Women’s work: Codemuh

Maria Luisa Regalado profiles the Honduran feminist workers’ organisation Codemuh and its role in the civil society resistance to the 2009 coup

March 18, 2011
6 min read

The June 2009 coup in Honduras, which was orchestrated by military and business elites and saw the overthrow of President Manuel Zelaya, has proved a major setback for workers’ and progressive movements. One response to this threat to democracy has been the Popular National Resistance Front (Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular), a broad-based coalition in which the Honduran women’s group Codemuh has played an important role. Codemuh (the Honduran Women’s Collective) is a feminist and rights-based grass-roots organisation fighting for better living and working conditions for women in garment factories, or maquilas as they are known in Latin America.

Codemuh was formed by Honduran women activists in 1989. At the time Honduran women maquila workers, who would typically work between 12 and 24 hours per day, six to seven days a week, were not aware that labour laws existed, let alone that they had the right to organise and protest. They began meeting and organising to confront not only labour rights violations but gender discrimination.

Participating in Codemuh’s work required a huge amount of courage and personal sacrifice. In Honduran society, women workers have faced two parallel struggles: the struggle in their own homes and that outside the home, in public spaces and the workplace. Patriarchy is entrenched in Honduras and most women faced resistance from husbands, brothers and even fathers who prohibited them from attending Codemuh meetings. On top of this women were at risk from their employers, who, suspicious of women meeting in groups, would often fire those they thought might be organising.

Since Codemuh’s inception, women workers have won a number of important victories. Through mobilising and organising, we resisted our marginalisation and now enjoy greater involvement in public life. Not only do we participate in local community groups but we attend public demonstrations, contribute to debates and forums and take part in meetings to resolve labour conflicts with employers, the Department of Labour and the Honduran Social Security Institute. We actively engage in political advocacy and contribute to both the national and international media.

Health rights

Codemuh has supported workers who have developed serious occupational diseases as a result of their work in the maquilas, campaigning tirelessly to prevent them losing their jobs. It is commonplace for management to fire those struggling to meet their daily production targets because of occupational health problems. In the past, occupational disease had been ignored by the Honduran authorities, but Codemuh has successfully proved the link between the medical conditions suffered by workers and the work carried out in maquilas. They have achieved this through research, legal and medical support to workers and international denunciations at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

As a result, 30 cases of women affected with work-related disease have been recognised as occupational. Recognition of occupational disease is critical because it allows workers access to compensation and specialist medical treatment for life. As a result of Codemuh’s work it is no longer possible for garment manufacturers or the Honduran government to claim that work in garment factories does not cause long-term damage to workers’ health.

Alongside fighting for better implementation of current legislation, in March 2008 Codemuh presented a proposed reform of the outdated labour code to the Honduran national congress. Its approval will create a legal framework securing the occupational health and safety of factory workers.

This was the first time that a grass-roots feminist organisation in Honduras has written and presented a workers’ rights proposal for legislative reform. The proposal was passed by congress to the country’s supreme court and the secretary of labour and social security for consideration. Unfortunately, as a result of the coup in June 2009, the process of debate and approval of the proposed reform stalled.

Defending democracy

The Popular National Resistance Front grew out of opposition to the military coup and seeks to re-write the Honduras constitution to include the voice and rights of the Honduran poor. The movement also seeks to shed light on the numerous human rights abuses, rapes, murders and disappearances administered by the military on Honduran citizens who have sought to defend the rights of the poor and of workers. The convening of fraudulent elections in November 2009, which resulted in a victory of the right-wing candidate Porfirio Lobo, granted impunity to the perpetrators of the coup and subsequent human rights violations. It also sent a message to both the Honduran people and other nations that a coup against democracy is still possible.

Codemuh, within the National Resistance Front, has been a key organisation informing more than 40,000 maquila workers on their fundamental labour and human rights. We have also raised awareness of the consequences of the approval of the national anti-crisis plan, which will roll back many of the hard-fought victories won by Honduran workers since 1954, the year of a landmark general strike.

This plan, now approved by the congress, allows all private businesses to retain 40 per cent of their staff on a temporary or part-time basis. Part-time workers in Honduras are not entitled to social security benefits such as health insurance or access to a doctor in the workplace. Nor is there any statutory requirement for the employers to provide sick or maternity leave or any notice for termination of contracts. Temporary workers are not entitled to any holiday pay or end of year bonus. Furthermore, the law stipulates that up to 30 per cent of their wages can be paid in kind, meaning that many workers’ salaries are partly comprised of the products they make.

Despite the climate of impunity, Codemuh is not to be dissuaded. The National Front has incorporated our legislative occupational health and safety reform in its agenda, ensuring the support of several trade unions and grass-roots organisations in the struggle to improve health and safety legislation. Codemuh, along with other Honduran human rights organisations, has presented two reports to the United Nations. At a People’s Tribunal in Madrid it also brought a case against Hanes HBI, the European Investment Bank and the Honduran state for violation of health and safety rights of workers. In December 2009, we met with several UK MPs, trade union delegates and the general public to raise awareness of the situation facing maquila workers and the human rights violations following the coup.

Key to the success of Codemuh’s work over the years is its ownership by women workers. Formed by, and made up of, women workers, the organisation strives to inform and mobilise women in maquilas to fight against the human rights violations they suffer. It is this process of equipping workers with the knowledge and skills to defend their own rights that lies at the heart of our success.

We know that there is still much to do. Governments like the one in Honduras continue to allow multinational corporations to exploit the health of the working population with impunity. But we will continue to demand justice and organise workers to call for the respect of human, labour and gender rights.

Maria Luisa Regalado is the general co-ordinator of Codemuh, which is a War on Want partner organisation


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Greenwald speaks Trump, War on Terror, and citizen activism
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas


2