Inter Press Service | 16 April 2007
EL SALVADOR: Spanish Firm Advocates, Then Breaks Labour Laws
SAN SALVADOR, Apr 16 (IPS) — The Spanish tuna-fishing and processing company Grupo Calvo has been accused of serious anti-union practices in El Salvador. The paradox is that Calvo had insisted that this Central American country approve labour laws required by the European Union (EU) for the purpose of obtaining tariff exemptions, as a condition for continuing to invest here.
Berta Menjívar, who was fired in February, and José Joaquín Reyes, dismissed on Mar. 15, claimed that Calvo laid them off because they had started a branch of the General Trade Union of Workers in the Fishing and Allied Industries (SGTIPAC) at Calvo’s local tuna plant.
"Yes, I was definitely fired for being a founder member of the union," Menjívar, 22, told IPS. When she arrived for work on Feb. 9, five days after the formation of the union, she was told, "This is your last day of work here."
Calvo specialises in fishing, canning and selling fish, and has processing plants in Spain, Morocco, Brazil and Venezuela as well as in El Salvador, where it has its largest plant, located in the eastern province of La Unión.
Antonio Huezo Avelar, director of the La Unión cannery, admitted to IPS that Menjívar had been dismissed, but said it was because she had "repeatedly breached internal regulations."
He also said she had previously received two written warnings about her "infractions," and that he had not known that she was one of the founders of the union branch when he dismissed her.
According to article 214 of the Labour Code, founder members of unions are protected by special immunity for a period of 60 days, during which they cannot be dismissed.
Menjívar, for her part, said that the written warnings mentioned by Avelar were both given to her on the same day, and that her signature had been forged on one of them.
"My only fault was to be three minutes late after lunch one day," said the union organiser, who added that she had worked for Calvo for two years, earning 7.17 dollars a day, including night shifts of up to 12 hours without overtime pay to which she was entitled by law.
Reyes, the union’s external relations secretary, also said that he had been fired because of his participation in the union, after four years of working on the fishing boats. But the company told him he was laid off because his productivity level had dropped.
According to a copy of Reyes’ contract, which IPS read, he was paid 10 cents of a dollar per ton unloaded from the ships, under short-term contracts of not more than four or five days at a time. In order to work for Calvo, the workers were obliged to sign a waiver agreement releasing the company from its obligations in the case of any accident on the job.
In 2006, Calvo lobbied vigorously for El Salvador to ratify International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions 87, 98, 135 and 151 on freedom of association, the right to organise and collective bargaining.
Under a European Union (EU) trade programme with Central American countries called the Generalised System of Preferences Plus (SGP+), these countries can export goods to the EU free of tariffs, but one of the requirements is ratification of the ILO conventions.
Countries that are not within this scheme must pay 20.5 percent duties on their exports to the EU. El Salvador entered the preferential scheme in July 2005, before it had ratified these particular four conventions.
Calvo laid off 600 workers and threatened to close its entire plant in El Salvador, claiming that its products would be uncompetitive if El Salvador did not ratify the conventions and so maintain its preferential tariff treatment.
The pressure was firmly resisted by conservative and business sectors, many of them linked to the government of Antonio Saca and his rightwing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), which rejected the ILO conventions as "EU blackmail."
Finally, President Saca gave way to the pressure from the EU and Calvo, and sent the conventions to parliament, where a package of reforms to pave the way for their ratification was approved in late August.
Ratification of the ILO conventions was a debt owed by the country to its workers for nearly half a century.
The modifications passed by parliament to the civil service law, for example, granted workers in the police force, the justice system and other "sensitive occupations" the rights to collective bargaining and unionisation, under conventions 87 and 98.
Furthermore, ratification of conventions 135 and 151 afforded protection for union leaders and set guidelines for labour relations in the public administration. These conventions entered into force this year.
Gilberto García, vice president of the Centre for Labour Studies and Support (CEAL), said Calvo’s campaign for better labour laws was motivated "more by commercial considerations than concern for working conditions." The Spanish company’s actions belie its words, he told IPS.
"It’s a scandal that Grupo Calvo should fail to fulfil the ILO conventions, after exerting pressure in favour of their ratification," García said. Nor does the government enforce labour laws, he complained.
"The workers were dismissed while they were protected by the immunity enjoyed by union leaders, and the company knows that. They acted knowing full well that they were breaking the law," the labour adviser said.
Calvo, which has been operating in El Salvador since 2003, and has invested over 100 million dollars in the country, has at least 1,400 women working in the canning division. Their average wage is seven dollars a day.
Avelar said that "So far, we have received no official communication from anybody" about a union branch being set up. However, in an interview with IPS he said he knew of at least five workers who belonged to the union.
The company spokesman also said Calvo respects workers’ rights, as laid down by the constitution, but argued that belonging to a union did not give anyone the right to "disregard company regulations."
An official inspection report from the Ministry of Labour and Social Security (MINTRAB) dated Feb. 24 stated that Menjívar’s supervisor, Esmeralda Uceda, said she was one of the plant’s best workers, but later added that "for a while, she became rebellious."
The MINTRAB report said that after holding individual interviews with several women workers, the inspector said "there was no intimidation nor anti-union remarks," and that the company treated its employees well.
However, the report indicated that Calvo had breached article 47 of the constitution and 142 of the Labour Code "by summarily dismissing Berta Menjívar," and ordered her to be reinstated and reimbursed for salary lost to date, because she was protected by trade union immunity.
Javier Rivas of MINTRAB’s labour inspection office admitted that Calvo had broken the law, and said the ministry’s resolutions should be binding, but added that gaps in the law meant that companies could get away with disregarding labour inspectors’ orders and trampling on workers’ rights.
"As a union, we’re not against companies that create employment," said dismissed labour activist Reyes. However, he maintained that Calvo was waging an intimidation campaign against unionisation, which included unfair dismissal, defamation and insulting workers.
SGTIPAC, the fisheries union, is waiting for MINTRAB’s ruling on Reyes’ case, which will be based on an inspection carried out on Mar. 30.
While workers continue to lodge complaints in the expectation that the Salvadoran authorities will enforce the country’s labour legislation, Calvo continues to enjoy the EU’s tariff exemption for its products.