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.
Honduran union leader Victor Crespo is among Central American unionists threatened with death. Credit: IUF
The murder last week of Victor Manuel Crespo Puerto, father of Honduran union leader Victor Crespo, is the latest in a deadly turn for trade unionists in Central America. Already this year, two unionists have received death threats in Honduras, one unionist has been murdered in El Salvador and, in Guatemala, one unionist has been murdered and 11 others fired upon.
Since 2009, the year of the presidential coup in Honduras, 31 trade unionists, 57 rural workers and 28 journalists have been murdered there. This anti-union violence is part of climate of violence that gives Honduras the distinction of being the nation with the world’s highest per capital murder rate. Not coincidentally, Honduras also has the highest income inequality in Latin America.
Guatemala, where 65 trade unionists have been assassinated since 2009, now has surpassed Colombia as the most deadly nation in the world for union members. Most recently, Marlon Dagoberto Vásqez Lόpez, 19, a member of the construction worker union was murdered in January. Also last month, gunfire was sprayed on 11 members of the banana worker union as they held a meeting. The National Police never came to the crime scene and no one has been jailed for any such murders in recent years.
The murders and death threats are the culmination of “widespread violations” of workers’ most basic rights, said Stephen Benedict, director of the Human and Trade Union Rights department at the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Workers “daily contend with harassment, interventions from employers and government officials in union matters and ultimately death threats and assassinations.”
Crespo, leader of the port workers union Sindicato Gremial de Trabajadores del Muelle (SGTM), was threatened with death and in September, his home was attacked by armed men yelling that he should “stop making noise organizing stevedores.” He left the country soon after. His father and other family members were targeted this week by an armed assailant who ran them down.
Crespo’s colleagues in SGTM leadership are now receiving death threats. The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and SGTM believe they are connected to the union’s lawful request for a collective bargaining agreement at the port and workers’ request to receive their legally-required benefits. Despite meetings between the ITF and Honduran security and government officials, the government has taken no serious action to increase security nor act on SGTM’s requests for a collective bargaining agreement.
Other incidents in Honduras since January 1 include:
Increasingly frequent and specific death threats against José Maria Martinez of the FESTAGRO banana and agricultural worker federation. Martínez, host of a daily trade union radio show for the past 20 years, worked closely with workers at the Tres Hermanas banana plantations as they pushed to win a collective bargaining agreement in the face of harsh employer repression.
Intimidation and a death threat directed at Nolvia Aracely Paz Rivera, a member of the construction workers’ union SIGTRACOH and community leader in Cofradia. Hooded gunmen have circled her home where she lives with her three children. SIGTRACOH, a Solidarity Center ally, has been active in the community, meeting with workers interested in community development as well as broader engagement to restore democracy in the country. Members of the union have faced harassment, threats and violence.
Last November, Serafin Alas, another SIGTRACOH member in Cofradia, was murdered. Jacinto Cortez, an informal construction worker from the community, was killed earlier last year. Union leaders say nearby police have delayed their responses from 20 minutes to two hours after they receive calls for help.
The Solidarity Center joins Honduran and Guatemalan labor federations and the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA-CSA) in demanding prompt investigations of these attacks against union members, and has urged the governments of both countries to find the perpetrators and define a policy and actions to guarantee the life and physical integrity of union members and freedom of association.
Workers at AERODESPACHOS in El Salvador sought better job safety–and 96 were fired. Credit: CEAL
The promotional website for AERODESPACHOS in El Salvador features workers loading airplanes, transporting baggage and servicing engines. Yet while the airline ground services company wants to showcase its workforce, it is unwilling to provide safe working conditions and decent wages, its employees say. And when the ground servicing crew sought to address safety and health issues by forming a union, AERODESPACHOS fired 96 employees—nearly its entire staff—to reduce the number of workers seeking to join a union and so legally disqualify their efforts.
The Ministry of Labor has ordered their reinstatement and condemned what it has called “serious, anti-union acts.” The company has not complied.
Since May 2011, when the workers first formed a local union with SITIAPES (the Industrial Union of Aeronautical and Connected Industries Workers of El Salvador), the company has refused to negotiate a contract, petitioned the court to be exempt from unionization and ignored some government orders to address safety hazards.
AERODESPACHOS, which operates through a contract with a state enterprise (CEPA) to assist international flights from major airlines, also replaced some of the workers it hired through subcontractors.
According to the Center for Worker Education and Support (CEAL), a government inspection last year found inadequate and deplorable facilities, including dirty and deteriorating dormitories and break rooms, no fire extinguisher, no individual labor contracts and no posted work rules.
SITIAPES has called on the Ministry of Labor, the airport authority, and the government of El Salvador to force AERODESPACHOS to comply with the law—in particular to respect freedom of association and collective bargaining.
AERODESPACHOS’s contract with CEPA expires in March 2013, and SITIAPES is asking that CEPA not give the company another contract and that the 96 fire workers be rehired by the replacement contractor.
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