Maquila workers in El Salvador and Honduras are challenging employer attempts to use the coronavirus as a way to cut wages, layoff workers and even stop worker efforts to form unions.
In Honduras, after the government on March 15 barred groups larger than 50 from gathering to stem the spread of COVID-19, most maquila employers told workers to go home when they showed up the next day for work.
But at some apparel factories, workers were expected to continue as usual, including at a Gildan plant where 2,400 workers make T-shirts and sweatshirts for export.
After the employer refused to let them leave, the workers demanded they be sent home and marched to the factory gates, alerting the media that the employer was not following the government’s order. The employer released them by 11 a.m., says Eva Argueta, coordinator of organizing maquila workers for the General Workers Central (CGT) union confederation. The plant is among three of the six Gildan factories where workers are represented by a union and have a collective bargaining agreement. At Fruit of the Loom factories, where workers also protested the employer’s demand they continue working, they were released at 3 p.m. the same day, she says.
“Workers need to demonstrate their collective power at the workplace—and that’s what we saw here,” says Argueta. “That’s what we need to see everywhere, because people can’t be exposed. It’s a matter of health and lives.”
Argueta led the campaign over the past several years to organize unions represented by CGT and the Independent Federation of Workers of Honduras (FITH) in 30 factories that represent 60 percent of workers in Honduras’s apparel and light manufacturing sectors. Collective bargaining agreements included significant pay increases, free transportation to and from work, free lunch, and educational funds for workers and their children.
Immediately after the government’s announcement to limit gatherings, she negotiated with the Maquila Chamber of Commerce to ensure workers would be paid during plant closures. While she says employers wanted workers to use their vacation for the week the plant closed, they ultimately agreed to pay them. Argueta says negotiations are still ongoing to ensure employers pay not just the minimum wage, but worker’s average pay.
“Workers are not responsible for their employers’ business losses, and it shouldn’t be taken out of their wages and benefits,” she says.
Shutting Plants to Stop Workers from Forming Unions
The government of El Salvador closed all public and private enterprises March 16, and labor inspectors were at plants the next day to ensure they shut their doors. But many managers are asking workers to sign “severance agreements,” which provide an immediate payment but ensures they will not be rehired. Union activists say some of those plants are among those where workers are trying to form unions, and the employers hope to use the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to close factories rather than negotiate with workers.
Although the government has required employers to pay textile workers for the time closed, FEASIES, a federation representing maquila and domestic workers, is gearing up for action at the end of the month, when union leaders anticipate many workers will not be rehired or paid.
Even though there are no collective bargaining agreements in El Salvador’s apparel sector, FEASIES and its unions are poised to strongly advocate for maquila workers in coalition with women’s and community groups that support organizing among garment workers and advocacy for their rights. FEASIES also has established a first-ever dialogue with the labor ministry.
The federation also is communicating with garment workers through social media, alerting them to their rights in case they are laid off or asked to sign severance agreements.
In Guatemala, where the government has issued mandatory safety precautions at workplaces, including requiring employers to provide transportation for workers because public transportation has been halted, maquila employers are demanding garment workers stay on the job. Garment workers have struggled for decades to form unions, which for many years were repressed with violence. Today, workers seeking to form at maquilas face strong opposition from employers, and do not have collective bargaining rights.
As long-time union activists helping domestic workers form unions and get a voice on the job, Andrea Del Carmen Morales Pérez and Librada Maciel found themselves fighting burnout—from stress, from nonstop work and from unrecognized trauma they carried with them for decades after the abuse they experienced cleaning homes and caring for employers’ families.
But through a unique multi-phase program focused on building leadership skills and, even more importantly, on developing strategies for healing deeply embedded trauma, both activists say they are renewed and have the tools to ensure they carry on the struggle—while taking care of their own physical and mental well-being.
The two activists are among more than 40 domestic worker leaders from 17 countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean who took part last year in Leadership for Unity, reNewal and Amplification (LUNA), a one-year program comprised of three multiday workshops bolstered by ongoing mentoring.
Originally created by the U.S.-based National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), the program was a collaboration of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), the Confederation of Latin American and Caribbean Domestic Workers (CONLACTRAHO), Generative Somatics, the Solidarity Center and donors like Care International and Open Society Foundation.
“When you’re used to being a lifetime activist, you’re used to giving 120 percent of your time in the struggle,” says Morales Pérez, a leader in Nicaragua’s domestic union, FETRADOMOV. “I wanted to do everything myself. We were always just running on all cylinders.”
