In Haiti, the minimum wage has been, until this year, 200 gourdes a day (or $4.92), and 300 gourdes for piecework ($7.48). (The basic rate rose to 225 gourdes, or $5.61, this year.) In contrast, the Solidarity Center estimates a living wage in Port-au-Prince is about $28 a day.
Two union leaders in Honduras were murdered in 2019, and dozens more physically attacked, threatened and harassed for their activism in advocating worker rights, according to the just-released report, The Price of Defending Freedom of Association: A Report on Anti-Union Violence in Honduras. (Read the report in Spanish.)
Published by the Network Against Anti-Union Violence, the fourth annual report provides detailed case studies, including the murders of Joshua Sánchez, a maquila worker and member of the Workers’ Union of Gildan Villanueva S.A. (SITRAGAVSA), and Jorge Alberto Acosta, executive committee/board member of the agricultural Workers’ Union of the Tela Railroad Company (SITRATERCO). The Network released an online presentation of the findings via Facebook Live.
Acosta was murdered despite requesting the government provide protection, and his assassination drew international condemnation and a global petition to Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernandez demanding his assassins be brought to justice. As U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal tweeted: “The murder of Honduran trade unionist Jorge Alberto Acosta is a tragedy, and part of a disturbing trend against the trade union movement in the country.”
Between 2009 and 2019, at least 36 trade unionists were killed in Honduras. More than 97 percent of the cases of violence against human rights defenders in Honduras go unpunished.
Most of the violence in Honduras last year, including Sánchez’s murder, took place as unions and human rights groups protested measures to cut the country’s health and education budgets. Unions, professional associations and teachers in 2019 joined together to form the Platform for the Defense of the Right to Health and Public Education, which held rallies across the country to urge funding for these key social programs.
Six out of 10 Hondurans live in poverty (62 percent), while four out of 10 live in extreme poverty (38 percent). The vast majority work in the precarious informal economy jobs like market vending and domestic work, where they are paid low wages and have no social benefits like paid sick leave or pensions.
The most common violence recorded was harassment, according to the report. For instance, union leaders report being followed and photographed after attending union meetings by individuals unknown to them.
To address the ongoing violence against workers, the Network, a Solidarity Center partner, championed creation of an international body to investigate crimes against trade unionists and offer state security protection. As a result, the International Labor Organization (ILO) established an Inter-Agency Commission on Anti-Union Violence which was launched in August 2019. Yet so far, the commission “has not managed to meet any of its objectives which are to protect victims or to encourage the Justice System to promote criminal investigation and reduce impunity,” according to the Network.
The report also describes the Network’s creation of a new campaign, with Solidarity Center support, to ensure union collective bargaining agreements represent a gender perspective and its efforts to draft proposals to amend trade union statutes to ensure the equal participation of men, women and the LGTBI community.
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.
Domestic workers in Honduras increasingly are exercising their rights on the job in the country, where they have few labor law protections and so are especially vulnerable to abuse. More than 100 workers recently joined SINTRAHO (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadoras del Hogar), National Domestic Workers Union, which in October became the first legally registered domestic worker union in Honduras.
Following eight months of outreach, education, training and organizing, domestic workers formed SINTRAHO to address their difficult working conditions. Most domestic workers are women and many live in their employers’ homes, where they often are subjected to sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence. As in many countries worldwide, Honduran law excludes domestic workers from mandated breaks, minimum wages and access to social security.
“In Honduras, there are more than 100,000 domestic workers, and we believe that the best way for us to be heard and recognized is to organize ourselves and fight for our rights as workers in a sector that has been hidden,” says Silma Perez, SINTRAHO president.
Recognizing that most domestic workers in urban centers are internal migrants from rural areas, often from marginalized indigenous communities, leaders of FESTAGRO, the agroindustrial union federation supporting SINTRAHO, say it is especially import to support these workers as they organize for improved conditions. FESTAGRO’s confederation, CUTH, and Solidarity Center, also provide support for the new union.
