In a case that sets a disturbing precedent, twelve workers have been found guilty on a range of charges after a labour conflict escalated in a free trade zone.
The twelve workers are awaiting sentencing, and could receive up to three years in prison. The workers were arrested in June 2016 when riot police stormed a peaceful protest outside the SAE-A Tecnotex factory in a free trade zone in Tipitapa, Managua.
The South Korean-owned factory employs 3,000 workers, and produces garments for export to companies in the United States, including Kohls, Target, JC Penney and Walmart. Tensions had been growing for some time, with workers demanding access to drinking water, health care and realistic production targets.
The conflict escalated when two leaders from the Esfuerzo Democrático union – affiliated to IndustriALL Global Union through the textile federation FESITEX – were fired. Three thousand workers downed tools to demand their reinstatement, and a peaceful protest was held outside the factory.
In a move never before seen in Nicaragua’s free trade zones, riot police were sent to quell the disturbance. The police arbitrarily and indiscriminately detained a dozen workers, including workers from other factories who had gathered peacefully outside the factory or were simply passing by, as well as a taxi driver who had nothing to do with the protest.
The twelve were arraigned for trail on charges brought by the public prosecutor. While awaiting trial those employed at SAE Tecnotex have not been able to work to support themselves and their families.
The trial took place last week. The sentencing is scheduled to happen on Monday 4 December.
The trial sets an ominous precedent for the free trade agreement that the countries of Central America have just finalized with South Korea, which is expected to result in a significant increase in Korean investment in the region.
Unions are under attack by the state at the behest of large companies in South Korea, and there are concerns that this model of industrial relations is being exported as part of the trade agreement.
IndustriALL general secretary Valter Sanches wrote to the public prosecutor, Ana Julia Guido Ochoa, condemning the precedent of criminalizing a labour dispute and calling on the prosecutor to drop the charges.
He wrote to the president of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, asking him to intervene, and that the government certification officer recognize the union as a legitimate representative of the workers.
Sanches also wrote to the chairman of SAE-A Tecnotex in South Korea, Woong-ki Kim, calling on the company to drop separate charges against the trade union leaders, and to pay the wages for the period they unable to work.
Copies of the letters were also sent to the brands.
“This unjust sentencing of workers for doing nothing more than defending their rights sets an appalling precedent.
“The company must drop the charges and negotiate in good faith with the union to renew the collective agreement.”
- This article was edited on Monday, 4 December, to reflect the fact that sentencing was postponed from Friday, and to make minor changes explaining the nature of the charges.