LUNA “has helped liberate me from the traumas I’ve held on to since I was a child,” says Morales Pérez. “The exchange we have had among all of us, leaders across the hemisphere and between leaders and grassroots organizations, and with facilitators, we have been able to work together with so much efficiency. I think I have healed and I am more ready for the challenges to come.”
Maciel had even considered leaving her work in SINTRADI, a Paraguayan domestic worker union, but after participating in LUNA, she says, “I’m invigorated. I feel like I am ready to take on the challenges.”
And, strengthened by new skills, the union leaders have gone on to win legislative victories, advance in union leadership positions and unite in campaigns with new allies.
Minimum Wage Victories and More
In Bolivia, three LUNA participants went on to win election to their union’s executive committee. In Mexico, domestic workers achieved coverage by the country’s social security program as part of the recent labor law reform. In the Dominican Republic, domestic workers from multiple unions joined forces with an unprecedented level of coordination to advance legislative priorities, including the a national minimum wage commission for domestic workers that includes representatives from the government, unions and business.
And in Paraguay, domestic workers successfully pushed for legislation mandating domestic workers receive 100 percent of the minimum wage—under previous law, domestic workers received only 60 percent of the minimum wage.
“LUNA helped us a lot in pushing us over the finish line,” says Marciana Santander Martínez, a SINTRADESPY leader who also took part in the program and who started work as a domestic worker at age 15.
The minimum wage campaign began after a successful push by domestic workers for Paraguay to ratify International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 189 on domestic worker rights, but Maciel says their experience with LUNA enabled them to carry on a difficult struggle.
The domestic workers of SINTRADI live in Itapúa, eight hours from Asunción, Paraguay’s capital—a time-consuming journey for which they sacrificed their only day off to make. “We knew we all had to be together, so we made sure on Sundays we all got to the capital to talk explain to the senators why it’s necessary we deserve the full minimum wage,” says Maciel.
“They told us, ‘You’ve never been to school, why are you here trying to change the laws?’ We would say it’s not our fault we work 12 hours a day—how are we supposed to go to school? We are doing this for our sons and daughters and our grandchildren,” she says. “We had to learn how to defend ourselves. We suffered some really ugly fights.”
Through LUNA, she says, “we learned how to center ourselves in the movement and be in our own space, to be really focused in going into our battles.”
Healing the Trauma
The LUNA program involves political education, training in organizing strategies and building new models of leadership. It also applies somatics, a holistic therapy that recognizes the intricate connection between mind and body that seeks healing through understanding the psychological past. By taking part in exercises and discussions, participants learned techniques especially valuable for domestic workers and others who endure abuse, sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence at work, and who experience racism, homophobia and other types of societal violence and exclusion.
“As a trans woman, it was so important to be in such a space with so many leaders across Latin America, to be able to center ourselves in our own bodies and presence, to be able to draw on our own resilience and to be able to draw on the resilience of our compañeros,” says Francia Blanco, a rising leader in Nicaragua’s FETRADOMOV.
Blanco migrated to Guatemala in 2006 for domestic work where her employer abused her and trapped her inside the house for two years.
“I was never paid anything, I had no right to leave the house, I was locked in the house until I escaped. I know what it’s like to be a migrant worker and have no rights,” she says.
The LUNA training was “super important. It was tremendous personal growth for me but also growth for me as a leader. It improved how I’m able to be a leader among women,” Blanco says.
New Leadership Model: Not Male Dominated, Hierarchical
“We needed an approach to leadership that is different from the male-dominated, hierarchical structure,” says IDWF Latin America Regional Coordinator Adriana Paz Ramírez, who spearheaded the project and spent a year organizing it. “We needed a different type of leadership with new values, a leadership from the personal, coming from our deepest wounds, our trauma, how the personal translates into political.”
Paz Ramirez, who led LUNA’s political education component, says domestic worker leaders were eager for leadership training, and going forward, she plans to hold LUNA every two years. “The need for a constant renewal of leadership is key to the growth and sustainability of the movement,” she says.
“Even with capable political education and organizing support, leaders who have been socialized that power equals abuse and dominance will find it hard to create leadership models that don’t reproduce the models of power they have seen as poor women, as domestic workers, and as members of traditionally excluded ethnic populations,” says Paz Ramírez.
