“Collective bargaining ultimately is about transforming lives,” said Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau, who moderated a panel discussion launching the report. “Not only do better wages and working conditions result from collective bargaining, but workers report dignity and respect on the job for the first time through collective bargaining and unions.”
Report author Mark Anner, director of Pennsylvania State University Center for Global Workers’ Rights, highlighted some key findings of the report. He said:
Workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement are 25.3 percent less likely to feel compelled to migrate than workers without a collective bargaining agreement.
Honduran garment workers with a collective bargaining agreement are 67 percent more likely to always have the choice to work overtime or not.
Workers not covered by a collective bargaining agreement are 20.3 percent more likely to face verbal abuse.
Female workers without a collective bargaining agreement are 10.7 percent more likely to face sexual harassment on the job.
Workers with collective bargaining agreements earn 7 percent more than workers without collective bargaining agreements.
“Workers experience tangible and intangible benefits from having collective bargaining agreements,” Anner said. He quoted some workers as saying, “We are listened to now” and “Management shows us respect as workers.”
The report documents the expansion of collective bargaining agreements in the maquila sector, following a 2009 binding agreement between workers and a garment manufacturer. As of last year, 50,625 workers, mostly in the garment industry, were covered by 21 collective bargaining agreements in the Honduran export assembly sector.
Bader-Blau emphasized that the report shows the importance of worker-driven research, as suggested by the Solidary Center. “Unions lead and show outcomes to the rest of the world through the power of their own stories,” she said.
Union leaders like Eva Argueta, a leader in organizing tens of thousands of garment workers in Honduras, led the process of connecting with workers to help them share their work experiences.
Speaking on the panel, Argueta, representative for the General Workers Central (CGT, Honduras) and Maquila Organizing Project coordinator, described the process. “The person responding is much more likely to trust someone that they know who is doing the survey,” she said. “It can be a delicate thing because of the fear the boss might find out.”
Worker-leaders interviewed a total of 387 workers with and without collective bargaining agreements.
Other panelists included Joel López, general secretary of the Independent Federation of Workers of Honduras (FITH), Tara Mathur, field director for the Americas at the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), and María Elena Sabillón, Solidarity Center senior coordinator in Honduras.
As Sabillón shared in her remarks, “Collective bargaining agreements allow for real progress in both labor and human rights. CBAs today go beyond economic clauses. Unions are winning clauses on gender equality, combating gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work and respecting the dignity of each person. These CBAs are validating a broader rights-based approach.”
Unions in the Honduran maquila sector bargain to improve work conditions and address gender-based violence at work, and so provide options for those who may migrate to seek jobs, a Solidarity Center report finds.
Brazil and Honduras Solidarity Center partners raised union women’s voices in three civil society sessions of the UN Commission on the Status of Women last week, focusing on issues including femicide in the world of work, climate change as a root cause of migration and women workers in the climate justice struggle. Speakers representing diverse organizations, sectors and regions addressed the challenges that arise from the lack of gender-sensitive justice and rights-based responses to climate-related migration, and shared how migrant women are leading with resilience and in solidarity.
“The women were the most affected,” said Munguía describing the impact of devastating back-to-back hurricanes Eta and Iota in 2020 on women working in the banana sector. In addition to trying to recover from the loss of possessions, home and work, “we have the full responsibilities of families on our backs.”
In the aftermath of the two hurricanes, which impacted 90 percent of Honduras’ agricultural sector, more than 10,000 women employed by commercial banana growers immediately lost their income, said Munguía. Struggling to rebuild communities and homes leveled by hurricane winds and flooding while waiting up to nine months for their jobs to return, many women and girls were forced to migrate north to earn their livelihoods—a dangerous passage that exposed them to sexual assault and other forms of gender-based violence. Women who remained behind while partners or other family members took the perilous journey north struggled to keep children and other dependents safe, sheltered and fed while waiting for remittances that might never come.
