Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of workers, except for 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 many 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. In the maquila sector, employees organized work stoppages particularly around occupational health and safety issues and failure to pay workers during the pandemic; however, these work stoppages did not rise to the level of strikes as officially recognized by the government or labor rights NGOs. In September and October, there were work stoppages in Puerto Quetzal and Santo Tomas de Castillo ports. In the case of Puerto Tomas de Castillo, police used force to remove workers from blocking entrances to the factory as part of the work stoppage, and after the work stoppage several union leaders were fired.
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. Penalties were not commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination. Labor courts also failed to compel compliance with reinstatement orders, including payment of back wages, for workers illegally dismissed for engaging in union activities, especially in the rural areas. There was a substantial backlog of cases in the labor courts that caused delays of up to three years per case. 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. In the labor inspection system and the labor courts, employers routinely influenced authorities to favor their interests or simply refused to comply. According to the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes Against Unionists, 70 percent of complaints in 2020 involved persistent employer refusal to comply with judicial orders.
The Ministry of Labor has the authority to sanction employers for violating union and collective bargaining rights. Business groups complained the time frame to investigate and verify compliance with Ministry of Labor remediation orders was too short and 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 because of the new sanction authority, noting that the inspectorate emphasized collection of fines, which during the year went to the labor inspectorate, over remediation of the underlying violations. 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 remained stagnant, and successful prosecutions remained a challenge exacerbated by the pandemic.
The National Tripartite Commission on Labor Relations and Freedom of Association encouraged social dialogue between the Ministry of Labor, unions, and businesses, and monitored and facilitated implementation of the 2013 ILO roadmap and its 2015 indicators.
Three subcommissions established under the National Tripartite Commission – on legislation and labor policy, on mediation and dispute settlement, and on implementation of the roadmap – met in April. After being inactive in the first quarter of 2020, the National Tripartite Commission met virtually after March 2020. As of November the Ministry of Government did not convene the Interagency Committee to Analyze Attacks against Human Rights Defenders, including trade unionists, on a regular basis due to the pandemic.
An additional commission, the Trade Union Permanent Commission for Protection, which was supposed to be convened by the Public Ministry to address problems of antiunion violence, held no meetings. As of November this commission had not held regular meetings since 2018.
Procedural hurdles, restrictions on and delays in forming unions, and impunity for employers rejecting or ignoring court orders limited freedom of association and collective bargaining. The Labor Ministry reopened during the year after closing because of COVID-19 restrictions, but its labor rights enforcement performance did not improve. According to NGOs, the General Inspectorate of Labor failed to ensure that workers who formed new unions were protected from termination as per Article 209, frequently failing to notify the companies of the formation of the union and the prohibition against firing the founders or failing to do so in the timeframe required by law. The General Directorate of Labor also failed to emit resolutions of requests for union registration in the prescribed timeframe, per Article 218 (e) that requires the directorate to respond to the request for certification within 20 days of receiving the request.
An emblematic case was the formation of the union of Hoosier manufacturing workers. The workers formed a union and presented their request for notification of the prohibition of termination and their request for certification on August 1 to the Ministry of Labor. Receiving no response from the ministry, they followed up their request in writing on September 22, asking that the company be notified of the formation of the union and that the directorate act on the request for certification. The government notified the employer of the workers’ intention to register a union on November 2, more than 80 days after the workers’ application to register. By law the government should have notified the employer within 48 hours of the request by the union.
From January to September, an NGO registered one case of kidnapping, one death threat, and 32 acts of criminalization against trade unionists and labor activists. Authorities did not thoroughly investigate most acts of violence and threats and often discarded trade union activity as a motive from the outset of the investigation, allowing these acts to go unprosecuted. Several labor leaders reported death threats and other acts of intimidation. The Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Judicial Workers and Unionists reported that from January to August, it had received 53 complaints of crimes or offenses against trade unionists and labor activists.
Labor rights defenders noted an increase in reported cases, including mass firings, use of force against collective action, criminalization of worker protest, and disguised violence using gang members to commit workplace threats and violence at the employers’ request.
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 continued to be 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, according to an NGO. Employers who were found in violation of respecting union rights increased alleged noncompliance accusations on employees involved in union organizing. A 2020 labor rights defenders’ report noted that 70 percent of the claims before the Public Ministry concerning labor violations were for failure on the part of the employers to respect a judicial order in the labor case. The failure of the authorities to enforce labor laws resulted in complaints of retaliation against union members by employers to languish. 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 not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. Criminal penalties for forced labor range from eight to 18 years’ imprisonment and a fine. The government has specialized police and prosecutors who 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 in agriculture, production of garments, domestic work, street begging, making corn tortillas, and vending (see section 7.c.).
