Monday, October 5, 2009

Honduran Economy and the Coup

by the Witness for Peace Staff in Honduras

In San Pedro Sula we met with several union leaders to discuss the impact the coup has had in the industrial capital of Honduras, San Pedro Sula. Nora, a union leader, told us about her personal experiences with organizing in northern Honduras.

Union organizer Nora

Nora and her sister started working at a maquila when they were only 15 and 17 years old, though Honduras labor law states that 18 is the minimum age for employment. The young women sewed clothing for Wal-Mart and J.C. Penney for eight years until the factory closed in 2001. After that, Nora couldn’t get a job because she had been blacklisted for her union organizing. Her sister still works in a maquila six days a week.

There are an estimated 130,000 jobs in the textile assembly sector, with 69% of them held by young women. In 2001, Nora began working full time as an organizer for a federation of unions in the maquilas, helping thousands of women fight to get healthcare for themselves and their children. She said it is very difficult for women to get time off from their typical fourteen-hour days to go to the doctor, even though it is guaranteed under the labor code.

Nora was also part of the struggle to change standard company policies on obligatory overtime to make it voluntary by law. Even though it is not always enforced, Nora notes it was a major victory. Unfortunately, production quotas are often so large that women are required to stay at work or run the risk of losing their jobs and workers still face challenges getting companies to pay overtime wages.

In March 2009, the Inter-American Committee on Human Rights (CIDH) held hearings in Washington on the working conditions at 229 maquilas in Honduras. They called upon the Honduran government to investigate what it called, “typical examples of the exploitation of poor people”.

Demand for Honduran exports has decreased sharply – down 15% in the first quarter of 2009. Due to the current global crisis, 29 maquilas have shut their doors since 2008, sometimes closing in the middle of the night and leaving workers with no notice or severance pay. An estimated 100,000 workers in the maquila and private sector have been laid off since last year. The coup has exacerbated the economic downturn. Nora told us that companies are delaying or cancelling orders.

The coup has hit essential services. We heard stories of healthcare, education and social services resources stretched thin. Public hospitals and clinics are also short of supplies. Some have run out of necessary vaccinations. Nora told us of a friend who had complications while giving birth. She had to buy her own re-hydration salts and other supplies, because the hospital didn’t have them.

We were later joined by a university student who is actively organizing at his school. He told us many of his friends who had once wanted to join the army have now changed their mind and he knows military deserters since the coup. He shared his dreams of opening his own business in the future, but he worries that a military draft could take his life. “I would rather be killed then be one of them,” he said with much conviction. “The resistance movement has had a large impact on the younger generations. Almost all of my peers have signed onto a petition denouncing the coup and a military draft.”

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