Honduran Worker Rights Activists Face Rising Violence

Honduran Worker Rights Activists Face Rising Violence

A brutal attack against a union leader and his brother in Honduras is the latest in escalating violence directed at worker rights activists there, according to the Honduran National Network for Violence Against Trade Unionists and other Solidarity Center partners in the country.

Moisés Sánchez, secretary general of the melon export branch of the Honduran agricultural workers’ union, Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Agroindustria y Similares (STAS), and his brother, union member Misael Sánchez, say they were attacked late last week by six men wielding machetes as they left the union office in the southern town of Choluteca, an area where agricultural workers harvest melons and other export produce.

Miseal was seriously injured after the attackers slashed his face with a machete, and Moisés was beaten for nearly an hour and told he would be murdered if he continued to assist melon workers in gaining their rights at work through the union. Misael left the hospital on Monday and is expected to survive.

Honduras, human rights, Solidarity Center

Six men attacked union member Misael Sánchez and his brother, Moisés Sánchez, a union leader, as part of a campaign targeting union activists. Credit: STAS

Honduran Government Not Protecting Targeted Union Activists

Last year, some 20 Honduran trade union activists were killed or threatened for their efforts in helping workers improve their harsh working conditions.

In recent weeks, violence or threats of violence against union activists has escalated. Isela Juárez Jiménez, president of the public employee union SITRASEMCA, says she recently suffered an attempted kidnapping. Juárez Jiménez, began receiving death threats in 2015, and her motorbike was rammed in September by a white Toyota, which had been following her for days.

Two other union leaders, Nelson Núñez of the banana and agricultural worker federation, FESTAGRO, and Miguel Angel López of the public-sector electrical workers’ union STENEE, say they recently have been followed, with López reporting a man gesturing to pull out a pistol after pulling up to his car window. Both Núñez and López received death threats last year for their organizing efforts in Honduras. Núñez’s most recent threats similarly relate to the organizing efforts in Choluteca. Patricia Riera, another FESTAGRO organizer, was the first organizer to receive death threats related to a melon worker union organizing effort in Choluteca.

Although the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights last year ordered the Honduran government to protect targeted union members, Honduras has not done so. The Network against Violence in Honduras and its sister organization in Guatemala are calling on the Honduran government to provide private security to activists who receive death threats. The networks are urging the government to investigate all murders and bring to justice the perpetrators—both those who committed the acts and those who planned them.

Workers Fired, Harassed for Seeking Union

Melon workers on plantations across the Choluteca region have long endured worker rights abuses. After they sought to improve their working conditions by forming unions in 2016 with STAS, a FESTAGRO affiliate, employers intimidated and illegally fired many workers, despite Honduran law and international conventions making it illegal to retaliate against workers for organizing unions to protect their rights on the job.

According to FESTARGO, plantation owners forced the first four union leaders to renounce the union, fired 21 union members during the spring 2016 planting season, and refused to rehire 35 unionized workers for the fall harvest. And after 47 security workers at one plantation joined the union in March, the company fired all of them.

Despite touted progress toward fulfilling the Monitoring and Action Plan developed with the U.S. government to address labor rights violations, retaliation against workers seeking unions and sustained anti-union attacks and violence persist.

The Monitoring and Action Plan was created after the AFL-CIO and 26 Honduran unions in 2012 filed a submission with the U.S. Department of Labor on the Honduran government’s failure to enforce its labor laws under the labor chapter of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA). The submission cited examples from 17 worksites spanning the manufacturing, agriculture and port sectors.

In a 2015 Public Report on the 2012 DR-CAFTA labor chapter complaint, the U.S. Office of Trade and Labor Affairs found ongoing basic labor rights violations at these same export plantations, including nonpayment of minimum wages and legally mandated benefits, wage theft, child labor and allowing children to use hazardous chemicals, and failure to provide potable water, social security enrollment and days to rest.

Honduran Worker Rights Activists Face Rising Violence

2 More Honduran Union Leaders Threatened, Harassed

Another union leader in Honduras has received death threats and a second union leader was arrested in the department of Colon during a peaceful rally protesting government corruption, according to the Honduras-based nonprofit ACI-Participa. Earlier this year, one Honduran union leader was murdered and another disappeared and is presumed dead. The latest incidents bring to nine the number of attacks on union leaders in 2015.

Isela Juarez Jimenez, president of the public employees union SITRASEMCA, began receiving death threats earlier this month and last week, her motorbike was rammed by a white Toyota, which had been following her for days. Jimenez was not injured.

SITRASEMCA has been in the forefront of opposition to government corruption and a water privatization scheme. More than half of all households in Tegucigalpa, the capital, do not have access to potable water and a plan supported by a government commission to privatize the water supply likely would make access to clean water prohibitively expensive for many residents.

Meanwhile, Heber Rolando Flores, a leader in the union representing workers of the National Agrarian Institute, was arrested and charged with sedition for taking part earlier this month in a peaceful rally in which students, workers and the public were protesting government corruption. Flores must report weekly to the Public Ministry until his court hearing.

Both Juarez Jimenez and Rolando Flores suffered physical attacks at the hands of security forces (including the National Police and the Army) as the September 1 anti-corruption rally was violently repressed by the state.

Violence against union leaders in Honduras nearly always goes unpunished, even though Honduras is under scrutiny for failure to enforce worker rights under its labor laws. The United States is waiting for the Honduran government to present a corrective plan of action to address labor rights violations, a move required after the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Trade and Labor Affairs last year accepted a complaint under the labor chapter of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).

