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Costa Rica

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.

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.

El Salvador

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.

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.

Honduras

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.

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.

Nicaragua

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.

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.

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U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future