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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 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

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.

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