Honduran workers’ rights activists face rising violence

Honduran workers' rights activists face rising violence

In 2016 in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, apparel workers and trade unionists called for an end to anti-worker labour laws, a halt to violence against human rights defenders and an increase in the minimum wage. Their main message? “Sí al Sindicato”—“Union Yes!”

(Stephen Wishart/Solidarity Center)

A brutal attack against a union leader and his brother in Honduras is the latest act of escalating violence directed at worker rights activists in the country, according to the Honduran National Network for Violence Against Trade Unionists and other civil society groups in the country.

Moisés Sánchez, secretary general of the melon export branch of the Honduran agricultural workers’ union, Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Agroindustria y Similares (STAS), and his brother, union member Misael Sánchez, say they were attacked in mid-April by six men wielding machetes as they left the union office in the southern town of Choluteca, an area where agricultural workers harvest melons and other export produce.

Misael was seriously injured after the attackers slashed his face with a machete, and Moisés was beaten for nearly an hour and told he would be murdered if he continued to assist melon workers in gaining their rights at work through the union. Misael left the hospital on 17 April and is expected to survive.

Last year, some 20 Honduran trade union activists were killed or threatened for their efforts in helping workers improve their harsh working conditions. In recent weeks, violence – or threats of violence against union activists – has escalated.

Isela Juárez Jiménez, president of the public employee union SITRASEMCA, says she recently suffered an attempted kidnapping. Juárez Jiménez, began receiving death threats in 2015, and her motorbike was rammed in September by a white Toyota, which had been following her for days.

Two other union leaders, Nelson Núñez of the banana and agricultural worker federation, FESTAGRO, and Miguel Angel López of the public-sector electrical workers’ union STENEE, say they recently have been followed, with López reporting a man gesturing to pull out a pistol after pulling up to his car window.

Both Núñez and López received death threats last year for their organising efforts in Honduras. Núñez’s most recent threats similarly relate to the organising efforts in Choluteca. Patricia Riera, another FESTAGRO organiser, was the first organiser to receive death threats related to a melon worker union organising effort in Choluteca.

Although the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights last year ordered the Honduran government to protect targeted union members, Honduras has not done so. The Network Against Violence in Honduras and its sister organisation in Guatemala are calling on the Honduran government to provide private security to activists who receive death threats.

The networks are urging the government to investigate all murders and bring to justice the perpetrators—both those who committed the acts and those who planned them.

Harassment and firings

Melon workers on plantations across the Choluteca region have long endured worker rights abuses. After they sought to improve their working conditions by forming unions in 2016 with STAS, a FESTAGRO affiliate, employers intimidated and illegally fired many workers, despite Honduran law and international conventions making it illegal to retaliate against workers for organising unions to protect their rights on the job.

According to FESTAGRO, plantation owners forced the first four union leaders to renounce the union, fired 21 union members during the spring 2016 planting season, and refused to rehire 35 unionised workers for the autumn harvest. And after 47 security workers at one plantation joined the union in March, the company fired all of them.

Despite touted progress toward fulfilling the Monitoring and Action Plan developed with the US government to address labour rights violations, retaliation against workers seeking unions and sustained anti-union attacks and violence persist.

The Monitoring and Action Plan was created after the US trade union federation the AFL-CIO and 26 Honduran unions in 2012 filed a submission with the U.S.

Department of Labor on the Honduran government’s failure to enforce its labour laws under the labour chapter of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA). The submission cited examples from 17 worksites spanning the manufacturing, agriculture and port sectors.

In a 2015 Public Report on the 2012 DR-CAFTA labour chapter complaint, the US Office of Trade and Labor Affairs found ongoing basic labour rights violations at these same export plantations. They include non-payment of minimum wages and legally mandated benefits, wage theft, child labour and allowing children to use hazardous chemicals, and failure to provide potable water, social security enrollment and days to rest.

This article was first published on the Solidarity Center website.