defenders in the same period, compared with 392 attacks in all of 2018. According to human rights NGOs, many of the attacks were related to land disputes and exploitation of natural resources and involved mainly indigenous communities. NGOs asserted the government did little to investigate the reports or prevent further incidents.

NGOs also reported the government, fringe groups, and private entities used threats of legal action as a form of intimidation. According to UDEFEGUA, from January to July, there were 28 retaliatory judicial cases filed against human rights defenders. On March 22, the president of the Supreme Court, Nester Mauricio Vasquez Pimental, filed a criminal case against Claudia Samayoa, president of UDEFEGUA, and Jose Manuel Martinez, member of the civil society group Justicia Ya (Justice Now), for alleged theft, deviation of correspondence, and trafficking of influence. UDEFEGUA and other civil society groups stated this case occurred after Samayoa and Martinez’s participation in a complaint before Guatemala City’s criminal, drug trafficking, and environment court against 11 Supreme Court justices on January 17.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government had refused to renew the visas of the CICIG commissioner and investigators since early 2018, making it difficult for CICIG to resume normal functions. CICIG’s mandate expired on September 3, and CICIG cases were transferred to the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity in the Public Ministry. Subsequently, Guatemalan former CICIG employees complained about being subject to systemic harassment and spurious lawsuits for simply having performed their duties for CICIG.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The PDH monitors the human rights set forth in the constitution and reports to Congress. The PDH opposed several congressional bills during the year, including an amnesty bill for human rights violators during the armed conflict period. On October 2, several congressional deputies submitted a petition to the Congressional Committee on Human Rights calling for the ombudsman to be removed from his position. While the PDH attempted to operate independently and issued public reports and recommendations as in past years, Congress applied significant political pressure, including threats to withhold the PDH’s funding. NGOs generally considered the PDH to be an effective institution with limitations in rural areas due to lack of resources.

The Congressional Committee on Human Rights drafts and provides guidance on legislation regarding human rights. The law requires all political parties represented in Congress to have a representative on the committee. Some NGOs did not consider the committee to be an effective forum for human rights promotion and protection.

The President’s Commission on Human Rights (COPREDEH) formulates and promotes human rights policy. COPREDEH also led coordination of police protection for human rights and labor activists. COPREDEH generally benefited from the administration’s cooperation and operated without political or party interference. Some NGOs claimed COPREDEH was not an effective interlocutor on human rights issues.

For the first time in its post-civil war history, the government failed to participate in the meeting on human rights convened by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in September. During this meeting the PDH and civil society organizations discussed challenges related to human rights. On behalf of the government, COPREDEH issued a letter claiming the commission’s meeting constituted a challenge to the country’s sovereignty.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men or women, including spousal rape, and sets penalties between five and 50 years in prison. Police had minimal training or capacity to investigate sexual crimes or assist survivors of such crimes, and the government did not enforce the law effectively.

Rape and other sexual offenses remained serious problems. The government took steps to combat femicide and violence against women. The judiciary continued to operate a 24-hour court in Guatemala City to offer services related to violence directed toward women, including sexual assault, exploitation, and trafficking of women and children. The judiciary also operated specialized courts for violence against women throughout the country, but not in every department. The Public Ministry maintained a 24-hour victim service center to provide medical, psychosocial, and legal support to victims, including restraining orders for their immediate protection. The ministry also maintained a national alert system for finding disappeared women. Sexual violence remained widespread despite these advances. The ministry reported that 6,231 women were victims of aggravated rape from January to August, compared with 549 cases filed during the same period in 2018.

The law establishes penalties for femicide of 25 to 50 years in prison without the possibility of reducing the sentence; however, femicide remained a significant problem. The NGO Mutual Support Group reported that from January to August, 477 women were killed. Despite a generally decreasing homicide rate for men since 2010, the rate of femicide remained essentially the same.

Violence against women, including sexual and domestic violence, remained widespread and serious. The law establishes penalties of five to eight years for physical, economic, and psychological violence committed against women due to their gender. The Public Ministry recorded 40,993 instances of violence against women from January to August. The ministry noted that the judicial system convicted 1,149 perpetrators of violence against women. In December 2018 the bodies of former congressional deputy Joaquin Humberto Bracamonte Marquez and his wife Zulma Vyanka Subillaga Dubon, former secretary against sexual violence, exploitation, and human trafficking, were found in their missing vehicle. The Public Ministry investigation, concluded in June, determined Bracamonte had murdered his wife before committing suicide.

In May 2018 authorities arrested seven former members of the civil defense patrols and charged them with sexual violence against 36 Maya Achi women in Rabinal, between 1981 and 1985. On June 21, Judge Claudette Dominguez ruled there was insufficient evidence to send the defendants to trial and ordered them released. The prosecution filed recusal motions against Judge Dominguez, and in September the First High Risk Appellate Court granted the recusal motion and transferred the case to Judge Miguel Angel Galvez; however, the case remained mired in a series of unresolved appeals.

Sexual Harassment: No single law, including laws against sexual violence, deals directly with sexual harassment, although several laws refer to it. Human rights organizations reported sexual harassment was widespread.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: Although the law establishes the principle of gender equality and criminalizes discrimination, women, and particularly indigenous women, faced discrimination and were less likely to hold management positions.

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship by birth within the country’s territory or from their parents. UNICEF described low birth registration as a “serious problem,” and UNHCR reported problems in registering births were especially acute in indigenous communities due to inadequate government registration and documentation systems. Lack of registration restricted children’s access to some public services and created conditions that could lead to statelessness.

Education: While primary education is compulsory through age 14, access was limited in many rural areas; education through the secondary level is not obligatory. Boys were prioritized for high school education in rural communities due to the need to travel long distances and girls’ perceived value in the home.

Child Abuse: Child abuse remained a serious problem. A unit under the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Children and Adolescents handled child abuse cases. The Public Ministry opened an integrated 24-hour care model providing medical, psychosocial, and legal support to children and adolescent victims of violence. The ministry reported 7,089 reports of minor abuse of all types, approximately 2,000 fewer than in 2018. The ministry reported 54 convictions for child abuse from January through August, compared with 82 during the same period in 2018.

NGOs supporting at-risk youth reported adolescents detained by police were subject to abusive treatment, including physical assaults.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal age for marriage is 18. There were reports of early and forced marriages in some rural indigenous communities and in the Lev Tahor religious community. A 2017 decree prohibits underage marriage. The National Registry of Persons reported no attempted registration of underage marriage since enactment of the decree.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law provides sentences ranging from 13 to 24 years in prison, depending on the victim’s age, for engaging in sex with a minor. The minimum age of consensual sex is 18.

The law prohibits child pornography and establishes penalties of six to 10 years in prison for producing, promoting, and selling child pornography and two to four years’ imprisonment for possessing it. The Public Ministry and the PNC conducted several raids against alleged online child pornography networks. The Regional Unit against Trafficking in Persons, responsible for eight departments in the Western Highlands and launched in 2018, was expanding the government’s investigative capacity against child pornography offenders. The commercial sexual exploitation of children, including child sex tourism, remained a problem, including in privately run orphanages.

Displaced Children: Criminals and gangs often recruited street children, many of them victims of domestic abuse, for purposes of stealing, extortion, prostitution, transporting contraband, and conducting illegal drug activities.

Institutionalized Children: More than 500 children and adolescents lived in shelters run by the Secretariat for Social Welfare (SBS). During the year the Secretariat against Sexual Violence, Exploitation, and Trafficking in Persons transferred control of three shelters to the SBS, as mandated by the government.

Overcrowding was common in shelters, and government funding for orphanages remained limited. Local and international human rights organizations, including Disability Rights International, raised concerns that child abuse was rampant. A 2018 investigative report claimed children with disabilities were consistently mistreated and neglected, including by being locked in cages.

On August 22, a judge denied house arrest for former SBS secretary Carlos Rodas and former deputy secretary for protection and shelter Anahi Keller, and they remained in prison. The two, former shelter director Santos Torres, and four others were charged with murder, abuse of authority, breach of duty, and abuse against minors in relation to the deaths of 41 girls in a 2017 fire at the Hogar Seguro orphanage. As of November the public trial, which was the final stage of the criminal proceeding, had not begun. The government did not make significant structural changes to the national shelter system.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

The Jewish population numbered approximately 1,500 persons. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

The constitution contains no specific prohibitions against discrimination based on physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities. The law, however, mandates equal access to public facilities and provides some other legal protections. In many cases, however, the law was not enforced. The law does not mandate that persons with disabilities have access to information or communications.

The National Council for Persons with Disabilities reported few persons with disabilities attended educational institutions or held jobs. The council, composed of representatives of relevant government ministries and agencies, is the principal government entity responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. Most schools and universities did not have facilities accessible to persons with disabilities, and there was no reliable data on the prevalence of disabilities in the school-age population.

The Federico Mora National Hospital for Mental Health, the only public health-care provider for persons with mental illness, lacked basic supplies, equipment, hygienic living conditions, and adequate professional staff. Media and human rights organizations reported mistreatment of residents, including physical, psychological, and sexual violence by other residents, guards, and hospital staff, especially with respect to women and children with disabilities. Multiple legal actions were pending against the hospital.

The government’s National Institute of Statistics estimated indigenous persons from 24 ethnic groups comprised 44 percent of the population. The law provides for equal rights for indigenous persons and obliges the government to recognize, respect, and promote the lifestyles, customs, traditions, social organizations, and manner of dress of indigenous persons. The government does not recognize particular indigenous groups as having a special legal status provided by national law.

Multiple local NGOs raised concerns over the killings of at least six indigenous leaders from January through September. According to NGO assessments, at least three of the victims may have been targeted because of their political involvement and advocacy for indigenous rights. On July 5, Isidro Perez and Melesio Ramirez were killed near Livingston by an armed group alleged to be connected to a former government minister. The Committee for Rural Development (CODECA) and indigenous leaders reported that Perez and Ramirez were killed during a CODECA protest and targeted due to their indigenous land rights activism. On September 14, Maya Achi Ancestral Authority representative Paulina Cruz Ruiz was killed in Baja Verapaz by unidentified gunmen in front of her house. Ruiz was active in organizing the March for Dignity in 2018 and had assisted the Maya Achi Ancestral Authorities to bring legal actions against mining projects in the area.

Indigenous representatives claimed actors in a number of regional development projects failed to consult meaningfully with local communities. In some cases indigenous communities were not able to participate in decisions affecting the exploitation of resources in their communities, including energy, minerals, timber, rivers, or other natural resources. They also lacked effective mechanisms for dialogue with the state to resolve conflicts, as Congress had not approved a legislative proposal to guide the implementation of prior consultation, as required by International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 169. In 2018 the Constitutional Court ordered the Ministry of Energy and Mines to hold ILO Convention 169-compliant consultations with Xinka populations and upheld the suspension of the operating license of the San Rafael Mine until after conclusion of the consultations. As of October the government and Xinka authorities were negotiating who would represent the Xinka community in the consultations.

In July the Constitutional Court ordered the provisional closure of the Fenix nickel mine in Izabal Department, near the border with Honduras, until the Ministry of Energy and Mines conducted ILO 169-compliant consultations with local communities. The Russian conglomerate Solway, which bought the mine in 2014, was accused of violence against indigenous activists and illegal extraction of undeclared materials. The OHCHR reported the mine continued operations despite the court order to suspend activities. The OHCHR also reported the mine began operations in the Barrio Nuevo area despite a lack of consultations with local communities during the September state of siege declared by the government.

Indigenous communities were underrepresented in national politics and remained largely outside the political, economic, social, and cultural mainstream. This was mainly due to limited educational opportunities (contrary to law), limited communication regarding their rights, and pervasive discrimination. Government agencies dedicated to supporting indigenous rights lacked political support. These factors contributed to disproportionate poverty and malnutrition among most indigenous populations.

Indigenous lands lacked effective demarcation, making the legal recognition of titles to the land problematic. Indigenous rights advocates asserted that security authorities lacked familiarity with indigenous norms and practices, which engendered misunderstandings. In February the government established the “Road to Prosperity,” a program to facilitate and implement an inclusive, participatory, and transparent dialogue between government officials and indigenous peoples to analyze and identify local needs and gaps in government services and to improve the quality and coverage of public services and projects.

The law does not extend specific antidiscrimination protections to LGBTI individuals based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics. Efforts to pass laws against such discrimination, including a gender identity law, encountered severe opposition among legislators.

LGBTI human rights groups stated police officers regularly engaged in extortion and harassed male and transgender individuals whom they alleged to be sex workers. There was general societal discrimination against LGBTI persons in access to education, health care, employment, and housing. The government made minimal efforts to address this discrimination. Aldo Davila, elected in June and the first openly gay member of Congress, reported receiving constant death threats during and after the elections due to his sexual orientation, activism, and heightened public image. Several attacks targeted journalists for supposed membership in the LGBTI community. PNC officials visited one local LGBTI NGO’s office in August and stayed outside for hours, which the group claimed was an attempt to intimidate LGBTI victims of violence who were seeking shelter in the office.

According to LGBTI activists, gay and transgender individuals often experienced police abuse. The local NGO National Network for Sexual Diversity and HIV and the Lambda Association reported that as of October, a total of 20 LGBTI persons had been killed, including several transgender individuals the NGOs believed were targeted due to their sexual orientation. Several were killed in their homes or at LGBTI spaces in Guatemala City. LGBTI groups claimed women experienced specific forms of discrimination, such as forced marriages and forced pregnancies through “corrective rape,” although these incidents were rarely, if ever, reported to authorities. In addition, transgender individuals faced severe discrimination.

The law includes HIV/AIDS status among the categories prohibited from discrimination. Societal discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS remained a problem, however, despite efforts by the Ministry of Health to address it. Forms of discrimination included being required by some government authorities to reveal HIV/AIDS test results to receive certain public benefits or from employers in order to be hired. In addition, HIV/AIDS patients experienced discrimination from medical personnel when receiving services at some public hospitals and clinics, and had their right to confidentiality violated by disclosure of their status. Discrimination against LGBTI persons with HIV/AIDS was particularly common and affected access to HIV-prevention programs, especially for transgender individuals.

