Honduras: Alcoa plant fires unionists

Management of an auto parts plant operated by New York-based Alcoa, Inc. in El Progreso, Honduras, fired more than 50 union leaders and activists from June 8 to June 15, according to the National Labor Committee (NLC), a US labor rights organization. The Alcoa factory—located in El Porvenir Free Trade Zone, an industrial park for the tax-exempt assembly plants known as maquiladoras—assembles electrical wiring harnesses exclusively for export to the US-based Ford Motor Company.

Alcoa workers say they are paid the legal minimum wage but work in an environment marked by labor violations, including long hours and abusive treatment; women workers have reported several cases of sexual harassment. The employees say they have never received a $200 bonus Alcoa promised if they worked for 60 hours in its “Bravo Project,” in which the company ostensibly shows its social responsibility by running programs for reforestation and for helping child care centers.

On June 2 a workers’ assembly formed the SITAFLH union. Less than a week later, on June 8, assistant human resources manager Yolany Contreras fired a key union leader, Lorna Redell Jackson Garcia, saying the company “was cutting personnel.” On June 12 a number of workers from the night shift were laid off and led out of the factory by armed security guards. Another 20 workers were fired on June 13, followed by 26 more on June 15. As of June 18 management representatives had failed to appear at two reconciliation meetings called by the Labor Ministry. On June 18 and 19, the fired workers set up a picket line in front of the ministry, demanding that the government order Alcoa to comply
with the labor code.

Local Alcoa management has reportedly told the workers that if they continue to organize, the plant will move to Nicaragua, where “labor is cheaper and workers don’t make so many demands or cause problems.” The NLC says that Alcoa used a similar strategy in Mexico, where Alcoa told the workers it “could hire two Hondurans for every Mexican.” The NLC is asking for letters to Alcoa CEO Alain Belda (fax 412-553-4498) urging him to reinstate the fired workers.

Honduras is a party to the US-promoted Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). In what the NLC calls a “related CAFTA-esque step backward,” the Honduran government has reduced the minimum wage in the south of the country by 24%, from $0.74 an hour to $0.57 an hour (from $178 to $136 a month). The recently completed Green Valley Industrial Park, the largest free trade zone in Central America, is located in the region affected by the wage cut. (NLC urgent action, June 21)

According to the Honduran Maquiladora Association (AHM), Honduras has edged out the Philippines as the second-largest exporter of wiring harnesses; Mexico is first, followed by Honduras, Philippines, China and Indonesia. Exports by the 15 Honduran harness factories were worth $375 million last year, up dramatically from $252 million in 2005. The most successful plants are those owned by Lear Corporation and Alcoa. Mexico remains far ahead, however, with exports of $4.285 billion in 2006. (La Prensa, Honduras, June 6)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, June 24

See our last posts on Honduras and Central America.