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.
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.
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