Population: 9,240,700
Capital: La Paz
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 87 – 98 – 100 – 105 – 111 – 138 – 182

A succession of stoppages and strikes took place throughout 2007. Several trade union leaders were dismissed, leading to protest actions by co-workers. The increasingly informal nature of work in the mining industry is undermining union organising. There are mines where salaries are paid in kind, obliging workers to spend part of their day extracting the material that should secure their income.

Trade union rights in law

Government authorisation required: Workers may form and join organisations of their choosing and bargain collectively. The law contains many restrictions on these rights, however. The General Labour Act, dating back to 1942, requires prior government authorisation to establish a union and permits only one union per enterprise. It denies public servants the right to organise, with the exception of workers in the health, education and oil sectors. Peasant farmers and agricultural workers are also denied freedom of association. Company or branch unions can only be formed if there is a minimum of 20 workers, while industrial unions need the support of at least 50 per cent of the workforce in order to be established. The General Labour Act provides for labour inspectors to attend union meetings and monitor union activities. Members of trade union executive boards must be Bolivian by birth, thereby discriminating against foreigners and other workers who have acquired Bolivian nationality. Trade union officials must work for the same company. The law does not allow trade unions to join international organisations.

New Procedural Labour Code under discussion: At the beginning of October, the government reported on the outcome of consultations on the preliminary draft of the Procedural Labour Code, which was submitted for the observations of workers' and employers' organisations. The law establishes the incontrovertibility and protection of workers' rights, and that labour justice should be genuinely free of charge. It imposes sanctions on civil servants in the event of delayed justice, unfair collection of payments and other practices contrary to labour justice.

New constitution broadens trade union rights: The text of the new constitution approved by the Constituent Assembly on 26 December and due to be submitted for consultation over the following six months, extensively covers the right to organise and to collective bargaining, ensuring greater protection for trade unions and trade union leaders, in contrast to the limited these issues were covered in the Constitution in force since 2004. It also recognises the right of rural workers and self-employed workers to strike and to form and join unions. The General Labour Law of 1942 contradicts several of the new Constitutional provisions.

Right to strike – strict conditions: Strikes in public services, including banks and public markets, are banned by law. For other workers, the right to strike is subject to strict conditions. In order for a strike to be declared legal within a company, the strike must be supported by three quarters of the workers. General strikes and sympathy strikes are entirely prohibited and violators face prosecution. Compulsory arbitration, which according to international labour standards should only apply to essential services, may be imposed in order to put an end to a strike in sectors that are not always essential. Public service workers are denied the right to strike, as are employees in the banking sector. Where a strike is declared illegal, those who took part in it may be sentenced to prison terms of one to five years, with forced labour as an additional punishment, in line with the Bolivian Criminal Code (art. 234).

Trade union rights in practice and Violations in 2007

Background: Throughout the period under review, Bolivian society has been subjected to many tensions. The political dispute between those who back the proposals for deep-rooted change by indigenous President Evo Morales and the dominant traditional sectors threatened to lead to violent clashes which could divide the country. The Constituent Assembly, set up by the President to produce a new constitutional text to govern the future of the country, continued its work throughout the year.

Approximately 10,000 workers from several sectors marched through the centre of La Paz on 17 April to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the founding of the national workers' centre, the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), created following the success of the revolution on 9 April 1952, and to call on the government to meet the COB's demands for better pay and working conditions. Despite its criticisms of the Morales government, the COB expressed its support for the process of change and its opposition to the separatists pressures from the pro-autonomy regions.

In practice, the minimum requirement of 20 workers to form a union has proved a heavy restriction, as an estimated 70 per cent of enterprises have fewer than 20 employees.

Inefficient labour courts: The sluggishness of labour law proceedings is typified by the National Industrial Tribunal, whose cases usually take more than one year to complete. As a result, rulings on cases of discrimination against union leaders and members are frequently too late to have any effect.

Attacks on union premises and threats to leaders: Cob leaders reported threats and violence against their members and union premises. On 26 December, the COB's Executive Secretary, Pedro Montes, reported a dynamite attack on the organisation's headquarters in La Paz, and death threats made to his cell phone.

Strikes and occupations to demand pay rises: On 3 January, some of the 68 workers dismissed by the national health service, the Caja Nacional de Salud (CNS), began a hunger strike to demand their reinstatement and to denounce what they considered dismissals and the nepotism practised by the organisation's new administrator, whom they accused of employing members of his own family as administrators. On 9 February, 15 nurses went on hunger strike at the La Paz Maternity and Infants Hospital, in protest at the dismissal of several colleagues from the CNS.

Workers from the mining company Empresa Minera Vinto (EMV) in the Oruro department, began a strike on 16 May to demand the reinstatement of three trade union leaders dismissed by the new state administration. On 19 May EMV workers signed a memorandum of understanding with government officials, in which it was agreed that all measures of force would be lifted in exchange for a 15 day evaluation of the workers' demands by the Ministries of Mining and of Labour.

On 12 June, workers from the Sucre Telecommunications Cooperative (COTES) began a 24-hour strike to protest at the dismissal of a trade union leader and the 15-day suspension of two employees. The strikers announced further action would be taken together with the Departmental Federation of Basic Service Workers.

On 24 September the Mayor of Cercado responded to a strike by the public works union by outsourcing jobs, terminating the work of 30 micro-enterprises and leaving 300 employees out of work. The Labour Ministry's regional office stated that the workers' demands were justified, and described the dismissals as illegal. On 26 September the decision to dismiss 16 workers was reversed and the contracts of the microenterprises restored.

Unions march for right to be covered by the General Labour Law: On Tuesday 20 November the COB, the building workers' federation and the municipal workers formed an alliance to demand the inclusion of both sectors in the General Labour Law. The municipal workers were calling for the repeal of the Municipalities Act and the Civil Service Statute, and asking to be covered by the General Labour Law. The two laws they wanted repealed allow for freedom of recruitment by the municipal authorities and do not recognise social benefits for unionised municipal employees currently considered civil servants and mostly hired through contractors.

Union in crisis after workers laid off: The Departmental Service Workers' Union (SEDCAM) in the city of Sucre declared it was in crisis at the end of December because 30 service workers would be out of work from 1 January 2008 as their contracts were not going to be renewed.

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