“For me, it has changed me a lot as a person,” says Santander from SINTRADESPY in Paraguay. “I’ve learned how to delegate and share responsibility. I have learned I can’t do everything myself. When we try to do everything ourselves, it makes us weaker and our organizations weaker.”
LUNA also served to connect domestic worker leaders across the regions and they now engage each other in support for their projects. “Because we are so dispersed, we have been able to re-establish confidence in each other and has made us much stronger across geography, communities and regions, says Blanco. “We decide the mechanism to meet our goals so we’re all on our same page.”
María de la Luz Padua, who worked as a domestic worker for 10 years and is now a leader in Mexico’s domestic workers union, SINACTRAHO, says “LUNA was an experience in growth as well as self-recognition, to know myself as a person, to know that all our organizational work can spend and exhaust us and lead to frustration, but there is always a light in it, and that light is the other women in the same position as us.”
Padua, who says through LUNA she gained increasing confidence in herself as a leader, was thrilled to be selected as one of two LUNA participants to deliver graduation statements. Standing before the group at the close of their final training in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Padua told domestic workers:
“We find that our humanity reflexively responds to impulses ingrained in us by our lived experiences, and somatics teaches us to pay attention to the most important thing: ourselves, through resilience and that force that intensely shouts at us, “Never again will we allow a domestic worker to be victimized, harassed, humiliated.”
Domestic workers in Honduras increasingly are exercising their rights on the job in the country, where they have few labor law protections and so are especially vulnerable to abuse. More than 100 workers recently joined SINTRAHO (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadoras del Hogar), National Domestic Workers Union, which in October became the first legally registered domestic worker union in Honduras.
Following eight months of outreach, education, training and organizing, domestic workers formed SINTRAHO to address their difficult working conditions. Most domestic workers are women and many live in their employers’ homes, where they often are subjected to sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence. As in many countries worldwide, Honduran law excludes domestic workers from mandated breaks, minimum wages and access to social security.
“In Honduras, there are more than 100,000 domestic workers, and we believe that the best way for us to be heard and recognized is to organize ourselves and fight for our rights as workers in a sector that has been hidden,” says Silma Perez, SINTRAHO president.
Recognizing that most domestic workers in urban centers are internal migrants from rural areas, often from marginalized indigenous communities, leaders of FESTAGRO, the agroindustrial union federation supporting SINTRAHO, say it is especially import to support these workers as they organize for improved conditions. FESTAGRO’s confederation, CUTH, and Solidarity Center, also provide support for the new union.
Global Movement for Domestic Worker Rights
Domestic workers in Honduras are part of a worldwide mobilization of domestic workers seeking their rights, forming unions and associations, and pushing for their governments to ratify International Labor Organization Domestic Workers Convention (No. 189). Convention 189 is a binding standard in which domestic workers are entitled to full labor rights, including those covering work hours, overtime pay, safety and health standards and paid leave.
As tens of thousands domestic workers around the world mobilized around ILO 189, which was adopted in 2011, their efforts led to formation of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF). Since then, domestic workers have campaigned for their governments to ratify it, and 29 countries have done so, meaning they are bound to its regulations, which include clearly stated work requirements, safe working conditions, paid annual leave and the freedom to form unions.
Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama are the only Central American countries that have ratified Convention 189, and SINTRAHO is planning a ratification campaign in Honduras. SINTRAHO also plans to push for greater protections for domestic workers under Honduran national labor law, including a fair minimum wage and access to social security protections.
SINTRAHO is the first national union in Honduras to specifically mention the rights of LGBTI workers in its statutes, and created an Executive Committee position for Secretary of Gender and Diversity to recognize and value its members’ diverse backgrounds.
“SINTRAHO will take on the challenge of organizing many more workers in the coming year in order to fight for national laws that will directly benefit us as domestic workers,” says Perez.
A leader of Colombia’s national petroleum union barely escaped with his life following an early-morning assassination attempt Monday.
The attack on Jonathan Urbano Higuera, president of the USO local for Puerto Gaitán, in Meta Department, occurred as he traveled in a vehicle assigned by the National Protection Unit, a government entity that assigns protection to endangered social leaders.
The USO reports that two armed men on motorcycles approached the vehicle and fired. Bullets shattered the rear window, and it was the quick thinking of the driver who saved lives and prevented injuries.