Several times vigilante mobs attacked and killed those suspected of crimes such as rape, kidnapping, theft, or extortion. The NGO Mutual Support Group reported three persons were lynched and 22 injured in attempted lynchings by vigilante groups from January through June.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers, with the exception of security force members, to form and join trade unions, conduct legal strikes, and bargain collectively. The law, however, places some restrictions on these rights. For example, legal recognition of an industrywide union requires that the membership constitute a majority of the workers in an industry and restricts union leadership to citizens. Ministries and businesses are required to negotiate only with the largest union, as determined by annual membership. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and employer interference in union activities and requires employers to reinstate workers dismissed for organizing union activities. A strike must have the support of the majority of a company’s workforce. Workers are not restricted to membership in one union or one industry.

The president and cabinet may suspend any strike deemed “gravely prejudicial to the country’s essential activities and public services.” The government defined “essential services” more broadly than international standards, thus denying the right to strike to a large number of public workers, such as those working in education, postal services, transport, and the production, transportation, and distribution of energy. Public employees may address grievances by means of conciliation for collective disputes and arbitration directly through the labor courts. For sectors considered essential, arbitration is compulsory if there is no agreement after 30 days of conciliation.

The law prohibits employer retaliation against workers engaged in legal strikes. If authorities do not recognize a strike as legal, employers may suspend or terminate workers for absence without leave. A factory or business owner is not obligated to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement unless at least 25 percent of workers in the factory or business are union members and request negotiations. Once a strike occurs, companies are required to close during negotiations. Strikes were extremely rare, but work stoppages were common.

The government did not effectively enforce the law. Government institutions, such as the Ministry of Labor and the labor courts, did not effectively investigate, prosecute, or punish employers who violated freedom of association and collective bargaining laws. Labor courts also failed to compel compliance with reinstatement orders, including payment of back wages, for workers illegally dismissed for engaging in union activities. The Public Ministry was ineffective in responding to labor court referrals for criminal prosecution in cases where employers refused to comply with labor court orders. Inspectors often lacked vehicles or fuel to carry out inspections, and in some cases they failed to take effective action to gain access to worksites in response to employers’ refusal to permit labor inspectors access to facilities. Inspectors were encouraged to seek police assistance as required. Inspections were generally not comprehensive, and if complaint driven, focused on investigating the alleged violation, rather than attempting to maximize limited resources to determine compliance beyond the individual complaint. Penalties for labor law violations were inadequate and rarely enforced.

A 2017 decree restored sanction authority to the Ministry of Labor, but the decree did not go into effect until January 2018. Business groups complained the shortened time frame to investigate and verify compliance with Ministry of Labor remediation orders resulted in more cases being referred to the labor courts without an opportunity to conciliate. Worker representatives reported no significant improvement in compliance with the law as a result of the new sanction authority, noting that the inspectorate emphasized collection of fines, which now go to the labor inspectorate, over remediation of the underlying violations. The ministry’s labor inspectorate indicated it had collected 1,864,800 quetzals ($240,000) from fines imposed in 2018, and approximately 3,044,000 quetzals ($395,000) from January 1 to November 15, 2019. Lack of information about the law’s implementation made it difficult to assess its impact on improving labor law enforcement.

The Unit for Crimes against Unionists within the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Human Rights in the Public Ministry was responsible for investigating attacks and threats against union members as well as for noncompliance with judicial orders in labor cases. Staffing for the unit increased, but successful prosecutions remained a challenge. The unit reported approximately 2,000 referrals of noncompliance with labor court orders, most of which involved mass dismissals in the public sector and remained under investigation.

On September 20, the government submitted its first report to the ILO Governing Body, as required in the ILO’s November 2018 decision to close a 2012 complaint alleging the country had failed to meet its commitments under Convention 87 on Freedom of Association. Under the terms of the decision, a National Tripartite Commission on Labor Relations and Freedom of Association, which was formed in 2017 to monitor and facilitate implementation of the 2013 ILO roadmap and its 2015 indicators, would report annually to the Governing Body and publicly on progress implementing the ILO roadmap until 2020. The decision also called on the government and its social partners to develop and adopt a consensus legislative proposal that would address the long-standing ILO recommendations on freedom of association, collective bargaining, and the right to strike. Unions submitted their report to the Governing Body on implementation of the roadmap on September 30.

The reports demonstrated a lack of progress in all nine elements of the roadmap. After being inactive from November 2018 through April, the National Tripartite Commission met five times from May to September but failed to achieve concrete progress on the roadmap. For example, a lack of consensus remained between employers and workers on legislation seeking to address ILO recommendations, particularly to allow for industry-wide unions. Three subcommissions established under the National Commission were equally ineffective–on legislation and labor policy, on mediation and dispute settlement, and on implementation of the roadmap.

In August the National Tripartite Commission approved a technical assistance program proposed by the ILO with three objectives and a number of outcomes. The first objective was to strengthen the capacity in negotiations of the commission and its subcommissions. The second objective was to develop consensus legislative proposals to address the long-standing ILO recommendations. The third objective was to strengthen the capacity of institutions responsible for freedom of association to prevent, investigate, prosecute, process, and execute administrative and judicial decisions, as well as to improve access to information by civil society so they could take actions to defend and promote their labor rights.

The Ministry of Government convened the Interagency Committee to Analyze Attacks Against Human Rights Defenders, including trade unionists, on a regular basis. NGO participants complained the ministry imposed restrictions on civil society participation in the committee and reduced working-level officials’ authorities to respond to attacks.

The country did not demonstrate measurable progress in the effective enforcement of its labor laws, particularly those related to freedom of association and collective bargaining. In February the ILO noted the need for additional urgent action in several areas related to the roadmap, including investigation and prosecution of perpetrators of trade union violence; the adoption of protection measures for union officials; passage of legislative reforms to remove obstacles to freedom of association and the right to strike; expedited union registrations; and a national media campaign to raise awareness of the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Violence and threats against trade unionists and labor activists remained serious problems, with one killing of a trade unionist, two violent attacks, and 19 documented threats reported during the year. Authorities did not thoroughly investigate most acts of violence and threats, and by often discarding trade union activity as a motive from the outset of the investigation, allowed these acts to go unprosecuted. Several labor leaders reported death threats and other acts of intimidation. The Public Ministry reported that by August 31, it had received 487 complaints of crimes or offenses against trade unionists and labor activists and issued 20 convictions, including those related to cases opened in previous years. In February the ILO noted with regret continued impunity in cases of violence against trade union leaders and members.

Procedural hurdles, union formation restrictions and delays, and impunity for employers refusing to receive or ignoring court orders limited freedom of association and collective bargaining. Government statistics on attempted union registrations indicated most registrations were initially rejected, and when they were issued, it was done outside the legally established period. In addition, credentials of union leaders were regularly rejected and delayed. As a result, union members were left without additional protections against antiunion retaliation.

Employers routinely resisted attempts to form unions, delayed or only partially complied with agreements resulting from direct negotiations, and ignored judicial rulings requiring the employer to negotiate with recognized unions. There were credible reports of retaliation by employers against workers who tried to exercise their rights, including numerous complaints filed with the Ministry of Labor and the Public Ministry alleging employer retaliation for union activity. Common practices included termination and harassment of workers who attempted to form unions, creation of illegal company-supported unions to counter legally established unions, blacklisting of union organizers, and threats of factory closures. Local unions reported businesses used fraudulent bankruptcies, ownership substitution, and reincorporation of companies to circumvent legal obligations to recognize newly formed or established unions, despite legal restrictions on such practices.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The government failed to enforce the law effectively. Reports persisted of men and women subjected to forced labor in agriculture and domestic service. Penalties were inadequate to deter violations and rarely enforced. Criminal penalties for forced labor range from eight to 18 years’ imprisonment. The government had specialized police and prosecutors handle cases of human trafficking, including forced labor, although local experts reported some prosecutors lacked adequate training. There were also reports of forced child labor (see section 7.c.).

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law does not prohibit all of the worst forms of child labor. The Ministry of Labor issued Ministerial Agreement 260-2019 in June to provide effective implementation of ILO 138 Convention on Minimum Age for Work, which raises the minimum age for employment to 15 years. The law bars employment of minors younger than age 15, although it allows the ministry to authorize children younger than 15 to work in exceptional cases. The ministry’s inspectorate reported it did not authorize any exceptions during the year. The law prohibits persons younger than 18 from working in places that serve alcoholic beverages, in unhealthy or dangerous conditions, at night, or beyond the number of hours permitted. The legal workday for persons younger than 14 is six hours; for persons 14 to 17, the legal workday is seven hours. Despite this ministerial agreement, child labor was prevalent in the agricultural sector, in dangerous conditions, and with parents’ knowledge and consent.

The Ministry of Labor’s Child Worker Protection Unit is responsible for enforcing restrictions on child labor and educating minors, their parents, and employers on the rights of minors. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. The government did not effectively enforce the law, a situation exacerbated by the weakness of the labor inspection and labor court systems. The government devoted insufficient resources to prevention programs.

Child labor was a widespread problem. The NGO Conrad Project Association of the Cross estimated the workforce included approximately one million children ages five to 17. Most child labor occurred in rural indigenous areas of extreme poverty. The informal and agricultural sectors regularly employed children younger than 14, usually in small family enterprises, including in the production of broccoli, coffee, corn, fireworks, gravel, and sugar. Indigenous children also worked in street sales and as shoe shiners and bricklayer assistants.

An estimated 39,000 children, primarily indigenous girls, worked as domestic servants and were often vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse and sex trafficking. Traffickers exploit Guatemalan children in forced begging and street vending, particularly within Guatemala City and along the border with Mexico. Criminal organizations, including gangs, exploited girls in sex trafficking and coerced young males in urban areas to sell or transport drugs or commit extortion.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings  and the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law explicitly prohibits discrimination with respect to employment or occupation based on race, color, sex, religion, political opinion, national origin or citizenship, age, and disability. The government did not effectively enforce the law and related regulations. Penalties for violations were not sufficient to deter violations.

Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred. Anecdotally, wage discrimination based on race and sex occurred often in rural areas.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The law sets national minimum wages for agricultural and nonagricultural work and for work in garment factories. The minimum wage for agricultural and nonagricultural work and for work in export-sector-regime factories did not meet the minimum food budget for a family of five.

The legal workweek is 48 hours with at least one paid 24-hour rest period. Workers are not to work more than 12 hours a day. The law provides for 12 paid annual holidays and paid vacation of 15 working days after one year’s work. Daily and weekly maximum hour limits do not apply to domestic workers. Workers in the formal sector receive the standard pay for a day’s work for official annual holidays. Time-and-a-half pay is required for overtime work, and the law prohibits excessive compulsory overtime.

The government sets occupational health and safety standards that were inadequate, not current for all industries, and poorly enforced. The law does not provide for the right of workers to remove themselves from situations that endangered health or safety without jeopardy to their employment.

The Ministry of Labor conducted inspections to monitor compliance with minimum wage law provisions but often lacked the necessary vehicles or fuel to enable inspectors to enforce the law, especially in the agricultural and informal sectors. The ministry did not employ a sufficient number of labor inspectors to deter violations, and many of them performed reviews on paper or administrative duties rather than clearly defined inspection duties.

Labor inspectors reported uncovering numerous instances of overtime abuse, but effective enforcement was undermined due to inadequate fines and labor courts’ reluctance to use compulsory measures, such as increased fines and referrals to the criminal courts, to obtain compliance. Other factors contributing to the lack of effective enforcement included labor court inefficiencies, employer refusal to permit labor inspectors to enter facilities or provide access to payroll records and other documentation, and inspectors’ lack of follow-up inspections in the face of such refusals. Due to inefficient and lengthy court proceedings, the resolution of labor court cases was often delayed, in many instances for several years. Employers failing to provide a safe workplace were rarely sanctioned, and a law requiring companies with more than 50 employees to provide onsite medical facilities for their workers was not enforced.

Trade union leaders and human rights groups reported employers required workers to work overtime without legally mandated premium pay. Management often manipulated employer-provided transportation to worksites to force employees to work overtime, especially in export processing zones located in isolated areas with limited transportation alternatives. Noncompliance with minimum wage provisions in the agricultural and informal sectors was widespread. Advocacy groups estimated the vast majority of workers in rural areas who engaged in daylong employment did not receive the wages, benefits, or social security allocations required by law. Many employers in the agricultural sector reportedly conditioned payment of the minimum daily wage on excessive production quotas that workers generally were unable to meet. To meet the quota, workers felt compelled to work extra hours, sometimes bringing family members, including children, to help with the work. Because of having to work beyond the maximum allowed hours per day, workers received less than the minimum wage for the day and did not receive the required overtime pay. According to ILO statistics, 74 percent of the workforce worked in the informal sector and outside the basic protections afforded by law.

On June 3, the Ministry of Labor issued regulations implementing ILO Convention 175 on Part-Time Work, ratified in 2017. In October the Constitutional Court temporarily suspended key provisions of the regulations. While the business community was in favor of these regulations as a tool to generate employment, workers expressed concern the regulations would further reduce minimum wage, overtime pay, and employment benefits such as social security. They also expressed concern that employers would forcefully convert full-time workers to part time.

Local unions highlighted and protested violations by employers who failed to pay employer and employee contributions to the national social security system despite employee contribution deductions from workers’ paychecks. These violations, particularly common in export and agricultural industries, resulted in limiting or denying employees’ access to the public health system and reducing or underpaying workers’ pension benefits during their retirement years.

Many employers of domestic servants routinely paid below minimum wage, failed to register their employees with the Guatemalan Institute of Social Security, and demanded 16-hour days for six or more days a week for live-in staff.

Honduras

Executive Summary

Honduras is a constitutional, multiparty republic. The country last held national and local elections in November 2017. Voters elected Juan Orlando Hernandez of the National Party as president for a four-year term beginning January 2018. International observers generally recognized the elections as free but disputed the fairness and transparency of the results.

