Guatemala: SalvaVidas Purified Water Union Suffers Threats and Injustice

Recently, SalvaVidas employees decided to organize a union in the hope of improving their working conditions. Immediately after finding out about the incipient union, the company fired those involved and temporarily closed the factory, declaring bankruptcy and insisting that the union members sign letters of resignation—common union breaking measures.

ImageInterview with Edwin Alvarez of SitraPeten

Edwin Enrique Alvarez Guevara is Secretary General of the Peten Distributors Union (SitraPeten), composed of workers from the largest purified water distributor in Guatemala, Agua SalvaVidas, owned by the powerful Castillo Brothers Corporation, who also own the Gallo Brewery. Alvarez has been delivering Agua SalvaVidas for 13 years, working an average of 14-15 hours a day in order to fulfill the unrealistic quota required by the company. SalvaVidas delivery workers are paid on commission, earning about US $.08 for every US $2.00 five-gallon jug of water, totaling about US $1040 a month; not enough to feed a family.

Recently, SalvaVidas employees decided to organize a union in the hope of improving their working conditions. Immediately after finding out about the incipient union, the company fired those involved and temporarily closed the factory, declaring bankruptcy and insisting that the union members sign letters of resignation—common union breaking measures. In response to these actions, on May 3rd SitraPeten members created an encampment in front of the SalvaVidas plant to bring attention to their plight. Currently 41 ex-SalvaVidas employees take shifts living at the encampment. Among the demands of the workers are: to be reinstated to their jobs; that their commission be raised; and that a just daily quota be applied. Alvarez responds to the following questions about the history of the union’s struggle and hopes for the future:

What were working conditions like before you began organizing the union?

We always worked on commission; however the company demanded that we sell an exaggerated amount of water jugs so that more earnings were generated for them; because for us the commission is just a small percentage. They earn an obscene amount on each jug sold. So this is why they oblige one to fulfill exaggerated quotas.

Why did you find it necessary to organize a union?

We found it necessary to organize due to the bad treatment that existed here. Apart from demanding exaggerated quotas and if we didn’t attain them—there were times when we would return late and since we hadn’t attained the quota, they made us go back out until we attained it; and we wouldn’t be able to sell anything more, so we would simply return again, but this time really late, it would already be dark outside—we also needed a little more salary because we were practically working double shifts or even sometimes, triple shifts. So since they didn’t react to the situation [our work necessities], for this reason we found it necessary to organize.

Of the 638 Agua SalvaVidas employees in Guatemala, how many have organized with your union?

In the beginning, 114 workers organized with us, after the original committee of 13. So we decided to form a union and we presented 114 workers. But the company coerced many employees, giving them more money. So, they were able to obtain the resignations of the majority of the workers, leaving us with just 19. From there, they filed six complaints with the work inspection unit of the Department of Labor whose reaction was to wait for the company to present the desist orders [telling employees to stop organizing]. It was as if the company made an agreement with the Department of Labor to buy time so that they could scare the people enough because they made a series of threats. In the end, people handed in their resignations from the union—this is a well-known union breaking technique.

What are some things that your union seeks to achieve?

What we’re trying to achieve by organizing is that the employer and employee share the profits. Logically, the businessman always has to earn more, but he can at least pay the worker a fair wage—this is something that has not happened in this company. So what we want to achieve is job stability—something that we didn’t have either because they were always telling us that we had to fulfill the quotas and if we didn’t, they would fire us anyways since they had thousands of applications from university students and that they didn’t need us since we weren’t educated.

What would you propose as a fair, feasible daily quota?

Well, it depends on the route that is being worked. What would happen, for example, is that they wanted a route that could sell approximately 15 thousand water jugs in two weeks to sell 25 thousand. So this was not possible because the demand wasn’t enough to sell that amount, so they were forced to sell more than was even possible.

What would you propose as a fair amount of commission to earn per water jug?

We proposed a complete list of petitions and we were asking for 1.25 Quetzals [US$.09] per water jug, or per unit sold since we also sell boxes of water; and one quetzal for the assistant venders. We believe that this is fair because each water jug costs Q14 [US$2] and between the three of us venders [seller and assistants], we would be earning three Quetzals. So they would still be left with Q11 [US$1.91]. Logically, they have more expenses, but what they currently earn is an outrageous amount.

Describe the process of organizing your union.

The process began on February 4th 2007. Thirteen of us co-workers decided to assemble the collective bargaining agreement. So we signed this legal document on the 4th and on the 9th, we went to the Department of Labor [to present the document]. The Department of Labor notified the company that same day who immediately reacted by firing the 13 workers. After that, the people [other workers] saw that we weren’t allowed to enter the SalvaVidas plant and we began to explain to them what we had done, which was assemble a committee to struggle for all workers. Seeing that we weren’t being re-hired and that we’d denounced our case in court—since we didn’t sign any company document resigning—the workers decided three days later on February 13th to strike. So it was then that, late in the day, almost 6 pm, they said that they would re-hire us and we signed an agreement for the 13 workers to be re-hired. After that, the company sued us, saying that during the day that the strike lasted they had lost Q400 thousand [US$52,000] in revenue and that we had to pay them back because we were guilty of causing this loss.