Munguía highlighted the role of banana sector unions in fighting for their members’ rights, describing outreach efforts to secure and coordinate international hurricane relief and recovery efforts and encouraging multinational banana companies to compensate women banana packers while they were waiting for production to come back online.
Honduran unions are working with the country’s government to address climate crisis effects and resultant migration, said Munguía, such as river maintenance to better prevent flooding and labor rights improvements so that desperate and disenfranchised workers are not forced into dangerous migration.
“Climate disasters can be particularly devastating for women on the move—whether through involuntary displacement, voluntary migration, or some combination thereof,” said Sonia Mistry, panel moderator and Solidarity Center global lead on climate change and just transition. And, she added, failure to meet the needs of migrant and displaced women through policies and practices can be equally disastrous—creating additional marginalization and vulnerabilities.
Panel Moderator and Solidarity Center Climate Change and Just Transition Global Lead Sonia Mistry.
Women Empowered Can Drive Change
In Nigeria, unions are building the capacities of members who find themselves on the frontlines of the climate crisis, said Moradeke Abiodun-Badru, a former officer of Solidarity Center partner the National Association of Nigeria Nurses and Midwives (NANNM), health professional, gender expert and global union Public Service International’s (PSI) West Africa project coordinator.
“Women must be empowered as agents of social change,” says Moradeke Abiodun-Badru, global union Public Service International (PSI) West Africa project coordinator.
In Nigeria’s north, where 65 percent of surveyed families in Yobe state reported involvement in farming, two-thirds of last year’s crops were lost to drought.
“Women must be empowered as agents of social change,” said Abiodun-Badru, adding that refugee camps in the north are mostly populated by women and children fleeing regional violence caused in part by the hunger and poverty associated with ever-increasing drought conditions—including competition between farmers and herders for scarce resources.
Climate change impacts are increasing so rapidly they could soon overwhelm the ability of nature and humanity to adapt, concluded a report by a panel of experts appointed by the United Nations earlier this year.
Last year’s World Bank Africa’s Pulse report—which is focused on the economic impact of climate change adaption on sub-Saharan Africa—found that the African continent’s mean surface temperature has risen at an even faster pace than that of the rest of the world, with 2020 being the fourth-warmest year since 1910. Rises in temperature and rainfall changes have fueled an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events across the continent and at a faster pace than in the rest of the world. Drought frequency nearly tripled, the number of storms quadrupled and floods increased more than tenfold finds the report when comparing the period 1970-1979 to the period 2010-2019.
“We believe that human rights are at the core of solutions to people who are displaced or must migrate,” Abiodun-Badru said.
Event speakers included Elizabeth Ibarra, human rights defender with Asociación Coordinadora Comunitaria de Servicios (ACCSS) Guatemala; Alice Ncube, program director of the University of the Free State, South Africa, Africa Disaster Management Training and Education Centre (DiMTEC); Helena Olea, Alianza Americas associate director for programs and international human rights lawyer; Erika Pires Ramos, co-founder, South American Network for Environmental Migrations; Zoraya Urbina, regional advocacy and communications officer and gender focal point for Lutheran World Federation Central America; Alicia Wallace, director of Equality Bahamas; and Mariana Williams, director of the Institute of Law and Economics (ILE), Jamaica.
Panelists emphasized the importance of addressing environmental racism and applying the lens of intersectional environmentalism to a cross-movement fight for climate and gender justice. Intersectional environmentalism—a term largely inspired by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw and her work with intersectional feminism—is an inclusive form of environmentalism that advocates for the protection of all people and the planet, and identifies the ways in which injustices affecting marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected.
A recent analysis finds that, although the Global North is overwhelmingly responsible for the climate crisis, contributing 92 percent of excess global carbon dioxide emission, the Global South shoulders most of the devastation. For example, 80 percent of environmental impacts generated by Europe’s textile consumption takes place outside Europe.
