A Korean-owned auto parts factory in Honduras made worldwide headlines last month when it was reported that employees had to wear nappies to work because they were not given sufficient bathroom breaks.
Kyungshin-Lear Electrical Distribution Systems, which supplies auto parts for export to the United States, is now being investigated for alleged labour rights violations and could face sanctions under the Central American Free Trade Agreement if it is found to be in breach of fundamental workers’ rights.
However, a former employee speaking to Equal Times clarified that while workers were never “forced” to wear nappies, the working conditions were such that many workers felt that they had no choice.
“The company never forced us to use Pampers. What it has done is restrict us from going to the bathroom,” said María Consuelo Aguiriano, a former employee of Kyungshin-Lear in San Pedro Sula, northern Honduras.
“We only have permission to go to the bathroom twice a day during our shift – twice a day in nine hours. That forces us, especially women at certain times of the month, to use [nappies]. To keep yourself clean during your whole shift, it’s necessary to use them.”
Human rights violations
Since the country’s coup d’état in 2009, human rights violations have soared, particularly against labour rights such as freedom of association and collective bargaining.
The situation at the Kyungshin-Lear plant provides a striking example of this.
According to a report by the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights (GLHR), a US-based human rights organisation, workers endure poor working conditions, below-subsistence wages and terrible living conditions.
Temperatures inside the factory regularly exceed 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius), but due to limited toilet breaks, employees refrain from drinking water.
The report also states that pregnant women are required to stand for long periods of time while working on the production line.
Honduran legislation provides women with little protection. There are continuous reports of factories in Honduras requiring pre-employment pregnancy tests, dismissing pregnant workers or denying them permission to leave workstations to seek medical attention.
During the past year, inspectors from the Honduran Ministry of Labour have attempted to visit the maquila [a foreign-owned factory which uses cheap labour to assemble products and then exports the products back to the country of origin] five times, but were refused entrance on each occasion.
Last month, when local media reported that Kyungshin-Lear “forced” its employees to wear nappies, the Honduran Minister of Labour, Jorge Bográn, travelled to the factory to investigate.
The Ministry later released a statement denying that management enforced the practice, but said inspectors would be carrying out further investigations into possible labour violations at the plant.
In September 2011, with support from union representatives of the General Confederation of Workers (CGT), a group of Kyungshin-Lear workers attempted to establish a union.
However, management ignored their efforts and blocked the necessary administrative steps so that the union could not be officially formed.
“The underlying problem is that the company doesn’t want to recognise the union that has been legally constituted,” said José Luis Baquedano, the General Secretary of the Confederation of Honduran Workers (CUTH).
“They have fired four complete executive committees. For us as a trade union movement, there is a violation of human rights and labour rights because it violates national legislation and International Labour Organization (ILO) agreements.”
Aguiriano worked at the factory for almost seven years before she was fired in January 2012 for trying to start the union. She says that in the past couple of years, 130 workers have been sacked or forced to resign in similar circumstances.
“They don’t want to recognise el sindicato by law because they don’t want to value our rights. When I worked there I felt completely exploited.
“They violated all of our rights: from not allowing us to use the bathroom, to not giving us permission to go to the doctors, to not having medicine at the factory, holidays, low pay. There is so much violation of rights inside the company,” said Aguiriano.
A spokesperson for Lear Corporation in the US said the company had conducted its own investigation.
“Lear Corporation takes any allegation of inappropriate and illegal practices very seriously. We believe employees must be treated with dignity and respect and are entitled to safe and appropriate work environments.”
Kyungshin-Lear has been operating in Honduras for the past ten years and employs over 3,000 people.
Workers say the conditions inside the factory are “exploitative”, but they stay because there are few other jobs in San Pedro Sula.
Honduras is one of the poorest and most unequal countries in the Americas with more than 60 per cent of the population living below the poverty line.
Employees at the plant earn a weekly salary of between HNL 1100 (54 US dollars) and HNL 1300 (68 US dollars) depending on their shift.
This is in line with the country’s minimum wage in the maquila sector, but barely meets Honduras’ ever-increasing living costs.
Although Bogran met with the factory’s directors again this week, due to weak law enforcement in Honduras, many global trade unions believe Kyungshin-Lear will only improve its working conditions if the US Department of Labor intervenes and enforces the labour rights of the CAFTA agreement.