Monday Mar 18

Delegation with CPT leaders SPECIAL REPORT The Organizers’ Forum International Dialogue in Paraguay ~ A Whisper of Change for Labor

Editor’s Note: The Organizers’ Forum, like Social Policy is a project of Labor Neighbor Research and Training Center. The 17th annual Organizers’ Forum International Dialogue was held in Paraguay. As usual, various participants in the delegation have filed reports on what we learned from these dialogues with local organizations and their leadership for all of those, including our readers, who were unable to attend.

It's been two months since I returned from the International Organizers Forum in Paraguay. As is often the case, the country and people have stayed with me. The time has given me a chance to reflect on what we learned, and shared, while visiting this beautiful and little-known country.

To get a sense of the situation on the ground, one must consider some basic socio-economic conditions in which we find the country currently. We were told early and often that Paraguay is rife with corruption at the parliamentary and judicial levels. Bribery is common. There is simply no punishment for accepting stolen money – the Supreme Court won’t enforce the law. The mood of the general population is anger with respect to this pervasive issue. Generally, it is accepted that the legal framework that does exist in many areas, such as those governing labour, is healthy and sufficient, but the enforcement of the laws within this framework is non-existent.

Paraguay also faces extreme poverty in spite of having a relatively healthy annual GDP. This is due in large part to profits being diverted to massive agricultural and cattle companies rather than providing income for workers. Paraguay is a member of the Southern Common Market, or Mercosur, which includes Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. Brazil and Argentina are the big players in this scheme. Paraguay suffers economically under this regime as profit is stripped out of the country and sent to Brazil, Argentina and massive multinational corporations – largely agricultural companies. The country provides large tax breaks and historic land appropriations to these corporations, or the wealthy. Police, or the armed forces of the government, continue to make land grabs well off of the radar of international media.

Paraguay has historically been a very sheltered, inward-facing, and isolated country. The people began only very recently to turn their gaze outward to the rest of the world. This is due to a rise in social media and the propagation of handheld electronic devices like cell phones and tablets. They are beginning to realize that life can be more than what it has been.

Carlos Mateo Balmelli, a recent presidential candidate and former President of the Paraguayan Senate and Congress whom we met early in the forum, summarized a number of key factors influencing the current state of affairs in Paraguay. He noted, “People in Paraguay don’t have a social conscience”. That is to say a “lefty tradition does not exist, as a dictator made all the rules.....The art of association doesn’t exist, we go alone”. He outlined that creating collective action, particularly on a large scale, is difficult. People survive, or not, alone. Friends, or small community collectives, form groups but disperse when the word “union” is spoken. Typically, he noted that a union will form to achieve a single goal, and once achieved it disbands. Campesinos– groups of farmers – are much more common than unions. Some campesinos participate in broader social coalitions, but often vote for the right-wing political party, against their own interests.

He further stated that people often had to be paid to show up at political rallies. Our group was not convinced that this last statement was an absolute. We felt that deeper digging, organizing and mobilizing has in fact led to a natural uprising on widely felt issues in other areas. There was evidence of other spontaneous and organized pushback from society.

Corruption is pervasive throughout societal institutions. The people have run out of patience, but politicians do not have a global vision for reform. There is a significant disconnect and a lack of analysis surrounding potential fixes.

There are some interesting aspects of the economy in Paraguay. To gain a clear understanding one must understand that the minimum wage in the formal sector is 2,126,000 Guarani (Paraguayan currency), which is approximately $360 USD, monthly. This paltry amount is further reduced by statutory deductions. This wage applies to countless sectors and types of jobs. Workers on minimum wage typically eat a single meal a day and struggle financially in every aspect of their lives. Informal workers – not registered to pay taxes from work to the state – make, on average, double the minimum wage! This draws workers to the informal sector for obvious financial reasons. The informal economy makes up approximately 40% of the work performed in the country. It should be noted that informal workers are not covered by any type of a social safety net – the precarity is extreme.

Internal migration remains a massive emerging issue for the state. Giant soy farm plantations push locals out of rural communities, forcing the displaced people to migrate to the provincial capitals or Asuncion. They travel to the outskirts of the city and settle in upstart communities. People simply arrive and lay down stakes. There is an increased rate of violence, crime and poverty in these communities. Further impacts come from the gruesome traffic in Paraguay. Workers don’t want to waste time commuting in and out of the city centre for work.

Our major union meeting of the week came at the head offices of the Paraguayan Workers Confederation – Confederacion Paraguaya de Trabajadores (CPT). The CPT is essentially a Paraguayan federation of trade unions. The President of the CPT is Francisco Britez Ruiz, who arrived at the CPT by way of being the Secretario General of the Asociacion de Profesionales Taxistas de Asuncion (APTA), a taxi drivers union. He spoke proudly of the 67-year history of the APTA, a union that was one of the first institutions to confront the dictator of the day. He informed us that 500,000 workers of a possible 3 million are covered by unions. This seems to be an encouraging statistic, but the protections that exist are not enforced.