What risks does one run organizing in Guatemala?

More than anything one runs the risk of death. We have received death threats over the phone and certain supervisors have told us face-to-face that the company is very powerful and can contract hit men and send them to kill us. The message is that we should quit organizing because it will never be successful.

Specifically, what is the situation like for drink and food-worker unions (for unions in companies owned by the Castillo Brothers)?

The only union that existed was SITRACERCA (Sindicato de Trabajadores de Cerveceria Centroamerica—Workers Union of the Central America Brewery), but they reached an agreement with the businessmen—one could say that they were bought, that management gave them enough money to stop union activities. Management opted to fire all the union members. Right now there are just a few of the old leaders still working there but the company has them well paid so that they no longer agitate to strengthen or expand the union.

What actions have you all taken?

Any actions that we have taken have been in strict conformity with the law; but unfortunately laws in Guatemala are very weak and are easily influenced by those with money. In our case the Castillo Brothers company is fighting us and we haven’t achieved much. Right now what we are doing is striking to bring attention to working conditions in the SalvaVidas plant. This is to hurt the company politically because as a large employer in Guatemala they claim to be the best bosses and that they pay well—this just isn’t true.

What intimidations, threats or attacks have you all received?

We have received many different intimidations; they have offered us money—but not much—we have received death threats telling us that they have lots of bad people they could hire and more than enough money to do so, that they could easily pay any brides or fines so that any case against them would be dropped. On the other hand it would seem that the company has already reacted strongly; we suspect that one of our union members was practically attacked by them—by their assassins—and is currently hospitalized. [While eating dinner in a small café a SitraPeten member and four companions were attacked by several strongly-armed men. The four companions died at the scene and the SitraPeten member survived and was taken to a hospital.] We have denounced this attack with the authorities but despite this neither the Public Prosecutors office (MP—Ministerio Publico) nor any authorities in Guatemala have given any follow through or resolution in the investigation of the case. [There is no political will to investigate the case; the suspicion is that political connections are being used to maintain impunity in this case. The media has written the case off as inter-gang violence and in reality it is probably impossible to know whether the attack was common crime or politically motivated.]

How is the hospitalized compañero?

His condition is quite serious. He has received three operations removing four high-caliber bullets. So yeah, he is in critical condition in the hospital, there are all sorts of tubes and everything so that he can defecate and his body functions [since the interview the man died in the hospital].

Who do you think is responsible for these attacks?

I think that hired assassins, hired by them, are responsible because they have said to us that they have people ready to do these things. In fact, the day before they declared bankruptcy closing the factory they called us repeatedly, and I received a ton of threats from them saying that if I didn’t desist organizing the union that me and my family were going to suffer.

What would you like for people in other countries to know about the situation here in Guatemala?

It would be good if they knew that in Guatemala all rights are violated: human rights, labor rights, union rights, because as soon as an organization is barely formed the authorities/management have already begun trying to buy the dignity of the organized compañeros. So the whole world should know that in Guatemala laws don’t really exist and that good, responsible bosses don’t exist either—they never have existed in Guatemala. They have always been able to exploit the workers, taking the largest profits and tossing aside the workers when they aren’t useful anymore. Here in the company we have had various cases where compañeros have suffered serious injuries due to years spent hauling 5-gallon jugs of water without the proper health or security measures; the company doesn’t give us proper security devices like weight-belts and we don’t have enough money to buy belts or other things to protect our health and security. As a result we have seen various cases of spinal column damage; and when the managers or social security doctors realize this they send the injured workers to radiography who declare that they can’t work any more. What the managers do is tell the injured workers to clean out their lockers and they get sent to the street without any kind of economic assistance or severance package.

What do you ask of people from other countries?

I have always said that what is happening here isn’t just a blow to our union but a blow to the international labor movement because from all sides the labor movement is suffering a number of threats. So, in whatever way possible we are asking for international organizations to help us maintain the struggle. Our struggle has been very strong and we don’t want to let it fall by the wayside. We hope that information about our struggle makes it to other countries, through this interview or through some other media of communication, so that people respond supporting us in our struggle. The struggle has already lasted a long time and has been very difficult in that here at the side of the road sometimes we have food and sometimes not. Sometimes we haven’t even been able to bring a bite to eat to our families.

Kim Kohler and Josh MacLeod work as international accompaniers in Guatemala.