The Honduran National Police (HNP) maintain internal security and report to the Secretariat of Security. The armed forces, which report to the Secretariat of Defense, are responsible for external security but also exercise some domestic security responsibilities in a supporting role to the HNP and other civilian authorities. Some larger cities have police forces that operate independently of the HNP and report to municipal authorities. The Military Police of Public Order (PMOP) report to military authorities but conduct operations sanctioned by civilian security officials as well as by military leaders. The National Interinstitutional Security Force (FUSINA) coordinates the overlapping responsibilities of the HNP, PMOP, National Intelligence Directorate, Public Ministry, and national court system. Although FUSINA reports to the National Security and Defense Council, it did not have an effective command and control infrastructure. As a result, civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings; torture; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; killings of and threats to media members by criminal elements; criminalization of libel, although no cases were reported; widespread government corruption; and threats and violence against indigenous, Afro-descendent communities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons.

The government continued to prosecute and punish officials who committed abuses, but a weak judicial system and corruption were major obstacles to gaining convictions.

Organized criminal elements, including local and transnational gangs and narcotics traffickers, were significant perpetrators of violent crimes and committed acts of homicide, torture, kidnapping, extortion, human trafficking, intimidation, and other threats and violence directed against human rights defenders, judicial authorities, lawyers, the business community, journalists, bloggers, women, and members of vulnerable populations. The government investigated and prosecuted many of these crimes, particularly through the HNP’s Violent Crimes Task Force.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, with some restrictions, and the government generally respected this right. A small number of powerful business magnates with intersecting commercial, political, and family ties owned most of the major news media.

Freedom of Expression: The law includes a provision to punish persons who directly or through public media incite discrimination, contempt, repression, or violence against a person, group, or organization for reasons of gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, political opinion or affiliation, marital status, race or national origin, language, nationality, religion, family affiliation, family or economic situation, disability, health, physical appearance, or any other characteristic that would offend the victim’s human dignity.

Violence and Harassment: There were continued reports of harassment and threats against journalists, media figures, and bloggers. On March 17, a gunman shot and killed journalist Gabriel Hernandez in Nacome, Valle Department. Hernandez directed the television program The People Speak, where he discussed social issues and local politics. As of December the Secretariat of Human Rights had no information regarding an investigation or arrest in the case. In June a court found 12 members of the 18th Street gang guilty for their connections to the 2017 murder of Igor Padilla, a television journalist with the network HCH.

Government officials at all levels publicly denounced violence and threats of violence against media members and social communicators. It was usually unclear whether violence and threats against journalists were linked to their work or were products of generalized violence.

The government allocated a budget of nearly 25 million lempiras (one million dollars) for the continued operation of a protection mechanism that included provision of protection to journalists. By August it had provided protection to 39 journalists, among other types of activists and human rights defenders. Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to express concern about weak implementation of the law and limited resources available to operate the government’s protection mechanism. Civil society organizations continued to criticize the government’s failure to investigate threats adequately.

The HNP’s Violent Crimes Task Force investigated crimes against high-profile and particularly vulnerable victims, including journalists (as well as judges, human rights activists, and members of the LGBTI community). As of September the task force had submitted 17 cases to the Public Ministry, arrested 24 persons, and obtained four convictions.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Media members and NGOs stated the press self-censored due to fear of retaliation from organized crime or corrupt government officials.

Libel/Slander Laws: Citizens, including public officials, may initiate criminal proceedings for libel and slander. No cases were reported during the year.

Nongovernmental Impact: Some journalists and other members of civil society reported threats from members of organized crime. It was unclear how many of these threats were related to the victims’ professions or activism. Several anonymous social media sites, possibly linked to political parties, criticized journalists (as well as activists and civil society organizations) who were critical of the government or opposition party policies.

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, but in contrast with 2018, there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

The law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right. The law requires a judge to issue an eviction order for individuals occupying public and private property if security forces have not evicted the individuals within a specified period of the occupation. Some local and international civil society organizations, including students, agricultural workers groups, political parties, and indigenous rights groups, alleged that members of the security forces used excessive force to break up demonstrations. The IACHR reported that the government at times used a policy of arbitrary detentions or arrests to inhibit protest.

On June 19, a soldier allegedly killed Eblin Noel Corea Maradiaga, a 17-year-old student, in Yarumela, La Paz, where a road had been blocked during a protest earlier that day. On September 19, the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Life and ATIC arrested Adan Garcia Banegas, a member of the armed forces, for his alleged role in Maradiaga’s death. The Secretariat of Defense’s Human Rights Division worked with the Attorney General’s Office to investigate the June 19 incident, which occurred in the context of widespread unrest in the country.

The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. The law prohibits illicit association, defined as gatherings by persons bearing arms, explosive devices, or dangerous objects with the purpose of committing a crime, and prescribes prison terms of two to four years and a fine of 30,000 to 60,000 lempiras ($1,200 to $2,400) for anyone who convokes or directs an illicit meeting or demonstration. There were no reports of such cases during the year, although authorities charged some protesters with sedition. Public-sector unions expressed concern over some officials refusing to honor bargaining agreements and firing union leaders. The law prohibits police from unionizing (see section 7.a.).

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

In-country Movement: There were areas where authorities could not assure freedom of movement because of criminal activity and a lack of significant government presence.

In 2018 the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center estimated there were approximately 191,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country. Internal displacement was generally caused by violence, national and transnational gang activity, and human trafficking. Official data on forced internal displacement was limited in part because gangs controlled many of the neighborhoods that were sources of internal displacement (see section 6, Displaced Children).

The government maintained the Interinstitutional Commission for the Protection of People Displaced by Violence and created the Directorate for the Protection of Persons Internally Displaced by Violence within the Secretariat of Human Rights. Both the ministry and the commission focused on developing policies to address IDPs. Under the Regional Integral Framework for Protection and Solutions, the government continued to strengthen its capacity to provide services to key population groups, including refugees and returned migrants, through 14 commitments and 28 specific actions between 2018 and 2020. As of November 14, the government had implemented 15 of the 28 actions to promote the safe, voluntary, dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs.

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Transiting migrants were vulnerable to abuse by criminal organizations. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to refugees and other persons of concern.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status. The government has a nascent system to provide protection to refugees, the effectiveness of which had not been fully proven by year’s end, but at times there were delays in processing provisional permits for asylum applicants.

Not Applicable.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the right to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on nearly universal and equal suffrage. The law does not permit active members of the military or civilian security forces to vote. The constitution prohibits practicing clergy from running for office or participating in political campaigns.

Recent Elections: In December 2017 Juan Orlando Hernandez of the National Party was declared the winner in the November elections. International observers generally agreed the elections were free but disputed the fairness and transparency of the results. The Organization of American States (OAS) and EU observer teams agreed that the margin of victory separating incumbent president Hernandez from challenger Salvador Nasralla was extremely narrow. The OAS mission found that the 1.5 percent margin of victory, combined with numerous irregularities in vote processing, left it unable to state with certainty who won the presidential election. The EU mission agreed there were serious irregularities in the process but concluded that safeguards built into the system, including posting of voting results forms on a public website, helped promote transparency. NGOs reported irregularities, including problems with voter rolls, buying and selling of electoral workers’ credentials, and lack of transparency in campaign financing.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Civil society and opposition parties accused officials of using government resources to attract voters.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit the participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. Women, however, suffered political violence, which ranged from harassment for voting against party lines to receiving death threats for their political participation. Women held 22 percent of seats in the National Congress, and fewer women participated in regional and local politics.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides for criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but authorities did not implement the law effectively, and officials continued to engage in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year. The government took steps to address corruption at high levels in government agencies, including arresting and charging members of congress, judges, prosecutors, sitting and former senior officials, mayors and other local authorities, and police officers. Anticorruption efforts continued to lag and remained an area of concern, as well as the government’s ability to protect justice operators, such as prosecutors and judges.

In 2016 the OAS Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) began collaborating with the judiciary, the Public Ministry, and other institutions to prevent and investigate acts of corruption. Prompted by MACCIH’s work, the Public Ministry created an anticorruption unit (UFECIC) that undertook cases for investigation, including 13 major cases in conjunction with MACCIH. MACCIH assisted the Supreme Court with the establishment of an anticorruption court with national jurisdiction.

Corruption: As of October UFECIC, in collaboration with MACCIH, had presented 13 case investigations, including against former first lady Rosa Elena Bonilla de Lobo, spouse of former president Porfirio Lobo, which resulted in her conviction in August on fraud and misappropriation of public funds and a sentence of 58 years in prison. Several cases involved accusations against members of congress, such as the fe de erratas (erratum) case against two members of congress accused of altering legislation and the Network of Congresspersons case, in which five officials were accused of diverting public funds. In March, UFECIC presented two cases to the anticorruption court related to hydroelectric projects, Patuca III Collusion and Corruption and Fraud in el Gualcarque. The latter was based on multiple reports of irregularities in hydroelectric projects managed by the company DESA, presented by the deceased environmental defender Berta Caceres and involving David Castillo, accused of being one of the alleged intellectual authors in Caceres’ killing. In May UFECIC presented a case referred to as Narcopolitics, which accused 12 citizens of being part of a money-laundering scheme that moved funds from international drug trafficking through large-scale public works projects contracted by the government, most of which were never carried out. The son of former president Porfirio Lobo Sosa, who was serving a prison sentence in the United States, was named in this case.

During the year the National Anticorruption Council (CNA) presented eight high-profile cases to the Public Ministry, citing several public administration and elected officials and relatives of former presidents. In February the CNA presented a case against former president Lobo and former Central Bank president Wilfredo Cerrato for violation of the duties of public servants and embezzlement of public funds. Following the announcements of these cases, the CNA reported being the target of harassment campaigns and threats.

Financial Disclosure: Public officials are subject to a financial disclosure law but did not always comply. The law mandates that the Supreme Auditing Tribunal monitor and verify disclosures. The tribunal published its reports on its website and cited the names of public officials who did not comply with the disclosure law.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A wide variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views, but some human rights organizations criticized government officials for lack of access and responsiveness.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: Some civil society organizations criticized the government for failing to comply with, or inadequately complying with, recommendations by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights and protection measures ordered by the government and recommended by the IACHR.

Government Human Rights Bodies: A semiautonomous commissioner for human rights served as an ombudsman and investigated complaints of human rights abuses. With offices throughout the country, the ombudsman received cases that otherwise may not have risen to national attention. The Secretariat of Human Rights served as an effective advocate for human rights within the government. The Public Ministry’s Office of the Special Prosecutor for Human Rights handled cases involving charges of human rights abuses by government officials. In 2018 the Public Ministry also created the Special Prosecutor’s Office for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, Journalists, Social Communicators, and Justice Officials. There is also a Human Rights Committee in the National Congress. The Ministries of Security and Defense both have human rights offices that investigated alleged human rights abuses and coordinated human rights-related activities with the Secretariat of Human Rights.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes all forms of rape of men or women, including spousal rape. The government considers rape a crime of public concern, and the state prosecutes rapists even if victims do not press charges. The penalties for rape range from three to nine years’ imprisonment, and the courts enforced these penalties.

According to UNAH Violence Observatory statistics, killings of women decreased from 9.1 deaths per 100,000 in 2016 to 8.2 per 100,000 in 2018, and to 7.9 per 100,000 as of June. Women in domestic situations were the most vulnerable group, accounting for approximately 40 percent of these deaths.

The law criminalizes domestic violence and provides penalties of up to four years in prison for domestic violence. If a victim’s physical injuries do not reach the severity required to categorize the violence as a criminal act, the legal penalty for a first offense is a sentence of one to three months of community service. Female victims of domestic violence are entitled to certain protective measures. Abusers caught in the act may be detained for up to 24 hours as a preventive measure. The law provides a maximum sentence of three years in prison for disobeying a restraining order connected with the crime of intrafamilial violence.

The law was not effectively enforced, and weak public institutional structures contributed to the inadequate enforcement of the law. Due to impunity rates of up to 90 percent in the courts, women often did not report the crime, or withdrew the case, because they feared or were economically dependent on the aggressor. In addition, women experienced delays in accessing justice due to police who failed to process complaints in a timely manner or judicial system officials who deferred scheduling hearings. Institutions such as the judiciary, the Public Ministry, the National Police, and the Secretariat of Health attempted to enhance their response to domestic violence, but obstacles included insufficient political will, inadequate budgets, limited or no services in rural areas, absence of or inadequate training and awareness of domestic violence among police and other authorities, and a pattern of male-dominant culture and norms. Additionally, the National Institute for Women lost authority and power to advocate for female victims when it was folded into the Sectorial Cabinet of Inclusion and Social Development. NGOs, human rights organizations, and universities offered alternative legal services, care, and support but were limited by budget and size.

In cooperation with the UN Development Program, the government operated consolidated reporting centers in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula where women could report crimes, seek medical and psychological attention, and receive other services. These reporting centers were in addition to the 298 government-operated women’s offices–one in each municipality–that provided a wide array of services to women, focusing on education, personal finance, health, social and political participation, environmental stewardship, and prevention of gender-based violence.

Sexual Harassment: The law criminalizes various forms of sexual harassment. Violators face penalties of one to three years in prison and possible suspension of their professional licenses, but the government did not effectively enforce the law.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: Although the law accords women and men the same legal rights and status, including property rights in divorce cases, many women did not fully enjoy such rights. Most women in the workforce engaged in lower-status and lower-paying informal occupations, such as domestic service, without the benefit of legal protections. By law women have equal access to educational opportunities.

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship by birth in the country, from the citizenship of their parents, or by naturalization.

Child Abuse: Child abuse remained a serious problem. The law establishes prison sentences of up to three years for child abuse. As of July 30, the Violence Observatory reported killings of 264 persons younger than 23.

Early and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age of marriage for both boys and girls is 18. According to UNICEF, 8 percent of children were married before age 15 and 34 percent before age 18.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The commercial sexual exploitation of children, especially in sex trafficking, continued to be a problem. The country was a destination for child sex tourism. The legal age of consent is 18. There is no statutory rape law, but the penalty for rape of a minor younger than 12 is 15 to 20 years in prison, or nine to 13 years in prison if the victim is 13 or older. Penalties for facilitating child sex trafficking are 10 to 15 years in prison, with fines ranging from one million to 2.5 million lempiras ($40,000 to $100,000). The law prohibits the use of children younger than 18 for exhibitions or performances of a sexual nature or in the production of pornography.

