Honduras: anti-sweatshop campaigns advance

Students at North American campuses are demanding that their universities drop licensing agreements with the Oregon-based Nike, Inc sportswear manufacturer unless 1,800 workers for two Nike contractors in Honduras get legally mandated back pay and severance packages worth more than $2 million. Officials at Purdue University in Indiana announced on Dec. 2 that they were reviewing the situation, and on Dec. 7 University of Wisconsin-Madison chancellor Biddy Martin said she was giving Nike four months to clear up problems with alleged labor abuses.

The Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), a Washington, DC-based monitoring group, reported in October that the Vision Tex and Hugger de Honduras maquiladoras—tax-exempt assembly plants producing for export—failed to pay their workers the compensation required by law when they closed in January. The contractors say they can’t pay, and Nike is questioning how much of its product came from the two plants. A similar student anti-sweatshop campaign forced Russell Athletic of Atlanta to agree on Nov. 17 to rehire 1,200 workers it laid off in January at its Jerzees de Honduras plant. (Purdue press release, Dec. 3; The Capital Times, Madison, WI, Dec. 8)

Plant closings have become a major labor issue in Honduras. The country’s maquiladora sector lost 36,000 jobs from 2008 to 2009 because of the world economic crisis. At the same time, the situation for labor rights deteriorated after a June 28 military coup removed President José Manuel Zelaya Rosales from office. “We don’t have concrete data, but we’ve received reports of women who have had to work weekends to make up days missed because of arriving late due to the protests,” Women’s Rights Center director Yadira Minero told the Inter Press Service (IPS) wire service. (La Jornada, Mexico, Nov. 24 from IPS)

On Dec. 10 Judge Ernesto Flores Bardales in El Progreso municipality, Yoro department (near San Pedro Sula in northern Honduras), ordered unconditional freedom for Bartolo Fuentes, a journalist and city council member that factory owners had charged with obstruction of justice and abuse of authority in another plant closing. On May 13 Fuentes and other reporters covered a sit-in at the Zip Porvenir free trade zone by some of the 400 workers laid off when the Star, SA maquiladora closed at the end of March. The workers were demanding their full severance pay and compensation for maternity leave and sick days.

The Chahin-Hawit family, which owns the free trade zone, charged that Fuentes was instigating the protest and that he abused his authority by agreeing to hold the workers’ severance checks in trust; the workers refused to endorse the checks because they felt they were entitled to more compensation. The company finally settled with the Star Workers Union (SITRASTAR) in July, paying a total of more than 1 million lempiras ($53,000) to some 134 former workers. The Star plant reportedly produced apparel for the Anvil, Nike and Adidas companies. (Honduras Laboral, Dec. 10 from Comun-Noticias)

Fuentes was briefly detained on Sept. 15 when he tried to make a speech at El Progreso’s official Independence Day celebration. Mayor Alexander López had Fuentes’ mike shut off after he began to denounce the coup d’état. When the council member continued to speak to the cheering crowd, Police Commissioner Flores Mejia ordered police agents to arrest him. A video of the incident was widely circulated on the internet. (Honduras Laboral, Dec. 15 from Comun-Noticias)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Dec. 15

See our last posts on Honduras.