Esperanza Cardona, coordinator of the National Women’s Commission of La Via Campesina in Honduras, is working to end poverty through agrarian reforms and gender equality that will enable farmers to retain land rights. The organization represents two million women, 70 percent of whom live in poverty and 49 percent of whom live in extreme poverty, says Cardona.
“My name is Esperanza Cardona. I am from Honduras. I am the coordinator of the Comision Politica de Mujeres Campesinas (Policy Commission for Campesina Women). My organization is the National Women’s Commission of La Via Campesina in Honduras. It’s a mixed organization, one that fights for land rights and natural resources. We campesinos are worried about neoliberal policies that only bring us the violation of our lands and our rights, and exploitation of villages. [One such policy is] the modernization of agriculture law (approved in 1992), a law that only benefits large landholders and multinational companies … and the villages? The villages dying from hunger, poverty, malnutrition?
[In 2015], we women and our fellow campesinos, presented to the Congress a draft law on agrarian reform, food security and gender equity to replace the agriculture modernization law–which is only bringing us assassinations and discrimination. And still today, that law has yet to be considered. But we women—and the men working with us—are still fighting. And we are not going to stop confronting neoliberal policies. Latin American governments only care about money. They sell the best pasture, the best land, the best territory, and they only think about the accumulation of capital. And that’s why we women are going to keep fighting. We can’t stand any more hunger, any more poverty, any more child malnutrition, any more violations. In my country, Honduras, there’s a company that for 26 years producing corn and beans. Then one day a guy came—his name was Salvador (Savior) and expropriated their land. They brought in a lot of military. People were forcibly evicted from their land. This is the result of neoliberal policies. They are doing us great harm. This is why there is migration to the bigger cities or to countries to the north. And what do our governments do? That’s why today, I am asking women to reorganize to confront neoliberal policies. Otherwise, what are we going to do?”
On a hot, damp morning in Hlae Ku Township, Myanmar, Kyin San surveys the rice fields spread below her, as Mg Zaw, knee deep in mud, drives two oxen to plow the remaining plot. For many years, Kyin San, like most of the farmers in the area, worried that her land would be confiscated for large-scale development, as had so many other farms over the years.
Burmese rice farmer Kyin San says by joining a union, farmers can share strategies and techniques to improve their craft. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
But now, Kyin Sun says, farmers are no longer hesitant to negotiate with the government to settle disputes. Along with 10,000 other farmers in the township, Kyin Sun has joined the Agriculture and Farmer Federation of Myanmar (AFFM), part of the Confederation of Trade Unions–Myanmar (CTUM).
“Through CTUM, we have made much progress,” she says, speaking through a translator.
Farmers across Myanmar are the fastest growing group of workers forming unions since 2011, when a new law allowed creation of unions. Within weeks of the law’s passage, farmers, woodworkers, garment workers, hatters, shoemakers and seafarers quickly registered their unions.
Htay Lwin, president of the Hlae Ku Township agricultural union, says farmers also have sought to join unions to learn new technical skills to improve their farming techniques, a goal Kyin San says has been advanced by union membership.
Union President Htay Lwin says many farmers are joining unions to protect their land from being confiscated for large-scale development. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“Now we can communicate with farmers across the country and share our experience with others,” she says.
AFFM members are connected with the Asian Farmers Association for Rural Development, a regionwide organization based in the Philippines that provides training on seed production, food safety and other issues, says CTUM President U Maung Maung.
Speaking from CTUM offices in downtown Yangon, Maung Maung discussed how the federation is moving forward with the plan he nurtured for decades during his political exile in Thailand.
“We are doing what we wanted to do for the past 30 years—building unions, getting into negotiations with employers, trying to develop policies with labor and management,” he says.
Rebuilding Worker Power after Decades of Dictatorship
Maung Maung was forced into exile after a violent military crackdown targeted thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators and labor leaders, many of whom were sent to prison. He returned to Burma in 2012 and since then, CTUM has helped some 60,000 workers organize unions. CTUM received official government registration last year.
Now, CTUM is working with policymakers to enact social welfare reforms and drafting recommendations for revising the country’s labor laws, many of which were enacted when the country achieved independence from Britain in 1948. After decades of military rule, Myanmar trails many Asian nations economically, and Maung Maung sees much work ahead in modernizing the workforce and developing a culture of social dialogue among workers, business and government common in other countries.
Fundamental to effecting the change CTUM envisions is educating workers about their rights. Workers for many years had no freedom to improve their working conditions, and unions now are helping them understand that they can stand up for their rights—and how to do so.
Because, as Maung Maung says, it all comes down to the workers.
“The workers have to know what they want—and they have to push for it.”
In a recent Solidarity Center delegation to Honduras, Metropolitan Washington, D.C., Labor Council President Josyln Williams, a Solidarity Center Executive Board member, and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the leading Democratic member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, examined firsthand how union and human rights activists are struggling to defend the rights of working Hondurans and ensure the basic livelihoods and survival of Honduran families.
The Solidarity Center delegation intersected with a parallel delegation of AFL-CIO leaders, including AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre, a Solidarity Center board member, and Larry Cohen, Communications Workers of America president. Both groups met with Solidarity Center partner unions and numerous worker and human rights activists.
“Amazingly, all confirm a unified story—an economy in collapse, widespread violations of minimum wage and all social protection laws, small farmers forced from their land, subsistence farming replaced by African palm and the jobs created in maquila zones dwarfed by the numbers forced to leave ancestral lands and travel to cities already jammed,” said Cohen.
After meeting with more than 60 union activists from garment and auto parts factories, and with those from sectors in agriculture, ports, education and public service, delegates said the level of rights violations and repression of activists was overwhelming. The groups also met with human rights leaders focused on Garifuna (Afro-Honduran) rights and women’s rights.
Union leaders from the agricultural union, FESTAGRO (Federación de Sindicatos de Trabajadores de la Agroindustria), expressed concern over the likelihood of violent attacks for union activities as they organize among sugar cane workers—subcontractors who are not paid the minimum wage. FESTAGRO leaders pointed to one of their union’s leaders, Jésus Maria Martinez, who recently was forced to flee the country after receiving threats against his life, as a prelude to the kinds of attacks activists will face when organizing among sugar cane workers.
FESTAGRO General Secretary German Zepeda told Miller and Williams that despite the danger and the unresponsiveness of the state, FESTRAGRO sees organizing workers as the only way forward. FESTAGRO, a Solidarity Center ally, also is organizing in the melon sector, where the majority of seasonal workers are women, many of whom migrate to the city to seek work as domestic workers or in other informal economy jobs during the off-season.
Garifuna activists, too, said that despite the threats on their lives and communities, they would continue the fight to “live as they’ve always lived, on their own land,” and pleaded with the delegates to urge their country to “pay attention.” Garifuna activists are struggling to defend their economically rich land from powerful interests, including narco-traffickers and multinational companies. They have taken their cases to Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) but have little hope that state will comply with any IACHR decision.
Delegation participants say they were “overwhelmed” with the information they received from union activists about widespread noncompliance with laws, including attacks against labor leaders, a lack of compliance with minimum wage laws and an unresponsive government, and assured union and community allies they would work to bring more attention to the work and struggle of Honduran activists.