Displaced Children: Civil society organizations reported that common causes of forced displacement for youth included death threats for failure to pay extortion, attempted recruitment by gangs, witnessing criminal activity by gangs or organized crime, domestic violence, attempted kidnappings, family members’ involvement in drug dealing, victimization by traffickers, discrimination based on sexual orientation, sexual harassment, and discrimination for having a chronic illness.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

The Jewish community numbered more than 250 members. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities. The Public Ministry is responsible for prosecuting violations. The law requires that persons with disabilities have access to buildings, but few buildings were accessible, and the national government did not effectively implement laws or programs to provide such access.

The government has an Office for People with Disabilities located within the Ministry of Development and Social Inclusion, but its ability to provide services to persons with disabilities was limited. Mental health professionals expressed concern about social stigma by families and communities against persons with mental disabilities and a lack of access to mental health care throughout the country.

In the 2013 census, approximately 8.5 percent of the population identified themselves as members of indigenous communities, but other estimates were higher. Indigenous groups included the Miskito, Tawahkas, Pech, Tolupans, Lencas, Maya-Chortis, Nahual, Bay Islanders, and Garifunas. They had limited representation in the national government and consequently little direct input into decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions, and the allocation of natural resources.

Indigenous communities continued to report threats and acts of violence against them and against community and environmental activists. Violence was often rooted in a broader context of conflict over land and natural resources, extensive corruption, lack of transparency and community consultation, other criminal activity, and limited state ability to protect the rights of vulnerable communities.

Ethnic minority rights leaders, international NGOs, and farmworker organizations continued to claim that the government failed to redress actions taken by security forces, government agencies, and private individuals and businesses to dislodge farmers and indigenous persons from lands over which they claimed ownership based on land reform law or ancestral land titles.

Persons from indigenous and Afro-descendent communities continued to experience discrimination in employment, education, housing, and health services. An IACHR report noted there were insufficient hospital beds and inadequate supplies at the only hospital that services Gracias a Dios Department, home to the majority of the Miskito community. On September 8, Garifuna leader Mirna Suazo was shot and killed by two assailants on a motorcycle. Three other Garifuna women also were killed within three days of Suazo’s killing. The government was investigating these crimes and had arrested suspects as of November.

The law states that sexual orientation and gender identity characteristics merit special protection from discrimination and includes these characteristics in a hate crimes amendment to the penal code. Nevertheless, social discrimination against LGBTI persons persisted, as did physical violence. Local media and LGBTI human rights NGOs reported an increase in the number of killings of LGBTI persons during the year. Impunity for such crimes was a problem, as was the impunity rate for all types of crime. According to the Violence Observatory, of the 317 cases since 2009 of hate crimes and violence against members of the LGBTI population, 92 percent had gone unpunished.

CONADEH reported 16 hate crimes against transgender women through September. In June, three LGBTI individuals were killed, and four LGBTI persons were killed during one weekend in July. One of the victims, a young transgender woman known as Shakira or “La Moy,” was violently killed in the department of Cortes. The government responded to the multiple LGBTI murders with social media messages condemning the violence against the LGBTI community. The HNP was investigating these crimes and had arrested multiple suspects as of November.

LGBTI rights groups asserted that government agencies and private employers engaged in discriminatory hiring practices. Transgender women were particularly vulnerable to employment and education discrimination; many could find employment only as sex workers, substantially increasing their risk of violence. Transgender individuals noted their inability to update identity documents to reflect their gender identity. In September a lesbian student in Tegucigalpa was suspended from school for eight days and forced to attend a private graduation after classmates found photographs on a social media platform of her kissing another young woman.

Persons with HIV and AIDS continued to be targets of discrimination. According to NGO Association for a Better Life, there were reports of forced sterilization of women with HIV, and they suffered disproportionately from gender-based violence. The Ministry of Human Rights reported a study that found that six of 10 persons believed that women with HIV had no right to become pregnant. A study conducted on stigma and discrimination associated with HIV found that 13 percent of citizens believed that anyone has the right to assault a person for identifying as transgender, an increase of 4 percent between 2016 and 2019.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law grants workers the right to form and join unions of their choice, bargain collectively, and strike. It prohibits employer retribution against employees for engaging in trade union activities. The law places restrictions on these rights, such as requiring that a recognized trade union represent at least 30 workers, prohibiting foreign nationals from holding union offices, and requiring that union officials work in the same substantive area of the business as the workers they represent. Through August, eight new unions had been formed. The law prohibits members of the armed forces and police, as well as certain other public employees, from forming labor unions.

The law requires an employer to begin collective bargaining once workers establish a union, and it specifies that if more than one union exists at a company the employer must negotiate with the largest.

The law allows only local unions to call strikes, prohibits labor federations and confederations from calling strikes, and requires that a two-thirds majority of both union and nonunion employees at an enterprise approve a strike. The law prohibits workers from legally striking until after they have attempted and failed to come to agreement with their employer, and it requires workers and employers to participate in a mediation and conciliation process. In addition, the law prohibits strikes in a wide range of economic activities that the government has designated as essential services or that it considers would affect the rights of individuals in the larger community to security, health, education, and economic and social well-being.

The law permits workers in public health care, social security, staple food production, and public utilities (municipal sanitation, water, electricity, and telecommunications) to strike as long as they continue to provide basic services. The law also requires that public-sector workers involved in the refining, transportation, and distribution of petroleum products submit their grievances to the Secretariat of Labor and Social Security (STSS) before striking. The law permits strikes by workers in export-processing zones and free zones for companies that provide services to industrial parks, but it requires that strikes not impede the operations of other factories in such parks. The STSS has the power to declare a work stoppage illegal, and employers may discipline employees consistent with their internal regulations, including by firing strikers, if the STSS rules that a work stoppage is illegal.

The government did not effectively enforce the law. Nearly two years after passage of a comprehensive labor inspection law in 2017, the STSS released implementing regulations based on extensive consultations with the private sector and unions. Employers frequently refused to comply with STSS orders that required them to reinstate workers who had been dismissed for participating in union activities. By law the STSS may fine companies that violate the right to freedom of association. The law permits fines, and while the monetary penalty is sufficient to deter violations, the failure of the government to collect those fines facilitated continued labor code violations. Through August the STSS administered fines of more than 17.6 million lempiras ($704,000). Despite administering fines, through September 30, the government had not collected a fine originating from a labor violation. Both the STSS and the courts may order a company to reinstate workers, but the STSS lacked the means to verify compliance. While there were cases where a worker was reinstated, such as the reinstatement of a union leader in Tegucigalpa following his unlawful dismissal, the reinstatement process in the courts was unduly long, lasting from six months to more than five years.

Workers had difficulty exercising the rights to form and join unions and to engage in collective bargaining, and the government failed to enforce applicable laws effectively. Public-sector trade unionists raised concerns about government interference in trade union activities, including its suspension or ignoring of collective agreements and its dismissals of union members and leaders.

Some employers either refused to engage in collective bargaining or made it very difficult to do so. Some companies also delayed appointing or failed to appoint representatives for required STSS-led mediation, a practice that prolonged the mediation process and impeded the right to strike. There were allegations that companies used collective pacts, which are collective contracts with nonunionized workers, to prevent unionization and collective bargaining because only one collective contract can exist in each workplace. Unions also raised concerns about the use of temporary contracts and part-time employment, suggesting that employers used these mechanisms to prevent unionization and avoid providing full benefits. A Supreme Court ruling requires that both unions and employers notify the STSS of new collective agreements before they go into effect.

Antiunion discrimination continued to be a serious problem. The three major union federations and several civil society groups noted that many companies continued to violate the law despite being fined by government authorities for violations of the labor code. Some failed to remedy violations despite multiple visits by STSS inspectors. Local unions, the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, and other organizations reported that some employers harassed union leaders in attempts to undermine union operations.

The Solidarity Center reported threats against several labor leaders, including a public-sector labor union leader. The Antiunion Violence Network reported more than 50 cases of antiunion violence, including the killing of a trade unionist during protests by the education and health sectors.

Labor activists alleged that automotive component producer Honduras Electrical Distribution Systems (Kyungshin Lear) refused to engage in collective bargaining. Some companies in other sectors, including the melon and palm industries, established employer-controlled unions that prevented the formation of independent unions because of legal restrictions on the number of unions and collective bargaining agreements allowed per company.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced labor, but the government did not effectively implement or enforce these laws. Administrative penalties were insufficient to deter violations and were rarely enforced. Penalties for forced labor under antitrafficking law range from 10 to 15 years’ imprisonment, but authorities often did not enforce them.

Forced labor occurred in street vending, domestic service, the transport of drugs and other illicit goods, and other criminal activity. Victims were primarily impoverished individuals in both rural and urban areas (see section 7.c.). The law requiring prisoners to work at least five hours a day, six days a week took effect in 2016. Regulations for implementing the law were still under development as of September. The Secretariat of Human Rights stated it was taking every precaution to protect prisoners’ rights and assure that the work provided opportunities for prisoners to develop skills they could use in legal economic activities after their release.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits all of the worst forms of child labor. The law regulates child labor, sets the minimum age for employment at 14, and regulates the hours and types of work that minors younger than 18 may perform. By law all minors between the ages of 14 and 18 in most industries must receive special permission from the STSS to work, and the STSS must perform a home study to verify that there is an economic need for the child to work and that the child not work outside the country or in hazardous conditions, including in offshore fishing. The STSS approved 91 such authorizations through September. The vast majority of children who worked did so without STSS permits. If the STSS grants permission, children between 14 and 16 may work a maximum of four hours a day, and those between 16 and 18 may work up to six hours a day. The law prohibits night work and overtime for minors younger than 18, but the STSS may grant special permission for minors between the ages of 16 to 18 to work in the evening if such employment does not adversely affect their education.

The law requires individuals and companies that employ more than 20 school-age children at their facilities to provide a location for a school.

The government did not effectively enforce the law. Fines for child labor were not sufficient to deter violations. The law also imposes prison sentences of three to five years for child labor violations that endanger the life or morality of a child. The STSS completed 74 inspections and 19 verification inspections as of September and sanctioned two companies for not correcting noncompliant child labor practices.

Estimates of the number of children younger than 18 in the country’s workforce ranged from 370,000 to 510,000. Children often worked on melon, coffee, okra, and sugarcane plantations as well as in other agricultural production; scavenged at garbage dumps; worked in the forestry, hunting, and fishing sectors; worked as domestic servants; peddled goods such as fruit; begged; washed cars; hauled goods; and labored in limestone quarrying and lime production. Most child labor occurred in rural areas. Children often worked alongside family members in agriculture and other work, such as fishing, construction, transportation, and small businesses. Some of the worst forms of child labor occurred, including commercial sexual exploitation of children, and NGOs reported that gangs often forced children to commit crimes, including homicide (see section 6, Children).

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings  and the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination based on gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, political opinion or affiliation, marital status, race or national origin, language, nationality, religion, family affiliation, family or economic situation, disability, health, physical appearance, or any other characteristic that would offend the victim’s human dignity. Penalties include prison sentences of up to five years and monetary fines. The law prohibits employers from requiring pregnancy tests as a prerequisite for employment; penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. The government did not effectively enforce these laws and regulations.

Many employers discriminated against women. Persons with disabilities, indigenous and Afro-Honduran persons, LGBTI persons, and persons with HIV/AIDS also faced discrimination in employment and occupation (see section 6).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There are 42 categories of monthly minimum wages, based on the industry and the size of a company’s workforce; the minimum average is above the poverty line. The law does not cover domestic workers.

The law applies equally to citizens and foreigners, regardless of gender, and prescribes a maximum eight-hour shift per day for most workers, a 44-hour workweek, and at least one 24-hour rest period for every six days of work. It also provides for paid national holidays and annual leave. The law requires overtime pay, bans excessive compulsory overtime, limits overtime to four hours a day for a maximum workday of 12 hours, and prohibits the practice of requiring workers to complete work quotas before leaving their place of employment. The law does not protect domestic workers effectively. In many industries, including agriculture, cleaning, and security, employers did not respect maternity rights or pay minimum wage, overtime, or vacation. In these sectors employers frequently paid workers for the standard 44-hour workweek no matter how many additional hours they worked. In the agricultural sector, companies frequently paid less than minimum wage to most workers, with less than 1 percent of agricultural workers receiving the minimum wage. In security and domestic service sectors, workers were frequently forced to work more than 60 hours per week but paid only for 44 hours. Through August the STSS recovered 761 million lempiras ($30 million) in overtime payments for 139,135 workers.

Occupational safety and health standards were current but not effectively enforced. By law workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger their health or safety without jeopardizing continued employment. Under the new inspection law, the STSS has the authority temporarily to shut down workplaces where there is an imminent danger of fatalities. There were not enough trained inspectors, however, to deter violations sufficiently.

The STSS is responsible for enforcing the national minimum wage, hours of work, and occupational health and safety laws, but it did so inconsistently and ineffectively. Civil society continued to raise issues of minimum wage violations, highlighting agricultural companies in the south as frequent violators. The 2017 inspection law permits fines, and while the monetary penalty is sufficient to deter violations, the failure of the government to collect those fines facilitated continued labor code violations. As part of the monitoring and action plan agreed between Honduras and a foreign government, the government increased the STSS budget to approximately 79.4 million lempiras (three million dollars). As of September inspectors conducted 14,039 total inspections, including 1,345 unannounced inspections. As of November the STSS had an insufficient number of inspectors to enforce the law effectively.

The STSS reported a significant reduction in company obstruction of labor inspectors, with 226 cases through September. Because labor inspectors continued to be concentrated in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, full labor inspections and follow-up visits to confirm compliance were far less frequent in other parts of the country. Many inspectors asked workers to provide them with transportation so that they could conduct inspections, since the STSS did not have sufficient resources to pay for travel to worksites. Credible allegations of corruption in the Secretariat of Labor continued.