The CPT is highly focused on confronting what they see as a societal lack of critical thinking skills. They attribute this issue to the failing education system and are working on a plan to address it. Educational reform seems to be a key tenet of the CPT’s strategy moving forward. Creating a new social paradigm through educational reform is their long-term goal. During the course of the conversation, many problems were outlined regarding unions in general including a lack of technological knowledge, a lack of young union members, and a lack of organic internal union leadership development. Union finances seem to be a deep issue that delay many initiatives. Additionally, I would suggest that organizing new members is a key issue.

A positive take-away from our meeting was the idea that while unions exist to defend worker’s rights, they must look beyond the definable labor issue at hand to the deeper structural reason for inequality. This is one of the main reasons they are pushing for longterm educational reform. The path to influence public policy in Paraguay is difficult. Everything needs to be done from scratch. The general feeling in the culture is that change is needed, but citizens are hushed and often individual. People are slow to react to inequity. There seems to be a lack of leadership and real voice. I grant that this last perspective is narrow and specifically held by the CPT, I note that voices of leadership on social justice more broadly do in fact exist. With respect to leadership, the CPT seems to be placed in a prime position to provide some guidance or coordination to the member unions, but has not yet harnessed that power. There does not seem to be a strategy in place to make the attempt.

The path politically is fraught with roadblocks. The law prohibits union affiliation to a political party. The CPT noted that they were not specifically involved in the last elections. Frankly, they seemed a bit taken aback at the notion. Other unions were involved to the extent that their members mobilized on a relatively small scale, but not in the name of their union. Individual union members campaigned for various politicians in an unorganized way. In the most recent presidential election some union leaders actively supported the incoming President, who is notably right wing. The Public Workers Union, approximately 250,000 strong, campaigned on his behalf despite the widely held view that this was contrary to workers’ interests. The government turned the tables as they hold the member lists for each union in the country, and the ruling party used those lists to seek political votes. In the latest election the CPT did not make any demands, nor did they have a specific strategy. They did not indicate a political strategy was in the works going forward.

In spite of the lack of real political campaigning, the unions in the country have what they call “Social Dialogue Tables.” These tables are tripartite combining representatives from the government, business and unions. They appear to be a consulting council type of process without real teeth in terms of policy-making. They give feedback to government and generally concern themselves with a single specific issue. The CPT acknowledged that these meetings are often used as a strategy to delay requested changes or pay lip service to an issue. They note that the International Labor Organization (ILO) referred to the meetings as a “waste of time”. The CPT maintains an ongoing relationship with the ILO in an effort to push for a stronger union environment in the country.

Beyond the CPT, eight of the largest unions in Paraguay meet with the Ministry of Work and Social Security to try and get the government to enact ILO conventions 87 (Freedom of Expression and Protection of the Right to Organize) and 98 (Right to Organize and Collective Bargain) into law.

The CPT, when asked directly whether or not they organize, stated simply: “No”. This is a staggering admission. They note two challenges in this regard. They cannot organize people from the streets as there is a governmental counter-campaign – if they organize in the informal sector they are charged with terrorism. Additionally, the Ministry of Labor must approve any organizing plan! There are no organizing protections for workers so employers simply terminate workers who are attempting to organize. The CPT noted, to our surprise, that workers are challenging their own unions, leaving and forming their own locals. Frankly this may be an excellent sign that union rejuvenation is coming!

There do seem to be many social issues in the country that unions or the CPT could rally around, but there is no evidence of this happening. An example is a live-in occurring at the Plaza of Heroes in downtown Asuncion. The displaced farm workers were protesting land grabs and gross changes to the public pension investment strategy. In spite of an apparent issue to coalesce around, the CPT had no desire.

Despite the bleak commentary from our CPT meeting, all is not lost. Woven through our conversations during the forum were the questions of political activism, of social justice, of union renewal – “What is the path forward?”. Small local unions, groups of campesinos, and grass roots social justice organizations are rallying. “Cobanjaros, an organized resistance group is led by women and young people who are questioning the corruption in the country and demanding extensive changes. They are organizing and they are building power to push back on a corporate regime that seems to grind profit from any corner of the planet it can turn its eyes on.

If I were to be so bold as to offer advice it would be very simple: ORGANIZE! Organize workers and citizens. Organize and build power to challenge governments at every level. Organize and press to change the political will in the country. Organize and demand, without tiring, improved conditions for all working people.

We are with you workers of Paraguay!

Doug Dykens is the director of bargaining for the British Columbia Government Employees’ Union (BCGEU), based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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