by Francisco Herrera & Phyllis Tierney
Honduras has been called one of the most dangerous and poorest countries in the western hemisphere. It is one of the three Northern Triangle Countries (El Salvador and Guatemala, being the other two) who continue to send thousands of people migrating north every year, many with the hope of getting to the United States. Our trip to Honduras was sponsored by the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, a California based organization concerned with providing equal opportunities for those who are disenfranchised. One of the many issues they deal with is immigration. This particular trip focused on root causes of migration. Reverend Deborah Lee and Jose Artiga, Director of SHARE El Salvador were our group leaders. We had been invited by a very well organized sector of the population that is faith-based, that crosses with labor, and interfaces environmental and women’s groups to work for a model that puts people first before profits. Our sponsoring host was Radio Progreso, an independent, Jesuit sponsored radio station celebrating its sixtieth anniversary.
Each day we met with groups who shared their stories of repression and human rights abuses.
There is a myth which need to be dispelled. The myth is that people migrate because the country is poor. Actually Honduras is a country rich in resources but its government has chosen to sell the development of these resources to other countries, multinational corporations who exploit both people and resources for their own benefit.
On Thursday we met with representatives of a workers’ union in one of the country’s maquilas which makes tee shirts. As we listened to the stories some of the other testimonies that we heard during the week began to link together.
First, let us look at some of the background history which links the US to Honduras and influences its domestic and foreign policy. In 20014 the US announced a five year joint regional plan called the Alliance for Prosperity in Central America which was to assist the northern triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to improve their economic status, lower the crime rate and human rights abuses, and provide incentives for at-risk persons to remain in their own countries rather than migrate north to the US.
In 2016 our US Congress allocated $750 million dollars for development assistance to Central America under the Alliance for Prosperity. According to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs more than 60% of that money is going for security measures. (Article posted on August 1, 2016 by Laura Iesue, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, The Alliance for Prosperity Plan: A Failed Effort for Stemming Migration). While Homeland Secretary Jeh Johnson stated that migration enforcement in 2015 was down, the statistics for the last six months of that year showed that apprehensions by the border patrol increased by 171%.
Under CAFTA the standard of living for citizens was supposed to increase, due to a free market economy. Instead it has encouraged multinational companies to introduce sweatshops where workers are forced to work long hours for little pay under horrific working conditions. All of these factors contribute to the continuing flow of migrants toward the US and other countries.
The stories we heard from the union leaders in one maquila illustrate the point. Their union is only one of nineteen unions in sweatshops around the country. Multinational companies in Honduras are allowed to form Model Cities Corporations which create their own rules, basically making slaves out of the people who work for them. These companies are not subject to the human rights laws of the country. They create their own police forces. The people who work in these factories are merchandise!
The workers we met with were allowed to form a union but they are not allowed to meet during work time. Their workday begins at 7 am and ends at 6:20 pm. Workers are allowed a half hour for lunch, but most take no more than ten minutes in order to get back to work. They go without water and bathroom breaks for the whole day in order to meet the production quota required of them. The Canadian owned company which employees these workers requires workers to meet high production goals, achieving in four days what would be required in five. In order to meet the minimum wage, called the seventh day, workers must often work on days off. Workers can’t earn enough to meet their basic needs. The repetitive work that is required of them often results in damage to their health. Evening and day shifts alternate by weeks. Sick workers are fired. Pay averages at 6,121 lempiras, or $300 a month. All workers want to go to the United States. Many that leave, come back in body bags. Workers believe that the American Dream is all they have left when they leave. Factories will only hire workers between 18 and 30. After that age, employees are fired if they can’t maintain their work load or get sick. There are no other employment opportunities.
Union workers who are fired are black listed and unable to find employment in another shop. The company presents itself as a supporter of human rights but verbal and physical abuse is common as well as sexual harassment of women.
After the 2009 coup, the idea of Model Cities and large industrial parks was introduced. Since these are free trade zones companies don’t have to pay tariffs and follow labor laws. This has led to privatization of the country’s resources. Over a million young people are unemployed.
Labor violations have been presented in Washington, DC to the Labor Commission. The unions have been attacked by the media for destroying investment. Only nineteen plants in the country have any kind of union. The Gildan Company employs 27,000 workers and has four unions. Three are “ghost unions.”
State policies calculate work by the hour and cuts benefits for workers including overtime pay. The government’s social security pension fund is bankrupt so health and retirement benefits are lost. The government permits the hire of temporary workers who receive no benefits.
The US is complicit by funding the Alliance for Prosperity and allowing the abuse of workers and human rights to occur. It compounds the issue by returning to Honduras those who flee either under death threats or simply to find a means to support their families.
The people who have spoken to us rely on our presence as members of faith communities, to tell their stories and lobby the US Government to take action in cutting funding for the military which provides the highest rate of employment in Honduras. It is only with pressure that this government will take seriously its responsibility to protect the human rights of its people and put people before profit.
To learn more about our experiences go to https://rootcausesdelegation.wordpress.com/
To take action, contact your Congress person and ask them to reintroduce H.R. 5474 when the new Congress convenes in 2017. This bill is known as the Berta Caceres Human Rights Act.
It calls for the protection of all human rights activists including union leaders and asks that the U.S. withdraw military aid until these rights have been protected.