(IPS) - Persecution of trade unionists remains a problem in El Salvador, in spite of the fact that the country is governed by a left-wing party that advocates labour rights, union leaders say.
When Mauricio Funes won the March 2009 elections as the presidential candidate of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a former guerrilla group-turned-political party, he promised to put an end to the harassment of labour activists that was a constant during the series of dictatorships that governed the country from 1932 to 1979 and during the subsequent right-wing governments.
But many labour leaders criticise the Funes administration for not making enough progress on union rights.
The Jul. 30, 2011 dismissal of Luis Alberto Ortega, general secretary of the Union of Legislative Assembly Workers (SITRAL), which was founded in December 2010, is one of the cases that have drawn the attention of the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
Ortega, who led an occupation of the San Salvador cathedral from January to April, claims that the FMLN parliamentary group that was his employer dismissed him arbitrarily, in collusion with other political sectors, as a first step towards leaving the newly formed union without leadership.
Ortega's job tenure remains unclear, because the Funes administration has not yet replied to questions posed by the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association, which is investigating this and other cases of alleged violations of ILO Convention 87 protecting the right of unions to organise.
"People are still fearful of organising or strengthening trade unions," Róger Gutiérrez, a leader of the Federation of Independent Associations and Unions of El Salvador (FEASIES), which has 10 member organisations, told IPS.
During the 1980-1992 civil war, which left a death toll of 80,000, far-right death squads abducted and murdered political opponents, including many trade union activists.
Gutiérrez said the greatest advances for trade unions during the Funes government have been seen in the state employee sector, arising from a constitutional reform approved in June 2009 which gave them permission to organise unions, overruling the 2007 Supreme Court verdict declaring ILO Convention 87 to be unconstitutional.
"The greatest problems are in the private sector, where unions continue to be repressed," Gutiérrez said, because they see them as harmful to free enterprise.
In certain business sectors, such as textile factories assembling goods for export under the duty-free "maquila" system, dismissals of trade unionists or the setting up of parallel pro-employer unions are particularly common.
Even union leaders who, as such, have immunity under the Labour Code protecting them from any kind of anti-union discrimination, have been fired.
In July 2011, executives of the Gama apparel factory decided to close down the plant after learning, local press reports said, that the Gama workers' union (STECG) planned to initiate negotiations for a collective contract, which would have been the first of its kind in the maquila sector.
"Under the right-wing governments, persecution was commonplace and the police were even involved. But now, although it can be said that trade unions can organise, there is still harassment and persecution," Alexander Gómez, financial secretary of the Trade Union Federation of Public Service Workers of El Salvador (FESTRASPES), told IPS.
The federation brings together 12 trade unions representing some 12,000 public employees in airports, education, health services, utilities and other sectors.
The continued trade union intimidation in this impoverished Central American country can partly be explained by the government being made up of individuals and groups with different sectoral interests that are sometimes at variance with one another, say labour activists.
"The dominant model remains the same, neo-liberalism, to the detriment of workers," and that is standing in the way of progress in the area of labour rights, complained Gutiérrez of FEASIES.
Moreover, the Labour Ministry is institutionally weak and lacks the resources and personnel to fully enforce labour laws, other trade unionists told IPS. As of February, it had only 212 labour inspectors for the whole country.
Some middle-ranking officials, who were also in the ministry during the government of right-wing president Antonio Saca (2004-2009), indulge in unethical practices, such as taking bribes from companies in exchange for favourable inspection reports that cover up violations of labour rights or union freedoms, the sources said.
"Inspectors are still in collusion with the companies: in our view, nothing has changed there," said Gutiérrez.
IPS made unsuccessful attempts to arrange an interview with Labour Minister Humberto Centeno, who was an experienced trade union leader during the 1970s and 1980s before devoting himself to FMLN party work after the end of the civil war in 1992.
Meanwhile the Trade Union of Municipal Workers and Employees of El Salvador (SITESMUES) is in negotiations with the authorities over alleged arbitrary mass dismissals, of union leaders as well, after the local and parliamentary elections in March.
Other workers have been dismissed for political reasons, José Neftalí Yáñez, head of the Electrical Industry Union of El Salvador (SIES) branch at the Delsur electricity distribution company, told IPS.
Yáñez claims his dismissal and the break-up of the executive committee of his union branch were the result of internal pressures in the FMLN, and were carried out in reprisal for protests he led some time ago in conjunction with business associations and civil society organisations.