Authorities did not effectively enforce worker safety standards, particularly in the construction, garment assembly, and agricultural sectors, as well as in the informal economy. Employers rarely paid the minimum wage in the agricultural sector and paid it inconsistently in other sectors. Employers frequently penalized agricultural workers for taking legally authorized days off.

While all formal workers are entitled to social security, there were reports that both public- and private-sector employers failed to pay into the social security system. The STSS may levy a fine against companies that fail to pay social security obligations, but the amount was not sufficient to deter violations.

There continued to be reports of violations of occupational health and safety law affecting the approximately 5,000 persons who made a living by diving for seafood such as lobster, conch, and sea cucumber, most from the Miskito indigenous community and other ethnic minority groups in Gracias a Dios Department. The violations included lack of access to appropriate safety equipment. Through September the STSS inspected 15 fishing boats.

Nicaragua

Executive Summary

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 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government did not respect this right. Restrictions on press freedom, the absence of an independent judiciary, and a nondemocratic political system combined to inhibit freedom of expression, including for the press. Although the law provides that the right to information may not be subjected to censorship, the government and actors under its control retaliated against the press and radio and television stations by blocking transmissions, impeding the import of ink and paper, and violence against journalists. Some independent media outlets also reported they were victims of cyberattacks.

Freedom of Expression: The government used reprisals to restrict the ability of individuals to criticize the government.

Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views despite government attempts to restrict and intimidate them. Independent media outlets experienced vandalism, seizure of broadcast equipment, arrest, and fear of criminal defamation charges. The government repeatedly denied broadcasting licenses and other permits for independent media. Further attempts to intimidate came through continued financial audits performed by the Directorate General of Revenue, which resulted in referral of cases to the Customs and Administrative Tax Court. Independent news outlets faced restrictions on speech, such as not being permitted to attend official government events, being denied interviews by government officials, and receiving limited or no direct access to government information. Official media, however, were not similarly restricted.

The government restricted symbolic speech. Prodemocracy protesters were arrested on many occasions for displaying the national flag as a protest banner.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media faced official and unofficial restrictions, reprisals, and harassment, but they were nonetheless successful in expressing a variety of views. Journalists from many stations were threatened and harassed with the purpose of limiting their editorial independence.

Significant state influence, ownership, and control over media continued. National television was largely controlled either by business associates of the president or directly owned and administered by his family members. Eight of the 10 basic channels available were under direct FSLN influence or owned and controlled by persons with close ties to the government. Media stations owned by the presidential family generally limited news programming and served as outlets for progovernment or FSLN propaganda and campaign advertisements. Press and human rights organizations claimed the use of state funds for official media, as well as biased distribution of government advertising dollars, placed independent outlets at a disadvantage.

Violence and Harassment: Journalists were subject to government violence, harassment, and death threats. Renowned journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro went into exile in January after receiving harassment and death threats. On November 25, he returned, along with five other journalists. The television station 100% Noticias and the offices of news magazine Confidencial remained closed and under police custody after the December 2018 raid of those facilities.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government penalized those who published items counter to the ruling party’s ideology; however, it did not do this according to specific guidelines.

To control printing presses, the government continued to enforce the controversial Law 528, or “Ley Arce,” which established high tariffs and bureaucratic delays on the importation of ink, paper, machinery, and other printing necessities, despite constitutional provisions protecting the media’s right to freedom from such tariffs. By September the government had not allowed national, independent print media La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario to import ink, paper, or machine parts to continue printing for more than one year. This led to significant increase in printing costs and restrictions of printing capacity of both daily newspapers. On September 27, after nearly 40 years in business, El Nuevo Diario announced its permanent closure, citing “economic, technical, and logistical difficulties, which made [its] operation unsustainable.”

In September Radio Corporacion, an independent radio broadcaster, found its AM radio antenna sabotaged and its transmission cables dug up and cut into pieces. Radio station staff stated that unknown perpetrators carried out the attack with knowledge of where the sabotage could do the most damage. As a result, the radio station lost its ability to broadcast on the AM frequency for more than a week and moved all of its programming to an FM frequency. This resulted in lower listenership, particularly among rural listeners who rely principally on AM frequency for radio transmissions.

Restrictions in acquiring broadcast licenses and equipment prevented the media from operating freely. Beginning in 2008, media outlets were unable to apply for new broadcasting licenses while the General Law (Law 200) on Telecommunications was under review in the National Assembly. The government extended the validity of existing licenses indefinitely. Human rights groups and independent media also reported the failure to approve or deny Law 200 resulted in uncertainty surrounding the purchase and import of goods related to broadcasting. As a result, independent radio owners continued to defer long-term investments.

Some independent-media owners also alleged the government exerted pressure on private firms to limit advertising in independent media, although other observers believed the lack of advertising was the result of self-censorship by private companies or a business decision based on circulation numbers. Many journalists practiced self-censorship, fearing economic and physical repercussions for investigative reporting on crime or official corruption. In addition, media outlet owners exercised self-censorship by choosing not to publish news that affected public perceptions of the government or the FSLN.

Libel/Slander Laws: Although during the year the government did not use libel laws, independent media reported engaging in self-censorship due to the government’s previous use of libel laws. Slander and libel are both punishable by fines ranging from 120 to 300 times the minimum daily wage.

National Security: Human rights NGOs and civil society organizations argued the Sovereign Security Law was a basis for the government’s failure to respect civil liberties. Although not cited in specific cases, the law applies to “any other factor that creates danger to the security of the people, life, family, and community, as well as the supreme interests of the Nicaraguan nation.”

An NNP regulation restricts criticism of government policies and officials under the guise of protecting national security.

There were credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority and in some cases restricted or disrupted access to the internet or censored online content.

Several NGOs claimed the government monitored their email and online activity without appropriate legal authority. Domestic NGOs, Roman Catholic Church representatives, journalists, and opposition members alleged the government monitored their email and telephone conversations. Paid government supporters used social media and website commentary spaces to harass prominent members of civil society, human rights defenders, and well known journalists.

The government disclosed personally identifiable information to penalize the expression of opinions. As part of a continuing social media campaign against prodemocracy protests, ruling party members and supporters used social media to publish personal information of human rights defenders and civil society members. Civil society members alleged government offices provided the information. Government supporters also used the personally identifiable information to mark the houses of civil society members with either derogatory slurs or threats, then published photographs of the marked houses on social media.

There were government restrictions on academic freedom, and many students, academics, and researchers reported pressure to censor themselves.

Public universities expelled from school and erased the records of many university students who participated in prodemocracy protests. In many cases students who went into exile could not continue their studies abroad without their records. Entrances to public universities remained under surveillance by progovernment guards who regularly checked every visitor and also often by police. Some university rectors reported university enrollment following the prodemocracy uprising dipped to 50 percent of precrisis levels.

Human rights NGOs and civil society groups reported authorities required students in elementary and secondary public schools to participate in progovernment rallies while schools were in session. Political propaganda for the ruling party was posted inside public schools. Teacher organizations and NGOs alleged continuing FSLN interference in the school system through the use of school facilities as FSLN campaign headquarters, favoritism shown to members of FSLN youth groups or to children of FSLN members, politicized awarding of scholarships, and the use of pro-FSLN education materials.

Combined NNP and parapolice surrounded and harassed students inside university campuses during student protests in violation of university autonomy.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

The government did not respect the legal right to public assembly, demonstration, and mobilization. Prodemocracy marches and protests were not allowed during the year. Police failed to protect peaceful protesters from attacks; they also committed attacks and provided logistical support to other attackers. Human rights organizations reported police stopped traffic for and otherwise protected progovernment demonstrations.

The NNP consistently refused to accept applications or denied permits to use public spaces for prodemocracy marches, using unclear parameters. A denial of permission from the NNP resulted in significant repression and violence against protesters when they carried on with the protest. On September 21, the NNP used tear gas and shot marbles and pellets at prodemocracy protesters, whose application to march was denied by the NNP. Parapolice attacked Roman Catholic churches throughout the year during masses in commemoration of protesters killed during the April 2018 prodemocracy uprising.

On November 14, police surrounded a church in Masaya where Father Edwin Roman hosted a group of mothers of political prisoners on a hunger strike to demand of the release of their children. Police impeded access and prevented anyone inside the church from exiting, and later that day the government cut off water and electricity to the church. On November 15, the NNP arrested 16 individuals who arrived at the church to show solidarity with the striking mothers by providing them with water and charged those 16 individuals with trafficking weapons, munitions, and explosives. Local media and lawyers for the accused said police planted military-grade weapons inside the individuals’ vehicles after they were detained. An attorney for some of the detained individuals reported they had been beaten in prison. On December 2, Judge Adalberto Zeledon announced the trial of the 16 would begin on January 30, 2020.

On November 18, NNP officers and riot police, who had surrounded and blocked access to the Cathedral of Managua as families of political prisoners began a hunger strike inside, allowed inside the cathedral a group of at least 30 regime-aligned individuals, who assaulted Father Rodolfo Lopez and desecrated sacred items and spaces. The regime-aligned individuals spent the night camped out on the altar of the cathedral, menacing the hunger strikers who had locked themselves inside the sacristy. The siege ended on November 19 when the Red Cross evacuated the hunger strikers.

Through various press releases and arrests, the NNP claimed protesters were responsible for destruction of public and private buildings, setting fires, homicides, and looting. While the majority of protesters were peaceful, some turned violent as they responded to NNP and parapolice provocations and use of force by throwing stones and employing homemade mortars and weapons to defend their positions.

The law provides for freedom of association, including the right to organize or affiliate with political parties; nevertheless, the Supreme Electoral Council and National Assembly used their accreditation powers for political purposes. National Assembly accreditation is mandatory for NGOs to receive funding, have bank accounts, or employ workers licitly. The Ministry of the Interior has oversight of regulatory compliance by NGOs and provides certificates. Many NGOs that worked on topics of democracy, human rights, and women’s issues complained that the ministry purposefully withheld certification to hinder their work and access to funding. The Roman Catholic Church NGO Caritas publicly stated that the government retained humanitarian goods in customs with unclear requirements on how to get the products into the country.

c. Freedom of Religion

For more information, see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The government strictly controlled the entry of persons affiliated with some groups, specifically humanitarian and faith-based organizations. The government may prevent the departure of travelers with pending cases; authorities used this authority against individuals involved in the protest movement. The law requires exit visas for minors.

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Only the executive branch or the country’s embassies abroad may grant asylum for political persecution. The Nicaraguan National Commission for Refugees had not met since 2015.

Durable Solutions: The government recognized 61 persons as refugees in 2015, the most recent year for which information was available. By mid-2018 the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees counted 326 refugees or persons in refugee-like situations in the country.

Not applicable.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

While the law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage and conducted by secret ballot, restrictions on freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association, and institutional fraud, among other obstacles, precluded opportunities for meaningful choice.

Recent Elections: The March 3 Caribbean regional and 2017 municipal elections were marred by widespread institutional fraud. The Caribbean regional elections were characterized by heavy security force presence, including antiriot police at polling units, which local press said intimidated voters and led to low turnout. In both elections, authorities did not provide domestic civil society organizations accreditation for electoral observation. Opposition party members reported government officials transported FSLN supporters to voting centers. Opposition party members and observers claimed the FSLN used its control over the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) to commit fraud. There were reports of public-sector employees being pressured to vote and show proof the next day at work they had voted. Opposition representatives claimed opposition poll watchers were denied accreditation, FSLN-affiliated poll watchers posed as opposition poll workers, and votes were not counted in accordance with the law.

Several isolated and violent postelection clashes between supporters of competing political parties and with security forces left at least six persons dead after the 2017 municipal elections. A larger, sustained confrontation between supporters of the indigenous party YATAMA and the ruling FSLN left several buildings ransacked or torched, at least one person dead, and dozens injured. The NNP arrested approximately 55 opposition party members on charges associated with postelectoral violence but later released them.

Civil society groups expressed concerns over the lack of a transparent and fair electoral process leading up to both the 2017 municipal elections and the March Caribbean regional elections. Electoral experts, business leaders, representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, and civil society organizations reported that a lack of accredited domestic observation, in addition to the ruling party’s control over official electoral structures and all branches of government, combined to impede holding a free and fair election.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The FSLN used state resources for political activities to enhance its electoral advantage in recent elections. Independent media, human rights groups, and opposition parties reported the government used public funds to provide subsidized food, housing, vaccinations, access to clinics, and other benefits directly through either FSLN-led “family cabinets” (community-based bodies that administer government social programs) or party-controlled Sandinista leadership committee (CLS) systems, which reportedly coerced citizens into FSLN membership while denying services to opposition members. The FSLN also made party membership mandatory for an increasing number of public-sector employees. Observers noted government employees continued to be pressured into affiliating with the FSLN and to participate in party activities.

The FSLN also used its authority to decide who could obtain national identity cards. Persons seeking to obtain or retain public-sector employment, national identity documents, or voter registration were obliged to obtain recommendation letters from CLS block captains. Persons without identity cards had difficulty participating in the legal economy, conducting bank transactions, or voting. Such persons also were subject to restrictions in employment, access to courts, and land ownership. Civil society organizations continued to express concern about the politicized distribution of identity cards, alleging this was how the FSLN manipulated past elections and that the CSE failed to provide identity cards to opposition members while widely distributing them to party loyalists.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate, although observers noted most women in elected positions at the municipal and national levels held limited power or influence in their respective bodies.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

There was widespread corruption, including in the police, the CSE, the Supreme Court, customs and tax authorities, and other government organs. The government did not effectively enforce criminal penalties for corruption, allowing officials to engage in corrupt practices with impunity. The Supreme Court and lower-level courts remained particularly susceptible to bribes, manipulation, and political influence, especially by the FSLN. Companies reported that bribery of public officials, unlawful seizures, and arbitrary assessments by customs and tax authorities were common.

Corruption: Corruption and impunity remained rampant among government officials, and a general state of permissiveness hindered the possibility of addressing the problem effectively. A lack of strong institutions, a weak system of checks and balances, and the overbearing political control of government institutions allowed for corruption to remain.

