Once dubbed the Switzerland of Central America, Costa Rica was well known as a popular tourist destination and for having the most developed welfare system in the region. While this image was shattered in 2004 when corruption charges led to two former presidents being imprisoned, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) still reports this country to be one of the most affluent countries in the region. In politics too, Costa Rica stands out after having elected its first female president, Laura Chinchilla.
Costa Rica’s welfare system may set it apart from its neighbours, however the country still suffers from some of the same issues that plague the rest of the region, one of them being labour issues. Many companies do not engage with the labour unions, leading to some labourers taking direct action in order to be heard.
Central del Movimiento de Trabajadores de Costa Rica (CMTC) is a trade union in Costa Rica working to bridge the gap between employers and their employees. Fairfood International is working with CMTC, alongside other organisations, to raise awareness of the importance of unions and the freedom of choice and access to benefits that joining one brings. Recently, a representative from CMTC, Maria Esther Alpizar Rodriguez, visited the Fairfood International office in Amsterdam to discuss the project, funded by CNV International.
Maria is a veteran in the field of labour unions and has been working in this sector for nearly 13 years. She was initially recruited to take up the arduous task of fighting corruption within the unions; “this is a common problem faced by many labour unions and it harms the reputation of the union” she said. Her task was crucial to the success and effectiveness of the labour unions with as many people counting and hoping for her to succeed as they were for her to fail.
Addressing corruption brings personal safety and security issues into play and therefore Maria was unable to divulge any further information regarding how she tackled this daunting task. However, she accomplished the task for which she was recruited and consequently, her responsibilities grew as rapidly as she dealt with them. Over the years the problems with which she’s been faced have become tougher, she says.
With the influx of foreign companies investing in the region, workers’ rights are becoming less important and Maria’s struggle is becoming greater. The current president, Laura Chinchilla, proudly stated in 2010 that “dialogue has to be become the personal instrument for the exercise of power”, However according to Maria in reality this is far from the truth. While the government does hear the unions out and nod along, they don’t follow through on their promises.
Nonetheless, being part of a union in Costa Rica does pay off. The members and their families’ rights are taken care of by the unions. Although people who are not part of the union do get welfare from the state, getting this welfare is tedious, especially if they try to relocate.
Advanced it may well be, but the welfare system in Costa Rica is an intricate one. Much of Maria’s work is fraught with challenges and steeped in administration. Maria illustrated this by showing us a little yellow ticket that is, in Costa Rica, proof that the owner of the ticket is eligible for welfare. This ticket has to be distributed monthly and it also covers medical costs. It is Maria’s responsibility to make sure that every single person within 23 organisations around the country receives this ticket.
Despite the help offered by these unions, labourers, especially those working in big companies are reluctant to join them, for fear of being fired. Sometimes the bigger companies do have their own unions, but more often than not they cater to the needs of the employer rather than the employees whom they are meant to represent.
Although agriculture only contributes to 6.9 per cent of Costa Rica’s GDP, and the sector employs 14 per cent of the country’s population, it constitutes for most of the country’s exports. Hence it is a sector that is vital to the country’s wellbeing and stability. If Costa Rica is to indeed restore its claim as the Switzerland of Central America, it will take the work and commitment of more than a few good men and women to achieve this.
Image Costa Rican sunshet: Joe Dsilva (CC License)< Back