Honduras: solidarity wins for maquila workers

On Nov. 17 the US-based United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) announced an agreement with Russell Athletic of Atlanta for the sports apparel maker to rehire 1,200 workers it laid off in January when it closed its Jerzees de Honduras plant soon after the workers joined a union. Russell, a subsidiary of Kentucky-based Fruit of the Loom, is to open a new maquiladora (tax-exempt assembly plant producing largely for export) in the same area as the old plant, the Choloma region of the northwestern Honduran department of Cortés. The new plant will be called Jerzees Nuevo Día (“Jerzees New Day”).

The agreement is the biggest win to date for the decade-old student movement against sweatshops, which organized at nearly 100 North American campuses to force colleges to end licensing agreements for Russell sportswear because of the company’s labor violations. The workers were represented by the local Union of Empresa Jerzees Workers (SITRAJERZEESH) and the national General Workers Central (CGT). Although the most conservative of the three main Honduran labor confederations, the CGT has been active in the resistance to a June 28 military coup that removed President José Manuel Zelaya Rosales from office; Honduran business owners generally supported the coup.

The USAS-Russell agreement is expected to have a major impact on labor rights in Honduras. With eight maquiladoras and more than 10,000 workers in Honduras, Fruit of the Loom is the country’s largest private employer. “For Honduran workers this accord represents a real hope, especially in the midst of the unemployment crisis in our country,” said Evangelina Argueta, CGT coordinator in Choloma. “The support of the international organizations was very important.” (Honduras Laboral, Nov. 18 from Red Solidaridad de la Maquila, Canada; New York Times, Nov. 18; People’s Weekly World, Nov. 19)

The agreement comes at a time when a five-year decline in the maquiladora sector has been worsened by the political crisis. Even the Catholic hierarchy seems to be concerned about getting the industry back on its feet. “Investment is very important,” Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga told the Wall Street Journal in early November. “With investments there are more jobs for our people.” Rodríguez, who backed the June 28 coup, admitted that investors “are not all saints…. But what should we do without those jobs?”

“Maquilas are especially important for women,” the cardinal added, “because their jobs have been a source of dignity. When they earn their own money they are no longer slaves to the macho man in their lives, who often is not even their husband.” (WSJ, Nov. 16)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Nov. 24

See our last post on Honduras.