The Office of the Comptroller is responsible for combating corruption within government agencies and offices. The comptroller did not carry out a complete verification of the government’s full financial statements. The comptroller stated in 2015 that Albanisa, a private company controlled by regime insiders that imports and sells Venezuelan petroleum products, and associated revenue under the Venezuela oil cooperation agreement were not subject to audit because the National Assembly did not approve the agreement. Between January and June, the comptroller reported that corruption committed by 26 public officials resulted in economic losses to the government of 2.8 million cordobas ($116,000), an amount observers considered unreasonably low.

Executive branch officials continued to be involved in businesses financed by economic and developmental assistance funds lent by the Venezuelan-led Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), all of it outside the normal budgetary process controlled by the legislature. Media reported ALBA-funded contracts were awarded to companies with ties to the president’s family and noted the funds from Venezuela served as a separate budget tightly controlled by the FSLN, with little public oversight. Cases of mismanagement of these funds by public officials were reportedly handled personally by FSLN members and President Ortega’s immediate family, rather than by the government entities in charge of public funds.

Financial Disclosure: Public officials rarely made their financial information public as required by law, and there was no public record of sanctions for noncompliance.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

The government imposed significant burdens on the limited number of human rights organizations it allowed to operate in the country. The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights remained stripped of its legal status, effectively hindering its ability to investigate human rights ions and abuses. The Nicaraguan Pro-Human Rights Association continued to operate from forced exile in Costa Rica and focused more on the Nicaraguan exile community. Other human rights organizations faced significant harassment and police surveillance. Humanitarian organizations faced obstacles to operating or denial of entry, and government officials harassed and intimidated domestic and international NGOs critical of the government or the FSLN. Some NGOs reported government intimidation that created a climate of fear intended to suppress criticism.

The government continued to prevent non-FSLN-affiliated NGOs and civil society groups from participating in government social programs, such as Programa Amor, which provides social protections to children and adolescents, and Hambre Cero, a program that distributes livestock for smallholder production. The government frequently used FSLN-controlled family cabinets and party-controlled CLSs to administer these programs. Government programs purportedly created to provide support for victims of the violence since April 2018 benefited only FSLN party members. Increased government restrictions on domestic NGOs’ ability to receive funding directly from international donors seriously hindered the NGOs’ ability to operate. The government continued to expand the reach of its Financial Analysis Unit through an amendment to its authorizing law passed on August 19 that obligates lawyers, notaries, and accountants to inform the unit of suspicious activities performed by their clients or employers, a move observers characterized as an overreach of authority for political persecution. In several instances the government used the unit to block access of an NGO to its bank account. In addition, increased control over the entry of foreign visitors or volunteer groups into the country hindered the work of humanitarian groups and human rights NGOs. Some groups reported difficulties in moving donated goods through customs and said government officials were rarely cooperative or responsive to their complaints.

Domestic NGOs under government investigation reported problems accessing the justice system and delays in filing petitions, as well as pressure from state authorities. Many NGOs believed comptroller and tax authorities audited their accounts as a means of intimidation. While legally permitted, spot audits were a common form of harassment and often used selectively, according to NGOs. NGOs reported difficulties in scheduling meetings with authorities and in receiving official information due to a growing culture of secrecy. Local NGOs reported having to channel requests for meetings with ministry officials and for public information through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These requests were generally not processed. NGOs also reported government hostility or aggression when questioning or speaking with officials on subjects such as corruption and the rule of law. Groups opposing the construction of a proposed interoceanic canal also reported being harassed and placed under surveillance.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government did not allow the OHCHR or IACHR to send working groups to monitor the human rights situation in the country. The government did not cooperate with these groups, as noted in OHCHR and IACHR reports. During a July meeting between the government and the OHCHR regional office, the government stated it had no answer to the OHCHR’s request to be allowed back into the country to continue its documentation of human rights abuses.

The OAS Permanent Council held its General Assembly on June 26-27, during which the Permanent Council adopted a resolution to create a high-level commission to help resolve the country’s crisis. The government rejected the creation of the commission and stated that it would not allow the commission to enter the country. The government issued a travel warning on September 14 to its immigration offices proscribing the entrance into the country of commission members, including ambassadors and senior officials from five OAS member states and the chief of staff of the OAS secretary general.

Nicaragua did not send a representative to any of the 2019 IACHR hearings. In several instances protesters protected by IACHR precautionary measures were detained or continued to be harassed by progovernment supporters. On September 20, the government rejected 124 of the 259 recommendations made during the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Universal Periodic Review.

Government Human Rights Bodies: In November the National Assembly elected as human rights ombudsman Darling Rios, a sociologist with no previous human rights experience. Rios was a prominent leader of the Sandinista Youth wing of the FSLN. The National Assembly also elected a new vice ombudsman, Adolfo Jarquin, son of the previous vice ombudsman, also with no previous human rights experience. The Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights was perceived as politicized and ineffective. In March the UNHRC demoted the Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights from category A to B for its lack of independence.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes all forms of rape of men or women, regardless of the relationship between the victim and the accused. Sentences for those convicted of rape range from eight to 12 years’ imprisonment. The law criminalizes domestic violence and provides prison sentences ranging from one to 12 years.

The government failed to enforce rape and domestic violence laws, leading to widespread impunity and reports of increased violence from released offenders emboldened by their release. The government continued to use FSLN-led family cabinets and CLSs in mediation processes in cases of domestic violence. Both processes were politicized and did not operate according to rule of law. The government employed limited public education, shelters, hotlines, psychosocial services, and police training in nominal but unsuccessful attempts to address the problem.

Observers reported a general increase in sexual crimes and violence against women; however, data were unreliable. NGOs working on women’s issues reported that violence against women increased and police generally understated its severity.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, and those convicted face one- to three-year sentences in prison, or three to five years if the victim is younger than 18. No data was available on government efforts to prevent or prosecute complaints of sexual harassment.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: The law provides for gender equality. Nevertheless, women often experienced discrimination in employment, obtaining credit, and receiving equal pay for similar work, as well as in owning and managing businesses. While the government enforced the law effectively in the public sector, women in positions of power faced limitations, and their authority was limited compared to that of men. Enforcement was not effective in the private sector or the larger informal sector.

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived by birth within the country’s territory and from one’s parents. Local civil registries register births within 12 months, although many persons, especially in rural areas, lacked birth certificates. Persons without citizenship documents were unable to obtain national identity cards and consequently had difficulty participating in the legal economy, conducting bank transactions, or voting. Such persons also were subject to restrictions in employment, access to courts, and land ownership.

Child Abuse: According to the criminal code, prison sentences for rape committed against minors range from 12 to 15 years and, for child abuse, range from seven to 12 years. Government efforts were insufficient to combat child abuse and sexual violence against minors. High rates of sexual violence against teenage girls contributed to high rates of teenage pregnancy, according to UNICEF.

Early and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age for marriage is 18 for men and women, or 16 with parental authorization. There were credible reports of forced early marriages in some rural indigenous communities. UNICEF’s 2017 State of the Worlds Children, the most recent data available, reported 41 percent of women 20 to 24 years of age were married or in a union by age 18, and 10 percent were married by age 15. No information was available on government efforts to address or prevent forced and early marriage.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits sexual exploitation in general and designates enticing children or adolescents to engage in sexual activity as an aggravating condition. The government generally enforced the law when pertaining to child sex trafficking. Penalties include 10 to 15 years in prison for a person who entices or forces any individual to engage in sexual activity and 19 to 20 years in prison for the same acts involving children or adolescents. The law defines statutory rape as sexual relations with children age 14 or younger.

The law also prohibits child pornography, and the government generally enforced it. The penalty for an individual convicted of inducing, facilitating, promoting, or using a minor for sexual or erotic purposes is 10 to 15 years in prison.

The country was a destination for child sex tourism. The law imposes a penalty of five to seven years in prison for convicted child-sex tourists.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

The country has a very small Jewish population. There were no known reports of anti-Semitic acts.

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities was widespread despite being prohibited by law. Laws related to persons with disabilities do not stipulate penalties for noncompliance, although penalties may be issued under the general labor inspection code. The Ministry of the Family, the Ministry of Labor, and the Human Rights Office are among government agencies responsible for the protection and advancement of rights of persons with disabilities. The government did not enforce the law effectively; did not mandate accessibility to buildings, information, and communications; and did not make information available on efforts to improve respect for the rights of persons with disabilities. Independent media reported persons with disabilities accounted for less than 1 percent of public-sector employees, despite the legally mandated minimum representation of 2 percent. Further reports indicated public institutions did not sufficiently coordinate with the Labor Ministry to accommodate persons with disabilities in the workplace.

Persons with disabilities faced severe problems accessing schools, public health facilities, and other public institutions. Children with disabilities attended schools with nondisabled peers; anecdotal evidence, however, suggested that children with disabilities completed secondary education at a significantly lower rate than other children. Public schools were rarely well equipped, and teachers were poorly trained in providing appropriate attention to children with disabilities. Many voting facilities were not accessible. Complaints continued regarding the lack of accessible public transportation in Managua. Organizations of persons with disabilities claimed interpreters for the deaf were not accessible at schools and universities, making it difficult for these persons to obtain education. Government clinics and hospitals provided care for veterans and other persons with disabilities, but the quality of care generally was poor.

Exclusionary treatment based on race, skin color, and ethnicity was common, especially in higher-income urban areas. Darker-skinned persons of African descent from the RACN and the RACS, along with others assumed to be from those areas, experienced discrimination, such as being subjected to extra security measures and illegal searches by police. Indigenous and other ethnic groups from the RACN and the RACS alleged that discriminatory attitudes toward ethnic and racial minorities were responsible for the lack of government resources devoted to the regions. The ruling party devoted attention and resources to keeping political control over decision-making bodies in the regions where most indigenous groups lived.

Indigenous persons constituted approximately 5 percent of the population and lived primarily in the RACN and the RACS. Despite having autonomous governing bodies, decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions, or the exploitation of energy, minerals, timber, and other natural resources on their lands were largely made or approved by national government authorities or by FSLN representatives. Individuals from five major indigenous groups–the Miskito, Sumo/Mayangna, Garifuna (of Afro-Amerindian origin), Creole, and Rama–alleged government discrimination through underrepresentation in the legislative branch.

NGOs and indigenous rights groups claimed the government failed to protect the civil and political rights of indigenous communities. Some observers alleged government involvement in the violence against Miskito populations in the RACN along the Coco River, either by failing to defend indigenous populations or as accomplices to nonindigenous groups invading indigenous lands.

Indigenous groups continued to complain of rights violations in connection with plans to build an interoceanic canal. Indigenous persons from rural areas often lacked birth certificates, identity cards, and land titles. Most indigenous individuals in rural areas lacked access to public services, and deteriorating roads made medicine and health care almost unobtainable for many.

Indigenous women faced multiple levels of discrimination based on their ethnicity, gender, and lower economic status.

Throughout the year indigenous leaders alleged that regional and national governments granted logging concessions to private firms and to government-affiliated businesses, such as ALBA-Forestal, and that logging continued in violation of national autonomy laws in the RACS and the RACN.

Although it does not mention sexual orientation and gender identity specifically, the law states all persons are equal before the law and provides for the right to equal protection. No laws specifically criminalize consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults. LGBTI persons, however, continued to face widespread societal discrimination and abuse, particularly in housing, education, and employment. LGBTI groups reported lack of access to justice and discrimination and lack of response from the NNP. The government and FSLN supporters frequently targeted LGBTI participants in civil protests in particular, using online smear campaigns and physical attacks in some cases. Reliable data on the breadth of such discrimination was not available. No specific laws exist to punish hate crimes against LGBTI groups.

There were reports of attacks against transgender women, and the NNP reportedly failed to investigate the cases appropriately. Transgender women who participated in prodemocracy protests were particularly harassed while in custody. They were kept with male inmates, forced to strip in front of their peers, and specifically harangued by guards. The law does not recognize gender-based identity, and as such the penitentiary system is not required to separate inmates based on gender identity.

The law provides specific protections for persons with HIV/AIDS against discrimination in employment and health services, but such persons continued to suffer societal discrimination. An administrative resolution issued by the Ministry of Health continued in effect, declaring that HIV/AIDS patients should not suffer discrimination and making available a complaints office.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

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.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

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/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

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.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings  and the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

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.

Panama

Executive Summary

Panama is a multiparty constitutional democracy. In May voters chose Laurentino Cortizo Cohen as president in national elections that international and domestic observers considered generally free and fair.

The country has no military forces. The Panama National Police (PNP) is principally responsible for internal law enforcement and public order, while additional security forces are responsible for border control and aero naval security. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: harsh prison conditions; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including through censorship and criminal libel lawsuits; and forced child labor.

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government generally did not implement the law effectively.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. The government generally respected this right, but journalists and media outlets noted an increase in criminal and civil libel/slander lawsuits, which they considered a threat to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: In July under the Cortizo administration, security guards from the National Assembly expelled a known television personality from the National Assembly media balcony to prevent her from covering a migration bill. Two days later the National Assembly budget committee met behind closed doors to avoid press coverage, which was not standard practice. Both actions resulted in complaints from opposition deputies and civil society leaders.

Libel/Slander Laws: According to local media, former president Ricardo Martinelli submitted 50 libel/slander lawsuits against local media, 26 of which were issued after he was declared not guilty on August 9 of illegal wiretapping. Reports stated Martinelli’s civil lawsuits against daily newspapers El Siglo, La Prensa, and Mi Diario included media employees whose work was not related to judicial or political reporting (editorial cartoonists and graphic designers).

In May Corprensa (which owns La Prensa and Mi Diario) was found guilty in a libel/slander lawsuit filed by former first lady Marta de Martinelli. The corporation was sentenced to pay $25,000 balboas ($25,000) in damages and 6,000 balboas ($6,000) to cover legal expenses.

On September 2, Martinelli filed a civil lawsuit against TVN Information vice president and television host Sabrina Bacal, seeking one million balboas (one million dollars) in damages for calling him a thief during a public interview.

Following these legal actions, on September 3, media associations Journalism National Council and the Journalists Forum for Freedom of Expression and Information issued a joint statement requesting the Judicial Branch and Public Ministry keep “vigilant” regarding the “growing trend to abuse the justice system, using it as a censorship, intimidation, and persecution tool against journalists and media.”

