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Mistreatment of workers in Nicaragua’s free trade zones violates international agreements

The government is compelled to ensure a decent wage, job security, hygiene, and safety, but MITRAB and unions look the other way

Photo: Archive

Iván Olivares

23 de enero 2023


Disrespect for workers’ rights, especially of those working in companies under the free trade zone regime in Nicaragua, could bring about consequences if the United States, the European Union or the International Labor Organization (ILO) decide to apply current treaties.

Confidencial published the testimonies of eleven workers of companies established in free trade zone industrial parks in Managua, Masatepe, San Marcos and Niquinohomo. Consistently, ten of them denounced verbal abuse, reprisals for seeking medical attention, summary firing, and passivity of unions who choose to look the other way, and by a Ministry of Labor (MITRAB) which is on the side of the employers.

The perception of workers interviewed is that the unions are either on the side of the employers, or simply do not have the capacity to defend their rights, because the entire system prevents them from fulfilling their roles.

Lawyer Juan Antonio Lopez, of the organization “Defensores del Pueblo” (People’s Defenders), is very clear about this from his experience as a labor attorney: “In the free trade zone companies the right to free unionization is violated…in collusion with MITRAB authorities,” he asserts emphatically.

This coincides with Ana Gomez’s experience. She’s a former promoter of “Defensa de Derechos de la Mujer” (Women’s Rights Defense), in the “Working and Unemployed Women’s Movement” who recalls that she and several of her colleagues, including workers with five or ten years of seniority, suffered a collective dismissal and “the State did nothing for us. We were abandoned and unprotected as women. We did not receive any answer.”

“The regime sided with the textile industry and the franchises. In Nicaragua, workers are not protected, labor rights and labor laws are not enforced,” she stated.

Although they need employment, the constant frustrations make some of them simply leave and decide not to fight for their rights. Wilmer Martinez, dismissed from a free zone company due to false accusations, said that when he was fired, he decided not to seek legal options, and declares himself “tired of working 13 years in these companies because they pay low salaries that do not compensate with the price of basic food and other products, in addition they are unstable, because there is not always work.”


Beyond the ignored national legislation, Nicaragua is a signatory to various international treaties and conventions, among which two stand out in particular: The Central America-United States-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), and the European Union-Central America Association Agreement (EU-CAAA).

Chapter 16 of CAFTA-DR protects the right of association; the right to organize and collective bargaining; the prohibition of the use of any form of forced or compulsory labor; a minimum age for the employment of children; the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labor; as well as acceptable working conditions with respect to minimum wages, working hours, and occupational health and safety.


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A labor advisor, who asked to remain anonymous, told Confidencial, “That chapter refers more to general legal and regulatory aspects, institutional strengthening of labor rights, physical safety, training, and rights emanating from International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions, such as minimum wage, working hours, or health. It defines which regulations must be considered, starting with Labor Codes, Social Security, and ILO Conventions,

The source recalls that EU-CAAA “clearly states that if the democratic indicators are not complied with, the Free Trade Agreement with the European Union can be broken,” although in labor rights (and others), the text of the Association Agreement points towards the obligatory nature of compliance with national laws, in the understanding that this coincides with international agreements on the matter.

The ILO factor

“In addition to these free trade agreements, the ILO could participate. It is not compelling but makes appeals and reports to the United Nations saying that such and such a country is not complying with certain agreements that are of mandatory compliance,” explains Juan Lopez, recalling that Nicaragua is a signatory of ILO treaties. As such it is mandated to ensure a decent wage, job security, hygiene compliance and occupational security, etc.

“In failing on this, ILO can pass on its recommendations to the United Nations, and this organization can call on countries to take this under consideration. They could also make recommendations to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. If the ILO sends a report to the Fund and the Bank, I bet that Nicaragua will not enjoy loans from these financial institutions, because it is not complying with labor legislation, and instead acts against and to the detriment of the working class,” he added.

Another two experts on international trade regulations told Confidencial, also on condition of anonymity, that they do not believe that, despite the workers’ complaints, the complicity of MITRAB and the unions, and what is written in CAFTA-DR and EU-CAAA and ILO Conventions, will constitute a problem for the Nicaraguan government.

“It doesn’t strike me as a practice that is creating problems. As far as I know, there hasn’t been a case presented to the administration mechanism of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States,” said one of them, while his colleague recalled that “Chapter 16 abides by the national legislation of each country, and I believe that the laws of the countries have been complied with, because they supervised them.”

In the case of the ILO, the main problem is that “they only receive complaints from union leaders,” but many union leaders do not have the academic training to cope with the intricacies of the law or international treaties with the ILO. In addition, unions are akin to the Government, so it is not likely that they will denounce that same government, explained Lopez.

Confidencial wrote to the Office of the United States Trade Representative, without getting a response. Likewise, it sought reactions from Dean Garcia, executive director of the Nicaraguan Association of the Textile and Apparel Industry (ANITEC), but he did not respond either.

This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times



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Iván Olivares

Iván Olivares

Periodista nicaragüense, exiliado en Costa Rica. Durante más de veinte años se ha desempeñado en CONFIDENCIAL como periodista de Economía. Antes trabajó en el semanario La Crónica, el diario La Prensa y El Nuevo Diario. Además, ha publicado en el Diario de Hoy, de El Salvador. Ha ganado en dos ocasiones el Premio a la Excelencia en Periodismo Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal, en Nicaragua.