Unions in Mexico and throughout Latin America are speaking out against anti-union violence in the wake of threats made against two women leading efforts to win a historic union election. Voting began yesterday and continues today at a pickup truck plant in Silao, Mexico. Over 6,000 workers have the chance to elect an independent union and enjoy real collective bargaining for the first time ever. Labor leaders and activists from Mexico, Brazil, the United States and Canada demonstrated outside the plant in support of the democratic union. Other unions in the region sent solidarity messages and letters to the Mexican government denouncing the threats.
In August, workers at the Silao plant voted to throw out the contract held by the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) for the last 25 years. The National Independent Union for Workers in the Auto Industry (SINTTIA), supported by the Solidarity Center, emerged from a popular movement urging workers to reject the CTM contract. In a three-year struggle, SINTTIA built a sizable following, leading efforts to throw out the sham contract and increasing its chances of winning today’s election.
However, independent labor activists face threats of violence. Just before voting began, three individuals threatened SINTTIA leader María Alejandra Morales Reynoso and her family with harm if she showed up to vote.
“They just came by my house, two men and a woman, telling me to send a statement saying neither I nor any other worker should show up tomorrow, or if not there will be problems,” said Morales Reynoso.
Later, Claudia Juárez López, SINTTIA secretary, and her family received threats through Facebook and WhatsApp.
Argentina’s Women’s Council of Union Power issued a statement calling on the Mexican government to take measures to protect the safety of union activists and their families; conduct a “comprehensive, exhaustive and impartial investigation” into the threats and identify those responsible; and take steps to ensure the integrity of the election and prevent harassment, threats and intimidation of union workers voting in the election.
In Honduras, the Network Against Anti-Union Violence sent a letter to the Mexico Consulate in San Pedro Sula, requesting that the government guarantee the integrity of the election and the lives and safety of labor activists.
The Network of Labor Rights Defenders of Guatemala issued a statement that read in part, “We call on Mexican authorities to guarantee a favorable environment for workers to freely express their choice of union representative without fear.”
#SomosSINTTIA | All our solidarity with the @SINTTIA (Mexico) and the companions Alejandra and Claudia, leading women who together with their families have been death threats in the framework of a process for the choice of representation.
The Nicaragua Domestic Workers Federation posted a statement in support labor activists, saying, “We position ourselves against all kinds of violence suffered by the members of the Union, we request that the will of the workers of the plant be respected.”
Brazil’s Central Única Dos Trabalhadores (CUT) issued a statement demanding protective measures from the government, stating, “an independent union that obtains its power from workers is necessary to build a future for their families and all Mexican workers.”
Clément Voule, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly, tweeted in response to reports of threats against union activists in Mexico.
1/2 #Mexico I received disturbing reports of death threats against ind. trade union leaders, both women, and their families in connection to an imminent vote at the GM assembly plant in #Silao following 3 yrs of struggle for an independent union & collective bargaining agreement.
2/2 #Mexico An election for union representation cannot be carried out in the context of threats and intimidation. I call on the Mexican authorities to ensure an environment conducive for the 6,000 workers to freely express their choice of union rep without fear. @STPS_mx
This is the first high-stakes union election brought about after Mexican workers rejected a sham contract. A 2019 Mexican labor law reform required by a trade deal with Canada and the United States aims to challenge the power of labor organizations that have long signed deals without workers’ knowledge or consent. The reform requires contract “legitimation” votes to occur before May 2023, creating an opening for representative unions.
For decades, Mexican workers have had little to no say in which unions represented them. “Protection unions” have drawn their power from alliances with politicians and employers, whom they placated by keeping wages low, while collecting dues and accumulating wealth and power. The CTM formed part of Mexico’s ruling party. Its leaders signed contracts with companies before plants were even opened, and kept workers in the dark about the union and its negotiations.
Mexican auto workers earn a fraction of what their American, Argentine, Brazilian or Canadian counterparts make. They earn much less than the few Mexican autoworkers who are members of independent unions. Low wages spurred an exodus of investment, auto plants and jobs from other countries in the Americas to Mexico. A victory for SINTTIA could mark the beginning of a fundamental shift, keeping wages from bottoming out for workers in many countries in the region.
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.”
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