Media organizations and media leaders claimed these lawsuits hindered reporting on specific cases and individuals and were likely intended to financially damage media corporations.

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The Panamanian National Office for Refugees (ONPAR) had a backlog of more than 15,000 cases and usually approved only 1 percent of asylum requests. ONPAR processed asylum applications and then referred applications to the National Commission for Refugees, an interagency committee that decides the final status of every case. The process of obtaining refugee status currently takes two to three years, during which only asylum seekers admitted into the process had the right to work. The current asylum application process can take up to one year for applicants to even be admitted into the system, which was not a guarantee of asylum approval.

The government approved and implemented the protocol for identification, referral, and attention for minors requiring international protection; however, the institutional protocol for protecting minors who migrate was pending implementation approval.

The government continued to manage camps in the Darien region to provide food, shelter, and medical assistance to migrants. At least one camp in the Darien did not have regular access to potable water and at times presented unsanitary conditions, especially when dealing with high volumes of migrants. The government reported continued migrations of persons from Cuba, Haiti, South Asia, India, and Africa.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its NGO implementing partners, thousands of persons living in the country were possibly in need of international protection. These included persons in the refugee process, persons denied refugee status, and persons who did not apply for refugee status due to lack of knowledge or fear of deportation.

Employment: Refugees recognized by authorities have the right to work, but recognized refugees complained that they faced discriminatory hiring practices. In an effort to prevent this discriminatory practice, ONPAR removed the word “refugee” from recognized refugees’ identification cards. By law individuals in the process of applying for asylum do not have the right to work; however, beginning in May those who had been formally admitted into the asylum process could request a one-year work permit that could be renewed as many times as needed.

Access to Basic Services: Education authorities sometimes denied refugees access to education and refused to issue diplomas to others if they could not present school records from their country of origin. The Ministry of Education continued to enforce the government’s 2015 decree requiring schools to accept students in the asylum process at the grade level commensurate with the applicants’ prior studies. As a result of the long wait times to be entered into the asylum system, many applicants encountered difficulties accessing basic services such as health care, financial services, and appropriate housing.

Durable Solutions: The law allows persons legally recognized as refugees or with asylum status who have lived in the country for more than three years to seek permanent residency.

The government continued to work with Colombia to recognize approximately 200 stateless persons on the border. The governments of Panama and Costa Rica, with the cooperation of UNHCR, continued to use a mobile registry office on their common border to register indigenous Ngabe and Bugle seasonal workers who travelled between Costa Rica and Panama and whose births had not registered in either country.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot based on universal and equal suffrage. Naturalized citizens may not hold specified categories of elective office, such as the presidency.

Recent Elections: In May voters chose Laurentino Cortizo Cohen as president in national elections that independent observers considered generally free and fair. Elected at the same time were 71 national legislators, 81 mayors, 679 local representatives, and nine council members. A group of international observers from the Organization of American States, the EU, electoral NGOs, regional electoral authorities, and members of the diplomatic corps considered the elections fair and transparent.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The law requires new political parties to meet strict membership and organizational standards to gain official recognition and participate in national campaigns. Political parties must obtain the equivalent of 2 percent of the total votes cast to maintain legal standing.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government generally did not implement the law effectively. The government used anticorruption mechanisms such as asset forfeiture, whistleblower and witness protection, plea bargaining, and professional conflict-of-interest rules to address corrupt practices among government employees and security forces. Nevertheless, corruption remained a problem in the executive, judicial and legislative branches as well as in the security forces.

Corruption: The Public Ministry continued investigations into allegations of corruption against public officials but many have not resulted in convictions, and in one high-profile case, a court order denied requests for extensions of the legal timelines for more investigations. In a March hearing, an anticorruption prosecutor asked a criminal judge to convict six penitentiary system employees for corruption and six individuals are under fraud charges. Corruption and a lack of accountability among police continued to be a problem. The new administration that took office in July made personnel changes in all public forces agencies. Agents were dismissed on grounds of corruption and were under investigation by the Public Ministry. Mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption in the security forces remain centralized and opaque. The government rarely made cases of police abuse or corruption public, and the National Criminal Statistics Directorate was unable to provide strong data on police internal affairs.

As of September the Public Ministry continued the investigations of the Comptroller General’s Office’s 2018 audits of transactions between 2009 and 2014 by elected local representatives. The comptroller alleged a misuse of public funds through irregular contracts carried out by the Martinelli administration’s National Assistance Program. No charges were filed during the year.

The 2018 corruption cases filed by the Comptroller General’s Office before the Supreme Court against deputies from all political parties represented in the National Assembly were still under investigation by the court as of September.

The case continued against former minister of the presidency Demetrio “Jimmy” Papadimitriu and former minister of public works Jaime Ford, both in the Martinelli administration, detained in 2018 for alleged links to bribes paid by Brazilian multinational construction company Odebrecht. Both individuals faced money laundering and corruption charges. They were released on bail but could not leave the country without a court order. The cases remained under the inquisitorial system. Papadimitriu’s mother, Maria Bagatelas, a private citizen also involved in the Odebrecht case, was under house arrest, but in August the Supreme Court changed the measure and issued an order forbidding her from departing the country without a court’s approval.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires certain executive and judiciary officials to submit a financial disclosure statement to the Comptroller General’s Office. The information is not made public unless the official explicitly gives permission.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials generally were cooperative and responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The ombudsman, elected by the National Assembly, has moral but not legal authority. The Ombudsman’s Office received government cooperation and operated without government or party interference; it referred cases to the proper investigating authorities.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men or women, including spousal rape, with prison terms of five to 10 years. Rapes continued to constitute the majority of sexual crimes investigated by the National Police Directorate of Judicial Investigation. Eighty percent of the victims were women and 63 percent of those were younger than 17.

The law against gender violence stipulates stiff penalties for harassment and both physical and emotional abuse. The law states that sentencing for femicide is a mandatory 25 to 30 years in prison. Officials and civil society organizations agreed that domestic violence continued to be a serious crime. The PNP Specialized Unit for Domestic and Gender Violence created in 2018 continued to have 190 agents trained to work these cases. In June, Roberto Moreno Grajales was convicted and sentenced to 30 years prison for the 2016 killing of his former girlfriend, Diosila Martinez. He had originally fled to Costa Rica after the killing but was extradited in 2018 to Panama.

The Ombudsman’s Office continued its program Mujer Conoce tus Derechos (Woman, Know Your Rights), which included a wide distribution of flyers. In May the National Institute for Women’s Affairs (INAMU) established 24/7 hotline 182 to give legal guidance to victims of domestic violence. If the caller was at risk during the call, the operator would make a connection with the police.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment in cases of employer-employee relations in the public and private sectors and in teacher-student relations. Violators face a maximum three-year prison sentence. The extent of the problem was difficult to determine, because convictions for sexual harassment were rare, pre-employment sexual harassment was not actionable, and there was a lack of formal reports. During the year the Ministry of Labor, UN Development Program, and NGO SUMARSE began to develop a protocol for private sector employers on how to investigate and deal with labor and sexual harassment within companies.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: The law prohibits discrimination based on gender, and women enjoyed the same legal status and rights as men. The law recognizes joint property in marriages. The law mandates equal pay for men and women in equivalent jobs. Although an illegal hiring practice, some employers continued to request pregnancy tests. There were two cases reported in the countryside of temporary workers who terminated their pregnancies once the condition became obvious, presumably due to fear of being fired.

Birth Registration: The law provides citizenship for all persons born in the country, but parents of children born in remote areas sometimes had difficulty obtaining birth registration certificates.

Child Abuse: Child abuse is illegal. The law has several articles pertaining to child abuse and its penalties, which depend on the type of abuse and range from six months to 20 years’ imprisonment if the abuse falls under a crime that carries a higher penalty. Public Ministry statistics as of August reported that 2,090 children were victims of different types of abuse; the Public Ministry believed this figure was underreported. The Ministry of Social Development maintained a free hotline for children and adults to report child abuse and advertised it widely. The ministry provided funding to children’s shelters operated by NGOs and continued a program that used pamphlets in schools to sensitize teachers, children, and parents about mistreatment and sexual abuse of children.

Early and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age for marriage is 18. The government prohibits early marriage even with parental permission.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation, sale, and offering for prostitution of children, in addition to child pornography. Officials from the Ministry for Public Security continued to prosecute cases of sexual abuse of children, including within indigenous communities. Ministry officials believed that commercial sexual exploitation of children occurred, including in tourist areas in Panama City and in beach communities, although they did not keep separate statistics. In September, seven Panamanians were detained for their connections to an international child pornography ring based in Brazil. For two and one-half months, Panama and Brazil worked together with authorities in El Salvador, Paraguay, Chile, Ecuador, and other foreign countries to capture and imprison the individuals responsible for this child pornography ring as part of Operation Luz de la Infancia.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Jewish community leaders estimated there were 15,000 Jews in the country. There were no known reports of anti-Semitic acts.

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

The law prohibits discrimination based on physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities; however, the constitution permits the denial of naturalization to persons with mental or physical disabilities. The law mandates access to new or remodeled public buildings for persons with disabilities and requires that schools integrate children with disabilities. Despite provisions of the law, persons with disabilities experienced discrimination in a number of these areas.

Most of Panama City’s bus fleet remained wheelchair inaccessible. Media reports in August noted again that Metro elevators were frequently locked and could not be used. A lack of ramps further limited access to the old stations, although the newly inaugurated Metro Line 2 had ramp access. Most businesses had wheelchair ramps and accessible parking spaces to avoid fines, but in many cases they did not meet the government’s size specifications.

In September the National Secretariat for People with Disabilities began a free shuttle service from the city’s largest bus terminal for individuals with disabilities that needed to visit their offices, which were located in a residential neighborhood with limited public transportation.

Some public schools admitted children with mental and physical disabilities, but most did not have adequate facilities for children with disabilities. Few private schools admitted children with disabilities, as they are not legally required to do so. The high cost of hiring professional tutors to accompany children to private schools–a requirement of all private schools–precluded many students with disabilities from attending.

The government-sponsored Guardian Angel program continued to provide a monthly subsidy of 80 balboas ($80) for children with significant physical disabilities living in poor conditions.

As of September, 1,440 individuals with disabilities were hired by local companies per Ministry of Labor statistics. This was an increase from the yearly average number of individuals with disabilities hired between 2014 and 2018. The law stipulates that employers who hire individuals with disabilities receive tax breaks at the end of the fiscal year.

Minority groups were generally integrated into mainstream society. Prejudice was directed, however, at recent legal immigrants, the Afro-Panamanian community, and indigenous Panamanians. Cultural and language differences and immigration status hindered the integration of immigrant and first-generation individuals from China, India, and the Middle East into mainstream society. Additionally, some members of these communities were reluctant to integrate.

The Afro-Panamanian community was underrepresented in positions of political and economic power. Areas where they lived lagged in terms of government services and social investment. The government’s National Secretariat for the Development of Afro-Panamanians focused on the socioeconomic advancement of this community. The secretariat was not supportive of the joint work between government entities and NGOs to ensure an accurate count of the Afro-Panamanian population in the upcoming 2020 census.

The law prohibits discrimination in access to public accommodations such as restaurants, stores, and other privately owned establishments; no complaints were filed. The Ombudsman’s Office intervened in several cases before students with Rastafarian braids were permitted entry into public school classrooms.

There were reports of racial discrimination against various ethnic groups in the workplace. Lighter-skinned persons continued to be overrepresented in management positions and jobs that required dealing with the public, such as bank tellers and receptionists. A July report by the UN Development Program and the National Institute on Women stated that Afro-Panamanian women were 10 times more susceptible to discrimination in the workplace than women from other races.

The law affords indigenous persons the same political and legal rights as other citizens, protects their ethnic identity and native languages, and requires the government to provide bilingual literacy programs in indigenous communities. Indigenous individuals have the legal right to take part in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions, and the allocation and exploitation of natural resources. Nevertheless, they continued to be marginalized in mainstream society. Traditional community leaders governed comarcas (legally designated semiautonomous areas) for five of the country’s seven indigenous groups. The government also unofficially recognized eight other traditional indigenous government authorities. Government institutions recognized these eight regions were traditionally organized indigenous settlements and territories not included when the original comarcas were created.

Government officers continued to meet with traditional organized authorities from the indigenous community, and many requested recognition of their land via collective titles. No collective land titles were granted during the year, however, and land conflicts continued to arise. In March the bill for Naso Comarca was sent to the Supreme Court of Justice to decide if it is constitutional after a veto by the president in December.

The Ngabe and Bugle continued to oppose the Barro Blanco dam project, which became operational in 2017. There were no plans by the government to halt dam operations. The Ngabe-Bugle and the government continued to negotiate details of the dam’s operation.

Although the law is the ultimate authority in indigenous comarcas, many indigenous persons had not received sufficient information to understand their rights and, due to the inadequate system of education available in the comarcas, failed to use available legal channels.

In February the government established the Governing Committee for the National Indigenous Peoples Development Plan, with three representatives of the indigenous groups and government entities to ensure the implementation of the plan.

Societal and employment discrimination against indigenous persons was widespread. Employers frequently denied indigenous workers basic rights provided by law, such as a minimum wage, social security benefits, termination pay, and job security. Laborers on the country’s agricultural plantations (the majority of whom were indigenous persons) continued to work in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. The Ministry of Labor conducted limited oversight of working conditions in remote areas.

Deficiencies in the educational system continued in the comarcas, especially beyond the primary grades. There were not enough teachers in these remote and inaccessible areas, with many schools poorly constructed and lacking running water. Teachers and students in remote areas of the comarcas continued to sporadically protest poor road and school conditions. Access to health care was a significant problem in the indigenous comarcas, despite government investment in more health infrastructure and staff. This was reflected in high rates of maternal and infant mortality, malnutrition, and an increase in HIV rates. The government continued to execute the Indigenous Development Plan jointly developed with indigenous leaders in 2013.

The law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. There was societal discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, which often led to denial of employment opportunities.