Urbano Higuera and four other USO leaders in Puerto Gaitán all have received harassing phone calls and death threats this year—as have fellow leaders from across Colombia, including in Huila, Magdalena Medio, Putumayo, Tolima and the capital, Bogotá.
In a statement, the union is calling on authorities to full investigate this incident and all threats against union leaders, as well as to guarantee that their ability to exercise union rights be protected. The USO is a Solidarity Center partner. In early February, the Colombian Workers Federation denounced acts of intimidation and overt threats—including a flier distributed by the Black Eagles, a far-right paramilitary group—to union leaders, members of the National Strike Committee and other social leaders.
Meanwhile, Colombian teachers are in the streets today in a “Strike for Our Lives,” to denounce the murders of and threats to social justice, rights activists and community leaders.
Within the first 52 days of this year, 51 Colombian social leaders—including union leaders and worker rights advocates—have been murdered.
In Bangladesh, garment workers often seek to form unions and worker associations to better protect against wage theft, unfair treatment and lack of health and safety protections, including large-scale safety threats like building collapses. Yet they increasingly are being denied the ability to do so because of an intensifying anti-worker environment in which their efforts to form unions are suppressed. Even when they succeed in forming unions, their attempts to register them with the government often are denied, according to data compiled by the Solidarity Center.
Golam Azam, a BGIWF organizer, says garment workers encounter government resistance when registering unions. Credit: Solidarity Center/Istiak Inam
Of the 1,031 union registration applications tracked between 2010 to 2018, the government rejected 46 percent—even though registration is meant to be a simple administrative process. Union leaders say the Registrar of Trade Unions (RTU) imposes burdensome conditions and rejects applications for reasons like lack of a union members’ ID or other employer-provided documents (which is not required by law), or because the factory ID number does not match with factory records (even though it is up to management to provide correct ID numbers).
Meanwhile, unions are rarely provided an opportunity to rebut the RTU determination.
Golam Azam, an organizer with the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers’ Federation (BGIWF), has firsthand experience with such rejections.
“We have submitted trade union registration forms for Moon Radiance Ltd., with 2,000 workers in that factory, three times since 2018 and have been rejected each time,” he says. “For FGS Denimware Ltd., we have submitted the forms twice but got rejected. We were going to submit it the third time, but management made their own union right before we submitted the form.”
Unions, Workers Targeted for Standing Up for Their Rights
Outraged that the new minimum wage did not reflect the amount needed to get by, garment workers protested in December 2018 and January 2019. More than 11,000 union leaders and garment workers were fired following the demonstrations, and blacklists bearing workers’ names and faces hung outside factory gates. Dozens of workers were arrested, and some remained in jail on trumped-up charges for more than a month.
Following the crackdown on workers, fewer garment workers sought to form or register unions. Unions filed only eight registration applications from December 2018 to January 2019 compared with 33 from December 2017 to January 2018, according to Solidarity Center data.
Union supporters experience constant employer harassment and intimidation, including dismissals for union activism, as well as verbal and physical abuse by management.
“Management puts extra workload on the union leaders and in many cases terminates the workers who they think might protest in future,” says Azam. “For instance, in Al Gawsia factory in Ashulia, false cases have been filed against union leaders and members so that they can be terminated and will not get their due benefits. Workers are subject to false cases even when they do nothing against the law, but when the management violates the law, they are not subject to any repercussion.”
‘A Union Has Empowered Me to Demand My Rights’
Following the deaths of more than 1,200 garment workers in the 2012 fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory and the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse, workers vigorously organized to form unions and negotiate contracts, as the Bangladesh government and RMG employers responded to international pressure to improve safety and wages.
Yet for many workers at the country’s 5,000 garment factories, fire safety and other hazards are still a danger, and employers often arbitrarily fire workers, deny them maternity leave or other legal benefits, and sexually harass women workers or engage in other forms of gender-based violence—making the ability of workers to form unions and worker associations essential.
Mosammat Shorifunnesa, a garment worker and factory union leader, describes how the union made a difference for his co-workers.
“In one instance, five of my workmates were ordered to stay after work and were then fired the same day without prior notice or any payments,” she says. After multiple meetings with management, the factory compensated each worker between $766 and $1,120, as required by Bangladesh Labor Act.
“The trade union is not just an organization, it is a bond between the deprived and the voiceless that enables us to have collective power,” says Shorifunnesa. “It has empowered me to demand my rights and has united my workmates. It gives me the strength to stand by them, and them the courage to stand by me.”
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