“We put ourselves in God’s hands” – a Honduran banana packer speaks out against violence and harassment

“We put ourselves in God's hands” – a Honduran banana packer speaks out against violence and harassment

Women comprise just 7 per cent of all banana sector workers but they suffer from lower wages, sexual harassment, domestic violence and increased exposure to toxic pesticides.

(AP/Kent Gilbert)

Between 11 and 13 October 2017, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) held its 3rd World Women’s Organising Assembly in San José, Costa Rica. Female trade unionists from more than 60 countries met to strategise on the advancement of gender equality and equity in the world of work.

One of the key areas of discussion was the campaign to get governments to support a binding International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention (supplemented by a Recommendation) to end gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work. At the Assembly, Equal Times spoke to female trade unionist from Honduras who is on the front line of this fight as a banana packer.

Honduras is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a trade unionist with 20 trade unionists being killed or threatened in Honduras in 2016 alone. According to the UK-based NGO Banana Link, women compromise just 7 per cent of all banana-harvesting and packing workers in Latin America, down by about 60 per cent due to the perception of women as “high-cost, high-risk” workers.

Women frequently earn less than their male counterparts and many women have to supplement their incomes by selling food at work. They also face sexual harassment and domestic violence, while being particularly vulnerable to the exposure to the toxic pesticides used in banana growing. The packer/union member we spoke to asked to remain anonymous for fear of her personal safety and fear of losing her job.

How did you become a banana packer?

I was 15 when I started working for a multinational that exports bananas (the name withheld for the above-noted security concerns). I started at that age because I got pregnant when I was at secondary school, and my father, because of the economic situation, wasn’t able to let me carry on with my studies. At the company where I work, when parents reach their retirement age, they have the right to leave their job to one of their sons or daughters. So, I took over from my father and automatically became a member of the union.

What is your working day like?

We start work at 7 in the morning and, depending on the production period, we work for 12 hours at a stretch, with a 30-minute break for lunch and a 15-minute break at around 2 in the afternoon. It is very tiring work and our pay is linked to the number of boxes we produce. We get paid 35 cents per box here in Honduras. In the United States [where many of the bananas are exported to] a box of bananas is worth US$14. Sometimes there are a lot are ships waiting for the boxes that we’re preparing for that day, and the ships can’t wait. That’s why we’re put under pressure.

You are also a mother of two children. What is your home life like?

When I get home, I make dinner for my children, my husband and myself. I also have to prepare things for the next day because I take my breakfast and lunch to work. I go to bed at 10 at night, after working for 12 hours. And it’s my mother who looks after my children, because we don’t have access to a crèche that can take care of our children.

How has being a member of a trade union impacted your life?

I have received a lot of training through my organisation but, at the same time, they shut us out as women. I’ve learned a lot of things: how to defend myself before the boss and, on many occasions, how to put the brakes on workplace harassment and sexual harassment. But the trade unions often fail to take women into account within the movement. I’ll give you a clear example: there are no women on the collective bargaining teams; only men. They negotiate however they like, without taking our needs into account as women [for example, maternity rights, childcare and medical checks following exposure to pesticides].

Honduras is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for trade unionists. How does that impact female workers specifically?

In so many ways. For example, we leave work too late. And many of us live quite far away from our workplace. So we risk being assaulted, raped or killed. We receive our pay on Fridays. Those days are very dangerous for us women because we take our wages with us. The thieves are already waiting; they know when our paydays are.

The company has a bus that takes some of the women home, depending on where we live. The rest of us go by motorbike, which is dangerous. We cannot carry weapons because it only makes the situation worse. We put ourselves in God’s hands.

What concrete measures can be taken to improve your life?

Better wages. The working hours could also be improved so that we don’t have to work for so long. We work for 12 hours a day, and we leave when it’s very dark. After that, it still takes me another hour to get home because the roads are so bad in Honduras. All we want is enough money to look after our families and to know that we will not be harmed by doing so.

This article has been translated from Spanish.