Global Movement for Domestic Worker Rights
Domestic workers in Honduras are part of a worldwide mobilization of domestic workers seeking their rights, forming unions and associations, and pushing for their governments to ratify International Labor Organization Domestic Workers Convention (No. 189). Convention 189 is a binding standard in which domestic workers are entitled to full labor rights, including those covering work hours, overtime pay, safety and health standards and paid leave.
As tens of thousands domestic workers around the world mobilized around ILO 189, which was adopted in 2011, their efforts led to formation of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF). Since then, domestic workers have campaigned for their governments to ratify it, and 29 countries have done so, meaning they are bound to its regulations, which include clearly stated work requirements, safe working conditions, paid annual leave and the freedom to form unions.
Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama are the only Central American countries that have ratified Convention 189, and SINTRAHO is planning a ratification campaign in Honduras. SINTRAHO also plans to push for greater protections for domestic workers under Honduran national labor law, including a fair minimum wage and access to social security protections.
SINTRAHO is the first national union in Honduras to specifically mention the rights of LGBTI workers in its statutes, and created an Executive Committee position for Secretary of Gender and Diversity to recognize and value its members’ diverse backgrounds.
“SINTRAHO will take on the challenge of organizing many more workers in the coming year in order to fight for national laws that will directly benefit us as domestic workers,” says Perez.
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the Network Against Anti-Union Violence in Honduras are urging the government to drop all charges against Moisés Sánchez, safeguard his protection as a human rights defender under threat, and ensure he can freely exercise his union activities without violence or reprisal.
Sánchez, secretary general of the melon export branch of the Honduran agricultural workers’ union, Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Agroindustria y Similares (STAS), is on trial January 22 for criminal charges without the right to appeal. He is charged with four counts related to “usurpation” for his community’s construction of an access road and faces a possible 30-year prison sentence.
In the southern community of La Permuta, 450 community members voted in 2018 to build a road allowing residents regular access to nearby towns after government officials documented that the land was publicly owned. Previously, La Permuta residents were unable to cross rivers during heavy rains to Choluteca, where many work in the melon fields.
More than a year after the road was built, a land owner claimed the land as her property and pressed criminal charges. Five elected community leaders have been charged. Sánchez is the only grassroots community member not part of the elected leadership who was charged for the road construction. The Network believes Sánchez is being targeted for his role in seeking decent wages and working conditions for agricultural workers, moves often violently opposed by their multinational employers. The Network fears he would face violence and possible death if imprisoned.
In 2017, Sánchez and his brother, union member Misael Sánchez, were attacked by six men wielding machetes as they left the union office in Choluteca. The company later fired him in what union leaders say is retaliation for his efforts to improve working conditions through a union. Sánchez is among those listed by the International Labor Organization (ILO) as requiring protection from the Honduran government, and as a documented victim of anti-union violence, the Network says that the state has an obligation to protect human rights defenders and should not permit these attacks on their lives and liberty.
Violence Against Union Leaders Frequent Yet Unpunished
The Network’s most recent report on union violence, released in August, finds agricultural worker activists represented three quarters of the victims of anti-union violence in Honduras between February 2018 and February 2019. Yet according to the Network, no arrests were made in 60 cases of anti-union violence in the past three years.
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.
The ILO held back-to-back hearings at the International Labor Conferences (ILC) in 2018 and 2019 on Honduras’s failure to abide by its international commitments. The ILC report in 2018, which expressed “deep concern at the large number of anti-union crimes, including many murders and death threats, committed since 2010,” urged the Honduran government to protect vulnerable unionists, investigate more than a decade of unsolved murders of union leaders and prosecute those responsible for the crimes.
In 2012, the AFL-CIO and 26 Honduran unions and civil society organizations filed a complaint under the labor chapter of Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). The complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Trade and Labor Affairs, alleges the Honduran government failed to enforce worker rights under its labor laws. In an October 2018 report, the U.S. Trade and Labor Affairs office said Honduras had made no progress on any of the emblematic cases since 2012.