The AFL-CIO and 26 Honduran unions and civil society organizations filed the complaint in March 2012. In a February 2015 report, the U.S. Trade and Labor Affairs office said Honduras has made virtually no progress since then.

A delegation of U.S. union leaders traveled on a fact-finding trip to Honduras late last year, where they described the widespread noncompliance with laws, including attacks against labor leaders, a lack of compliance with minimum wage laws and an unresponsive government. Based on the delegations’ findings, the AFL-CIO issued a report describing the exploitative conditions workers experienced in factories and in their communities. According to the report:

“Throughout the delegation visit, workers and community leaders spoke not only about the extreme levels of corruption, but also the increased militarization of the country, and widespread corruption among security forces and the impact it had on their daily lives.”

Many union leaders reporting threats and harassment are members of the Network Against Anti-Union Violence in Honduras, coordinated by leadership of the national labor confederations and the human rights NGO ACI-Participa, which seeks to promote respect for human rights in Honduras, encourage people to exercise their right to participate in decision-making processes and push for transparency in government and private-sector institutions charged with providing public services.

Guatemalan Unionists: No Meaningful Progress for Worker Rights

Guatemala.May Day 2013 3.SW

Thousands of Guatemalans turned out on May Day this year to protest violence against union members and demand worker rights. Credit: Stephen Wishart

Guatemalan trade union leaders met with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman in Guatemala City today to express their frustration with the failure of the Guatemalan government to make any meaningful progress in protecting worker rights.

The meeting took place as Guatemala neared the deadline for complying with a “Labor Action Plan” it signed with the United States in April 2013. The United States granted Guatemala a four-month extension earlier this year. Guatemalan unions and the AFL-CIO first raised concerns about egregious labor rights violations in Guatemala in a joint complaint filed in 2008 under the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).

The union leaders told Froman that the government has failed to improve worker rights since the complaint was filed six years ago and in fact, the situation for workers in Guatemala has deteriorated in recent years.

Seventy-two unionists have been murdered in Guatemala since CAFTA was implemented.

“One of the main challenges in achieving labor justice in Guatemala are the high levels of impunity and lack of accountability of those public officials responsible for ensuring respect for labor rights,” said Victoriano Zacarias, deputy general secretary of the Confederacion Central de Trabajadores de Guatemala (Central Confederation of Guatemalan Workers, CGTG).

“Moreover, the bills before Congress on labor issues in Guatemala, if approved, will result only in more labor rights violations and further facilitate greater migration to the U.S. for lack of basic conditions of labor rights.” Zacarias was among union leaders taking part in today’s meeting.

Another participant in the meeting, Carlos Mancilla, general secretary of theConfederacion Unitaria Sindical de Guatemala (United Trade Union Confederation of Guatemala, CUSG), said “the government of Guatemala has no political will to solve the existing labor problems.”

“The government of Guatemala has stated it has made advances, but the only progress has been creating roundtable discussions that have not provided solutions to labor problems, and the establishment of agreements and protocols that are not implemented.”

“This year, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) named Guatemala the most dangerous place in the world to be a union leader,” said Solidarity Center Country Program Director Stephen Wishart, who attended the meeting. “So we’re pleased to see that Ambassador Froman is taking the issue of worker rights seriously and meeting with the unions to hear their side.”

Wishart said that Guatemalan unions will continue to press their government to live up to its labor rights commitments, and added, “The Solidarity Center will stand with our union partners in Guatemala as they keep up their fight for worker rights, safety and decent jobs for Guatemalan workers.”

2014 Ushers in More Anti-Union Violence in Guatemala

A Guatemalan banana worker.

A Guatemalan banana worker.

Earlier this month, on January 5, Guatemala’s first homicide of the new year took the life of 19-year-old Marlon Dagoberto Vásquez López, an active youth leader and member of the construction workers’ union, Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Construcción y Servicios de Guatemala (SINCS-G). His murder brought to 65 the toll of trade unionists assassinated in the country since 2007. Most of their murders have gone unsolved, making Guatemala the most deadly place to be a union member, after Colombia.

The Solidarity Center works with SINCS-G and other Central American unions.

Last Friday, 11 members of the banana worker union, Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Empresa Agropecuaria Omagua, S.A. Campo Verde I y II, held a meeting at their headquarters in Izabal, Guatemala. As they held their meeting, an unknown vehicle approached from the highway fronting the Honduran border and unleashed gunfire upon the plantation workers, shooting Juan DeDios Sagastume Rodas, secretary general for the union. Despite being immediately informed of the attack, the National Police never appeared at the crime scene and waited until the following day to interview the victim at the hospital.

Over the past three years, seven banana union leaders have been murdered in Guatemala. The country has recently committed to a Labor Enforcement Plan as it attempts to avoid arbitration for violating the labor chapter of the CAFTA-DR free-trade agreement. The U.S. government filed the labor complaint in April 2008 based on evidence provided by six Guatemalan unions and the AFL-CIO. The Guatemalan government also committed to the Workers’ Group of the International Labor Organization “to ensure the safety of workers, with effective measures to protect union members and leaders, and their property, from violence and threats.”

The astounding violence of the first weeks of 2014 against trade unionists in Guatemala must end. The American labor movement joins Guatemalan union federation UNISTRAGUA and the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA-CSA) to demand President Otto Pérez Molina ensure prompt investigations of these attacks against union members, find the perpetrators and define a policy and actions to guarantee the life and physical integrity of union members and freedom of association

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