In Honduras, where union leaders are targeted with violence and even murdered for trying to form unions and improve workers’ lives, Darlin Oviedo, president of the apparel union SITRAJASPER (the Union of Workers of the Jasper Company), recognized the signs that he might be next.
In October, a motorcycle driver pulled alongside his motorcycle, staring at him with threatening glances, Oviedo told Solidarity Center, speaking through an interpreter. When he saw that the driver carried a high-powered weapon, he says he wove through traffic, trying to get away. The other driver followed him until Oviedo took cover at a shop. In the following months, Oviedo was followed two more times and, along with the employer’s attempts to undermine the maquila worker union he leads, Oviedo recognized he was not safe. He has since left his family for an undisclosed location.
“When people stand up to defend their rights and say there shouldn’t be any rights violations against workers, that’s when employers decide to mete out violence against union leaders like us,” Oviedo said. “I know that I lived through the first two attempts on my life but who’s to say there is not a third attempt coming at me.”
Oviedo says he and union general secretary, Selvin Peña, have been targeted since October, when workers rallied to demand the apparel factory bring back workers who wanted work after COVID-19 restrictions eased. Although the employer did call back the workers after the rally, Oviedo says the employer then began blaming all factory problems on the union, in what he says is retaliation for union success in improving worker rights on the job.
“Conditions were really difficult at the factory before the collective bargaining agreement,” says Oviedo. “But through the collective bargaining agreement, we won a really, really good contract, and that may be something the employer may not want to wholeheartedly support, so that is why they are going after the union.”
Workers Improve Job Safety with Solidarity
Forming a union at the Jasper garment factory was hard and took many years. Garment workers first created a union in 2006, but with workers facing constant employer harassment, including being fired for their participation, the union did not last. In 2016, 38 workers came together to rebuild the union and negotiate a collective bargaining agreement that covers some 2,440 workers.
Oviedo says among the many improvements, the contract restructured the occupational safety and health committee to focus on prevention, especially repetitive motion injuries that maquila workers frequently experience. The contract also ensures workers can speak up without retaliation when supervisors use abusive language, and it increased food and transport subsidies.
Oviedo took the lead in forming the new union. “When I first started at the factory, I noticed the production quota was so high, and demands so high for workers, I spoke up,” he says. “Because I spoke up about it, I was almost fired. Other workers felt the same. We started organizing quietly. They fired four of us and two of us won reinstatement.”
Challenging Anti-Union Violence
Oviedo has been active in the struggle to counteract anti-union violence since 2017, when he contacted Network Against Anti-Union Violence about physical assaults on two SITRAJASPER members and the murder of Roger Vásquez, a leader of another maquila union, SITRAGENESIS. The men were attacked as union activists participated in pro-democracy rallies in Choloma, in the Cortés department, after the presidential election.
He joined the Network’s national coordinating team and in May, the Network recognized him with an award for his union contributions and for his efforts to defend working people who have been victims of anti-union violence. Jorge Hernández at the Network Against Anti-Union Violence, honored Oviedo, and said Oviedo and his union sisters and brothers in SITRAJASPER, face “acts of intimidation and threats because of their struggle to build a more just society.”
In 2019, two union leaders in Honduras were murdered and dozens more physically attacked, threatened and harassed for their activism in advocating worker rights, according to the Network, which releases an annual report documenting harassment, retaliation and attacks against workers for their union leadership. (Read the 2020 report in Spanish.)
Despite all he is facing, Oviedo says worker victories give him hope. He cites an incident when the employer sent everyone home due to supply shortages forcing workers to use vacation time.
“We weren’t asking for vacation and that’s against the law to make us assume the cost of the business loss,” he said. “Because we were organized, we won back pay for some of the days we were home. That was a really inspiring moment for us—we saw that because we were organized we could win our rights.”
Holding Governments Accountable
Addressing anti-union violence means ensuring decent work and public safety, Oviedo says. “Economic inequality continues to widen for as long as these union campaigns are violently repressed, driving people to flee.”
The AFL-CIO is urging creation of a Central American regional migration framework that “centers on human rights, protects and empowers workers, safeguards the environment, and produces positive labor market outcomes for all working people.”
Further, the federation proposes aggressively enforcing labor standards under the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), and reopening CAFTA negotiations to improve and update its labor standards and enforcement mechanisms to align with the higher standard set under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement.
“Right now we’re living through a moment of a lot of tension between workers and the company,” says Oviedo. “We must stand up to them because it’s our right. I have had to relocate to maintain my safety, but it is because it is our right to decent work.”