The PNP’s internal regulations describe consensual same-sex sexual conduct by its employees as against policy and potentially grounds for dismissal. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTI) human rights organizations reported harassment of LGBTI persons by security forces as a source of serious concern. On July 5, the new PNP director general stated in a national news interview that members of the LGBTI community can be members of the police force as long as they do not conduct actions that could damage the image of the institution. According to LGBTI NGOs, no changes had been made to internal police policies prohibiting LGBTI persons from serving in the force.

LGBTI NGOs reported hospital personnel refused to provide medical services to a transgender individual in a public hospital in Changuinola, province of Bocas del Toro, early in the year. In June, after attending the Pride Parade, a young man was raped by two men after they saw a rainbow flag in his backpack. The victim sought support from a local NGO and filed a criminal complaint with the Public Ministry. As of November there had been no progress in the case.

As of September the 2016 class-action lawsuit before the Supreme Court of Justice requesting Article 26 of the Family Code, which refers to marriage as “the union of a man and a woman” and thus forbids same-sex legal unions, be declared unconstitutional, was still unresolved.

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS in employment and education. Discrimination, however, continued to be common due to ignorance of the law and a lack of mechanisms for ensuring compliance. LGBTI individuals reported mistreatment by health-care workers, including unnecessary quarantines.

Human rights NGOs reported receiving complaints of labor discrimination when employers found out employees were HIV positive, despite the fact that the law prohibits discrimination against persons with sexually transmitted diseases, as well as their immediate relatives. Employees are not obligated to disclose their condition to the employer, but if they do so, the employer must keep the information confidential. LGBTI NGOs reported at least one employer who allegedly sought ways to dismiss an HIV-positive employee who had 15 years of service at the company. Health Ministry representatives made a public call to employers to follow the law and asked laid-off employees to reach out to them for legal advice. Employers can be fined for not keeping an employee’s medical condition confidential.

In September the NGO PROBIDSIDA published concerns about a shortage of antiretroviral medications for treating patients with HIV/AIDS. PROBIDSIDA claimed that bureaucracy and lack of interest from administrative offices at the Ministry of Health and the Social Security clinics led to late purchase orders and late payment of providers, implying systematic prejudice against HIV-positive individuals within the health-care system.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The legal framework of labor laws is based upon the Labor Code of 1971, which provides for private-sector workers to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct strikes. By law the majority of public-sector employees can strike but may not organize unions. Instead, those public-sector employees may organize professional associations that would bargain collectively on behalf of its members, although the public entity is not legally obligated to bargain with the association. Under the previous Varela administration, the Ministry of Labor registered more than 10 public-sector unions within a few ministries, such as the Ministry of Public Works, Ministry of Economy and Finance, Maritime Authority, among others. As a result the government is not obligated to engage in negotiations with the professional associations within these entities. The National Federation of Public Servants (FENASEP), an umbrella federation of 25 public-sector worker associations, traditionally fought for the establishment of rights similar to those of private-sector unions. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and requires reinstatement of workers terminated for union activity but does not provide adequate means of protecting from rights violations.

Unions and associations are required to register with the Ministry of Labor. If the ministry does not respond to a private-sector union registration application within 15 calendar days, the union automatically gains legal recognition, provided the request is submitted directly with supported documentation established by law. In the public sector, professional associations gain legal recognition automatically if the General Directorate for Administrative Public Sector Careers does not respond to registration applications within 30 days. From January to September, the General Directorate approved seven public and 10 private union formation applications.

The Ministry of Labor Board of Appeals and Conciliation has the authority to resolve certain labor disagreements, such as internal union disputes, enforcement of the minimum wage, and some dismissal issues. The law allows arbitration by mutual consent, at the request of the employee or the ministry, in the case of a collective dispute in a privately held public utility company. It allows either party to appeal if arbitration is mandated during a collective dispute in a public-service company. The Ministry of Labor Board of Appeals and Conciliation has sole competency for disputes related to domestic employees, some dismissal issues, and claims of less than $1,500. The Minister of Labor initiated biennial minimum wage negotiations in August and was to act as a moderator between union and private-sector stakeholders.

Government-regulated union membership policies place some restrictions on freedom of association. The constitution mandates that only citizens may serve on a union’s executive board. In addition, the law requires a minimum of 40 persons to form a private-sector union (either by a company across trades or by trade across companies) and allows only one union per business establishment. The International Labor Organization criticized the 40-person minimum as too large for workers wanting to form a union within a company. Many domestic labor unions, as well as the public and private sectors, reiterated their support for keeping the figure at 40 individuals.

In the public sector, professional associations represent the majority of workers. The law stipulates only one association may exist per public-sector institution and permits no more than one chapter per province. At least 50 public servants are required to form a professional association. No law protects the jobs of public-sector workers in the event of a strike. FENASEP contended there was no political will to allow all public servants within ministries to form unions, because this could eliminate positions for political appointees.

The law prohibits federations and confederations from calling strikes, as well as strikes against the government’s economic and social policy. Individual professional associations under FENASEP may negotiate on behalf of their members, but the Ministry of Labor can order compulsory arbitration. FENASEP leaders noted that collective bargaining claims were heard and recognized by employers but did not result in tangible results or changes, particularly in cases of dismissals without cause.

According to the labor code, the majority of private-sector employees must support a strike, and strikes are permitted only if they are related to the improvement of working conditions, a collective bargaining agreement, for repeated violations of legal rights, or in support of another strike of workers on the same project (solidarity strike). In the event of a strike, at least 20 to 30 percent of the workforce must continue to provide minimum services, particularly public services as defined by law, such as transportation, sanitation, mail delivery, hospital care, telecommunications, and public availability of essential food.

Strikes in essential transportation services are limited to those involving public passenger services. The law prohibits strikes for Panama Canal Authority (ACP) employees but allows professional associations to organize and bargain collectively on issues such as schedules and safety, and it provides arbitration to resolve disputes. (The ACP is an autonomous entity, with independence from the central government).

The Ministry of the Presidency Conciliation Board hears and resolves public-sector worker complaints. The board refers complaints it cannot resolve to an arbitration panel, which consists of representatives from the employer, the professional association, and a third member chosen by the first two. If the dispute cannot be resolved, it is referred to a tribunal under the board. Observers, however, noted that the Ministry of the Presidency had not designated the tribunal judges. The alternative to the board is the civil court system.

Cases presented in the courts tend to favor employers. FENASEP noted that one public-sector institution had appealed more than 100 complaints to the Supreme Court, only two of which resulted in rulings in favor of the public-sector employee. While Supreme Court decisions are final, labor organizations may appeal their case results in international human rights courts.

One labor strike and labor protest occurred during the year. Workers at the Balboa port conducted a July 17-28 strike against Panama Ports’ decision to appeal collective agreement negotiations in the Supreme Court. (Note: Panama Ports was previously owned by the state but was privatized, and a Hong Kong-based company won the concession. End note). According to reports, these appeals subsequently delayed salary increases and working condition improvements. The strike ended on July 29, after the Ministry of Labor mediated an agreement between port workers and employers that promoted worker safety regulations and business economic welfare.

The Allied Association of Transport Port Ex-Employees’ (ASOTRAP) hosted an August labor walk to the Panamanian Presidency to pressure both the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights and the Cortizo Administration to address claims that terminated Balboa and Cristobal port workers did not receive severance pay guaranteed by law when those ports were privatized. ASOTRAP asserted that because the termination occurred after August 15, former workers were entitled to the Panamanian 13th Month Bonus, a program in which workers receive one month’s wages annually (one-third paid April 15, one-third paid August 15, and the last third on December 15). ASOTRAP also contended that the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights had not made a ruling on the case. Although the commission sent ASOTRAP a letter acknowledging receipt of the case in 2015, ASOTRAP contended that the commission had not made a final case ruling.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced labor of adults or children, as well as modern-day slavery and human trafficking. The law establishes penalties sufficiently stringent to deter violations. The government effectively enforced the law. There continued to be reports of Central and South American and Chinese men exploited in forced labor in construction, agriculture, mining, restaurants, door-to-door peddling, and other sectors; traffickers reported using debt bondage, false promises, lack of knowledge of the refugee process and irregular status, restrictions on movement, and other means. There also were reports of forced child labor (see section 7.c.).

Also, see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits all of the worst forms of child labor. The law prohibits the employment of children younger than 14, although children who have not completed primary school may not begin work until 15. The family code permits children ages 12 to 14 to perform domestic and agricultural work with regard to schedule, salary, contract, and type. The law allows children ages 12 to 15 to perform light work in agriculture if the work is outside regular school hours. The law also allows a child older than 12 to perform light domestic work and stipulates employers must ensure the child attends school through primary school. The law neither defines the type of light work children may perform nor limits the total number of light domestic work hours these children may perform. The law prohibits children younger than 18 from engaging in hazardous work but allows children as young as 14 to perform hazardous tasks in a training facility, in violation of international standards.

Minors younger than 16 may work no more than six hours per day or 36 hours per week, while those ages 16 and 17 may work no more than seven hours per day or 42 hours per week. Children younger than 18 may not work between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m. The government effectively enforced the law, and penalties were sufficient to deter violations.

The National Commission for the Prevention of Sexual Exploitation of Children and Adolescents conducted 59 awareness meetings in vulnerable communities, with the participation of the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Social Development. Its actions focused on regions sensitive to sexual exploitation of minors in tourism locations, including Panama City, Bocas del Toro, Cocle, and Chiriqui. Criminal enforcement agencies investigated 398 reports of commercial sexual exploitation of children during 2018, compared with 920 in the previous year. The country is a source, transit point, and destination for men and women exploited in forced labor. Children were exploited in forced labor, particularly domestic servitude, and sex trafficking. The law includes punishment of up to 12 years’ imprisonment for anyone who recruits children younger than 18 or uses them to participate actively in armed hostilities.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings  and the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination regarding race, gender, religion, political opinion, citizenship, disability, social status, and HIV status. The law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Although the country is a member of the International Equal Pay Coalition, which promotes pay equality between women and men, a gender wage gap continued to exist.

Despite legal protections, discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to race, sex, gender, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity, and HIV-positive status. During the job interview process, applicants, both citizens and migrants, must complete medical examinations, including HIV/AIDS testing. The law requires all laboratories to inform applicants an HIV test will be administered, but private-sector laboratories often did not comply. It was common practice for private-sector human resources offices to terminate applications of HIV-positive citizens without informing the applicant. While private laboratories often informed law enforcement of HIV-positive migrants, the National Immigration Office did not engage in deportation procedures specifically based on a migrant’s HIV status. NGOs noted that during job interviews, women were often asked if they were married, pregnant, or planned to have children in the future. It was common practice for human resources offices to terminate the applications of women who indicated a possibility of pregnancy in the near future (see section 6).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The law provides for a national minimum wage only for private sector workers. The wage was above the poverty line. Public servants received lower minimum wages than their private-sector counterparts. Most workers formally employed in urban areas earned the minimum wage or more. As of August 2018, approximately 43 percent of the working population worked in the informal sector, and some earned well below the minimum wage. The agricultural sector, as well as the maritime and aviation sectors, received the lowest and highest minimum wages, respectively. The Ministry of Labor was less likely to enforce labor laws in most rural areas (see section 6, Indigenous People).

The law establishes a standard workweek of 48 hours, provides for at least one 24-hour rest period weekly, limits the number of hours worked per week, provides for premium pay for overtime, and prohibits compulsory overtime. There is no annual limit on the total number of overtime hours allowed. If employees work more than three hours of overtime in one day or more than nine overtime hours in a week, excess overtime hours must be paid at an additional 75 percent above the normal wage. Workers have the right to 30 days’ paid vacation for every 11 months of continuous work, including those who do not work full time.

The Ministry of Labor is responsible for setting health and safety standards. Standards were generally current and appropriate for some of the industries in the country. The law requires employers to provide a safe workplace environment, including the provision of protective clothing and equipment for workers.

The Ministry of Labor generally enforced these standards in the formal sector. The inspection office consists of two groups: The Panama City-based headquarters group and the regional group. The number of inspectors and safety officers was insufficient to enforce labor laws adequately. As of July the Ministry of Labor had conducted 9,397 safety inspections nationwide. Fines were low and generally insufficient to deter violations. During the year, however, the government levied fines according to the number of workers affected, resulting in larger overall fines.

Reports of violations relating to hours of work were frequent, especially in the maritime sector, where unions reported shifts of 14 to 24 hours. There were allegations indicating that neither the Panamanian Maritime Authority nor the Ministry of Labor conducted inspections of working conditions in the maritime sector. The ACP unions and workers experienced difficulties accessing the justice system to adjudicate complaints due to delays and other deficiencies of the Labor Relations Board, which is the court of first instance on labor matters for the autonomous ACP. Reports also indicated violations relating to hours of work for coffee harvest workers, who often lacked formal contracts and were vulnerable to coercion from employers.

Employers often hired employees under short-term contracts to avoid paying benefits that accrue to long-term employees. Employers in the maritime sector also commonly hired workers continuously on short-term contracts but did not convert them to permanent employees as required by law. The law states that employers have the right to dismiss any employee without justifiable cause before the two-year tenure term. As a result, employers frequently hired workers for one year and 11 months and subsequently dismissed them to circumvent laws that make firing employees more difficult after two years of employment. This practice is illegal if the same employee is rehired as a temporary worker after being dismissed, although employees rarely reported the practice.

Inspectors from the Ministry of Labor and the occupational health section of the Social Security Administration reported conducting periodic inspections of hazardous employment sites. The law requires the resident engineer and a ministry safety officer to remain on construction sites, establish fines for noncompliance, and identify a tripartite group composed of the Chamber of Construction, the construction union SUNTRACS, and the ministry to regulate adherence.

Some construction workers and their employers were occasionally lax about basic safety measures, frequently due to their perception that it reduced productivity. Equipment was often outdated, broken, or lacking safety devices, due in large part to a fear that the replacement cost would be prohibitive. In August a construction worker died in the city of David after falling 39 feet off a beam while working on a shopping center construction project. After his death, the Union of Construction Workers announced a temporary work stoppage on the project.