Thursday, May 31, 2007

An open letter to Representative Jim McDermott

Dear Representative Jim McDermott:

We are writing in regard to an urgent labor rights situation unfolding in a Guatemalan apparel factory located in the city of Villa Nueva. Workers at the Cimatextiles factory, owned by the South Korean company Modas Choishin, were informed on Saturday, May 19 that the factory would suspend operations for three months, in violation of the terms of Guatemalan law. These workers are represented by SITRACIMA, one of only three unions within Guatemala’s apparel industry, which is made up of some 200 factories. Not only has the suspension of work been procedurally illegal, it has been accompanied by actions of increasingly serious intimidation and harassment against the union members, including acts of physical aggression, temporary deprivation of liberty (locking them in the factory), and threats of violence.

We are students, alumni, and faculty at the University of Washington. Many of us are involved with the UW human rights seminar that takes students to Guatemala and in which meeting these very women is integral to the lesson plan. This summer is the program’s third; if the women are able to meet in July, this may be the last class to speak with these women, and the last class to see the fruits of their struggle. The women have contacted us directly and asked us to take urgent action on their behalf. This crisis deeply affects us. As your constituents, we ask you to support these women.

The gravity and frequency of the acts of intimidation constitute a clear violation of workers’ right to free association, established in Articles 34 and 102 (q) of the Guatemalan Constitution. The Guatemalan Labor Code prohibits, in Article 10, retaliations against workers for attempting to exercise their rights, and in Article 62, forbids attempts to force workers to withdraw from unions. At the level of international law, the ILO Conventions 87 and 98 clearly establish the right to organize and bargain collectively, as does Article 22 of the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man.

In addition to breaches of these most basic human rights, there have been numerous violations of the procedures outlined in Guatemalan Labor Code for the suspension of employment contracts. In particular, Article 73 of the Labor Code specifies that employers must make a written request to the Ministry of Labor for permission to suspend contracts, and that the Labor Inspectorate must then determine whether the causes of suspension are valid. We understand that officials from the Labor Ministry have not received written notice from the company in this case. Company representatives stated that due process was followed, but the Labor Inspectorate has not verified that claim.

As a party to the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement , the Guatemalan government has an international obligation to enforce its own labor laws (DR-CAFTA, Article 16.2.1(a)). As of this point, the Guatemalan government has not enforced these laws. Consequently, the crisis situation has continued within Cimatextiles, where workers are taking turns sleeping overnight to prevent the closure of their factories and permanent loss of their jobs despite threats on the part of ownership.

In response to this situation, and as a productive step toward resolving the crisis, the SITRACIMA union is calling for the creation of a “High Level Commission” of stakeholder groups. The proposed Commission would include representatives of the US Embassy in Guatemala, the South Korean Embassy in Guatemala, the Guatemalan Ministries of Labor and Economy, the US brands LCI (Liz Claiborne) and Talbots, the Korean Choi Shin Corporation, the Fair Labor Association (FLA), the independent COVERCO labor rights monitoring organization, the labor federation FESTRAS, and the Textile Apparel Commission VESTEX.

In support of this proposal, we urge the United States Government to direct its Embassy in Guatemala to facilitate the creation of the proposed High Level Commission and take part in its efforts to resolve this dispute. Furthermore, we ask you to encourage the Korean embassy and the relevant Guatemalan ministries to join the commission.

Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter.

Brandon Ballinger
Masha Burina
Dr. Angelina Godoy
Stacey Fernandez
Amanda M. Fulmer
Kalila Jackson-Spieker
Alyssa Kahn
Martina Kartman
Alexandra Larsson
Jillian Leslie
Jessica Michelle Nance
Phil Neff
Rod Palmquist
Veryl Pow
Khadyja Reinhardt
Tim Richards
Maya Sparks
Ariana Taylor-Stanley
Travis Thomas
Carrie Vincler
Nick Wong

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The workers at the Guatemalan factory CimaTextiles formed a union in 2001. They won a collective bargaining agreement in 2003, and since then have struggled to protect their gains. The corporation which owns the factory, Choi & Shin Co., Inc., consistently tries to break the union's back, and has since its inception. etc. etc. Here is the union's wiki. Here are the pictures from the protest. Here is the urgent action.

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