Freedom of association: Fear and ignorance in the private sector

By María José Longo

Although the Political Constitution of the Republic of Guatemala and international treaties recognize the association right and unionization of the workers, exists lack of information and fear to organize itself and to demand better conditions.  Article 34 of the Constitution establishes the free right of association and the International Labor Organization (ILO) Conventions 87 and 98 support freedom of association and the right to organize. 

In a survey of the population occupied in the department of Guatemala, made in 2021 by the Association of Investigation and Social Studies (Asies), 61 % of the 607 participants recognized the freedom of association and the right to organize and to participate in unions like a fundamental human right. But also half of the interviewed people consider that the employees of the private sector do not have right this organization. 

“Indeed, there is a fear among workers of joining trade union organizations because they consider that it is a way by which they will gain the antipathy of their employers and therefore put their job stability at risk. However, it contrasts with the recognition that it is a fundamental right in the first place,” commented Gladys Morfin, former labor minister. 

During a virtual analysis forum to present the survey, Morfin added the importance of the Ministry of Labor addressing workers’ need for knowledge. “Access to information on the rights granted to them by national legislation and international treaties, in addition to the regulations governing the formation of trade union organizations. Many times, due to lack of knowledge, it is more difficult to integrate,” he said.

In 2018, the Ministry of Labor prepared a union primer with basic definitions, sample applications, and steps for union formation. Not all workers have access to and knowledge about it. 


According to the quantitative survey of the employed population, 52% believe that there are few unions in the private sector because employers retaliate against workers who try to organize one.  The survey shows that the main reason why a worker interviewed would not join a union (44%) is the fear of being fired, or in other colloquial terms, “it would be to give color”, to be known or known to have union militancy.

Clara de Amado, who was a labor judge for 15 years, explained that retaliation is taken as an attitude that affects the worker.  By blocking your work activities, seek to fire you.

“In those cases the workers are not totally unprotected. When a committee is created, it must go to the labor inspectorate to draw up the minutes and have a document that gives them immobility rights. They are not unprotected to organize, but many times workers are unaware of these procedures and act outside the procedural framework”. 

Positive leadership 

In the survey, 35% of the workers indicated that they do not believe in unions and 22% consider that there are few unions in the private sector because they are a source of problems. For Morfin, positive leaders are necessary: “People with commitment, with a vocation for service. It seeks the benefit of the union as such, but not for the benefit of its leaders, but the benefit of the workers as a whole”.  

Government responsibility 

According to the study, two-thirds of the working population consider that the government does nothing to guarantee the right to organize unions and 30% think that it does little, evidencing that there is a strong perception that the State does not fulfill its duty to protect the exercise of this right.

Freedom of association has legal backing, but private-sector workers must be better informed to exercise it and protect themselves from retaliation. Employers must respect the right to unionize and not sow fear in employees. There is a public demand for the labor inspectorate to fulfill its function.