Section 7. Worker Rights
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. During the six successive states of calamity declared between March and September 30 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, no union attempted a strike, although were strikes expressly prohibited. The Solidarity Center said the trade union leadership was largely inactive, and only one member of the National Confederation of Christian Trade Unions’ labor observatory continued substantive work during the pandemic.
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. 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. Like other courts, the labor courts also largely closed from March to June due to COVID-19.
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 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. 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–held meetings during the year. In November the subcommission on implementation of the roadmap presented its full report in Geneva. The mediation and dispute settlement subcommission developed the capacity of governmental, union, and business members to mediate labor conflicts, with the ILO providing technical support and training. The subcommission on labor and legislation made a diagnostic analysis of labor law and drafted reforms.
Prior reports demonstrated a lack of progress in all nine elements of the roadmap except sanctions on labor violations. After being inactive in the first quarter of the year, the National Tripartite Commission met virtually after March. 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. On October 26, the Ministry of Government reconvened the committee through a published ministerial agreement. Two days later, and without explanation, the committee was closed again through another ministerial agreement.
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. Labor officials pointed to the pandemic as the reason for lack of enforcement. Violence and threats against trade unionists and labor activists remained serious problems, although COVID-19 prevented serious attempts to document cases, and much of the formal sector was inactive from March through September. From January to September, the Solidarity Center registered three violent attacks, 13 death threats, and 10 acts of criminalization and defamation 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 by December 11, it had received 244 complaints of crimes or offenses against trade unionists and labor activists compared with 487 complaints from January to August 31, 2019.
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. Government statistics on attempted union registrations indicated most registrations were initially rejected, and when they were issued, it was after 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, threats of factory closures, and deliberate failure to register unionized workers for certain government benefits. 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.
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 (see section 7.c.).
The law does not prohibit all of 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 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, it is seven hours. Child labor was nonetheless 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 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 inspection and labor court systems. The government devoted insufficient resources to prevention programs. During restrictions imposed due to the pandemic, the Protection Unit largely worked from home, ineffectively enforcing the law.
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 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.
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.
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 (OSH) standards that were inadequate and not current 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. Many manufacturing facilities, including textile and clothing manufacturing, as well as call centers were exempted from otherwise strict lockdown protocols within days of the March state of calamity. The press reported numerous outbreaks in such facilities until the end of August, when mask usage increased and sanitary measures were properly implemented in the workforce. Among the factories affected was KP Textiles, a garment factory supplying GAP; American Eagle; and Amazon, where more than 200 workers tested positive for COVID-19 and whose owners originally refused to take precautions or allow labor inspectors to enter. While the factory eventually was inspected and shut down, it opened again and was not fined. 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.
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. From March to early April, Ministry of Labor inspections were suspended. Approximately half the unit returned in April and focused on inspecting possible violations of COVID-19 guidelines and hygiene. By August inspectors had returned to normal operations but with a large backlog of labor hearings due to the closed courts.
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. During the pandemic the ministry closed its offices to the public, and workers were unable to present complaints in person. 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.
On July 9, the Ministry of Labor issued a ministerial accord allowing certain businesses to suspend the payment of worker’s midyear bonus due to financial hardship caused by the pandemic. The Constitutional Court invalidated the accord, however, and ordered businesses to make the bonus payments on time and in full, in accordance with the law. On July 8, the ministry reported that it would enforce compliance with payment of the bonus, which must be paid to all workers during the first two weeks of July, and emphasized the benefit must be paid by companies that continued operations during the COVID-19 emergency. Ministry inspectors shifted focus in July from COVID-19 hygiene inspections to the bonus payments but had limited staff to complete the inspections. In addition the ministry noted it had coordinated with two banks and a federation of credit and savings cooperatives so that employers affected by the pandemic would have access to the working capital credit fund and fulfill their labor obligations. The ministry also announced that employers who were not financially able to pay the bonus had to inform ministry officials through an affidavit as established by law.
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 issues 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. In one case in June, a business protested the presence of a congressional deputy and a PDH official in an attempted labor inspection. Members of the business community accused the PDH of performing inspections without permission and without the ministry, although ministry presence is not legally required for the PDH to inspect facilities. The business community agreed the PDH has a right to inspect but said the PDH did not always follow official protocols. 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.
The Solidarity Center explained that almost all organized labor activity ceased during the pandemic as elderly trade union officials were unwilling or unable to venture outside their homes and equally unwilling to cede authority to younger union leaders. Nonetheless, 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.
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. 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 for fear of spreading the virus. An undetermined number of dismissed employees returned to their previous employers as conditions stabilized.