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law does not prohibit all the worst forms of child labor. The Ministry of Labor regulations set the minimum age for employment at 15 years. The law bars employment of minors younger than age 15, but it also allows the Ministry of Labor to authorize children younger than 15 to work in exceptional cases. 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, it is seven hours. Child labor was nonetheless prevalent in the agricultural sector, in dangerous conditions, and generally 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 commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. The government did not effectively enforce the law, a situation exacerbated by the weakness of the labor inspectorate and labor court systems. The government devoted insufficient resources to prevention programs.
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. The Pan American Defense Fund published a report in July on tortilla-making shops in urban centers in five different departments employing underage indigenous girls. The report found that more than one-half of the girls worked more than 15 hours per day, worked in departments outside of where their families were, and were mostly paid less than the legal minimum wage. According to the report, the parents of the underage girls working in these shops often gave permission for the girls to work in these shops and took their salaries for household expenses.
Traffickers exploited children in forced begging, street vending, and as street performers, particularly in Guatemala City and along the border with Mexico. Traffickers particularly targeted indigenous individuals, including children, for forced labor, including in tortilla-making shops. Criminal organizations, including gangs, exploited girls in sex trafficking and coerced young males in urban areas to sell or transport drugs or commit extortion.
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 were not commensurate with laws related to civil rights, such as election interference. Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred. Anecdotally, wage discrimination based on race and sex occurred often in rural areas. Upon returning to Guatemala, some deportees had difficulty joining the workforce and were discriminated against, for suspicion of being involved in gang activity.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
Wage and Hour Laws: The law sets national minimum wages for agricultural and nonagricultural work and for work in garment factories. The minimum wages 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 Ministry of Labor conducted some inspections to monitor compliance with minimum wage law provisions but often lacked the means of transportation for proper enforcement. The legal workweek is 48 hours with at least one paid 24-hour rest period. The law prohibits workers from working 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.
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. During the pandemic these problems worsened as the labor courts closed to the public, performing minimal administrative duties as officials tried to work from home. 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.
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 most 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 believed themselves 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.
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 less than 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. Many of these same employees were summarily dismissed at the beginning of the pandemic or advised to stay in the home of their employer without traveling back to their own families or communities due to concern about spreading the virus. An undetermined number of dismissed employees returned to their previous employers as conditions stabilized.
Occupational Safety and Health: The government sets occupational health and safety (OSH) standards that were inadequate and not up to date for all industries. The government did not effectively enforce OSH laws. Penalties for OSH violations were not commensurate with those for crimes such as negligence. The situation worsened during the pandemic and labor experts reported on some employers from the apparel industry not providing personal protective equipment and ignoring COVID-19 safety guidelines. The law does not provide for the right of workers to remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment.
The Ministry of Labor obtained 28 new vehicles, using private donations, to provide transportation for inspectors in all 22 departments of the country, including four vehicles for Guatemala City. These vehicles had yet to be deployed as of November but were needed, since 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. The ministry did not employ enough labor inspectors to deter violations, and many of them performed reviews on paper or administrative duties rather than clearly defined inspection duties. Although the labor inspectorate hired seven additional officers and started the process to hire seven more, the number of inspectors was still insufficient to successfully enforce labor law.
In July the ministry reopened its in-person service windows in Guatemala City to receive labor complaints. During the pandemic the ministry had closed its offices to the public, and workers were unable to present complaints in person; however, the ministry opened a call center and created a website to receive labor violation complaints remotely. The ministry established a hotline to receive complaints, but workers stated that often no one answered their calls. The ministry later developed a web portal for complaints, but not all workers had access to internet. The number of inspections conducted decreased during the pandemic.
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.
Informal Sector: According to ILO statistics, 74 percent of the workforce worked in the informal sector and outside the basic protections afforded by law. Types of informal work include street and market vendors, recyclers and trash pickers, day laborer construction workers, day laborers, and short-term (20 to 30 day) agricultural workers usually hired through recruiters and without a labor contract or direct-hire relationship with the employer.
Informal economy workers had no formal labor relationship that would make them subject to labor law. They were not directly hired by an employer and were not subject to wage, hour, OSH, or inspection laws. They were not subject to Social Security and had no way to accumulate credits for health care or pension. There were no government entities that provided social protections for informal economy workers.