Honduras: will maquilas survive the coup?

As of the morning of Sept. 28, a 45-day state of siege decreed by the de facto Honduran government was in effect, allowing the authorities to suspend rights of free speech and assembly; police agents and soldiers had already closed the Radio Globo radio station and the Channel 36 television station under the decree. The state of siege followed a week of increasing tensions after president José Manuel Zelaya Rosales, deposed by a June 28 military coup, secretly returned to the country on Sept. 21 and established his headquarters in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa. (Americas MexBlog, Sept. 28)

The economy “stopped” after Zelaya’s return as a result of protests by coup opponents and a Sept. 22-23 round-the-clock curfew by the de facto regime, according to Sandra Midence, de facto president of the central bank, the Banco Central de Honduras (BCH). Jesús Canahuati, former president of the Honduran Maquiladora Association (AHM), said the two-day curfew alone had cost the country $50 million a day. Honduras, with a $14.1 billion annual gross domestic product (GDP), has lost as much as $200 million in investment since the coup, he said. (Bloomberg News, Sept. 24; El Nuevo Herald, Miami, Sept. 27 from Bloomberg)

Even before the June coup, the Honduran maquiladora sector was suffering because of competition from China and declining demand from the US, the country’s main export market, now in its worst recession in decades. “In 2008 there were $3.5 billion in exports, while the projection for the end of 2009 would be around $2.7 billion, less than the amount expected a few months ago,” Guillermo Matamoros, an AHM regional director, told the Costa Rican newspaper El Financiero in early September. The year’s decline for the apparel export sector might be as much as 22.8%.

The Honduran maquiladora sector now employs about 114,000 workers directly; the industry claims that each maquiladora job generates four other jobs, so that the sector’s total contribution to the country’s GDP would be around 26%. The sector lost 15,000 jobs in 2008 and about 8,000 more so far this year. Jesús Canahuati said another 4,000 workers would probably be laid off in the last three months of 2009. Canahuati expressed optimism that apparel employment would increase soon if the US recession ends, but Matamoros was looking instead to the expansion of a new type of maquiladora: call centers and software centers in the north of the country. Because of the large number of Hondurans who are bilingual in English and Spanish, this could generate 25,000-40,000 new jobs, he indicated. (El Financiero, Sept. 5; La Tribuna, Tegucigalpa, Sept. 16)

Maquiladora owners reportedly have increased exploitation of their employers because of losses stemming from the political crisis. The Honduran Women’s Collective (CODEMUH) says maquiladora workers have been forced to work overtime, in clear violation of labor law, to make up for time lost during the curfews. “We call on transnational brands like Nike, Gap, Adidas, Hanes, HBI [Hanesbrands Inc] and Wal-Mart, among others,” CODEMUH writes, “as well as university students in the US and consumers in general, who wear the products produced in the sweatshops of Honduras, to demand the offshore industry pay its workers for the days they did not show up for work due to the curfew of the de facto government, without requiring that they make up these days.” (Americas MexBlog, Sept. 25)

The focus that the coup has brought on Honduras might help revive the US-based student anti-sweatshop movement of the 1990s. In a Sept. 25 op-ed, two University of Washington professors, Angelina Godoy and James Gregory, called on the school to “re-examine [its] apparel relationship with Nike,” the US sports garment giant, because of the company’s failure to compensate workers in Honduras. In January Nike shut down two facilities in Honduras, Vision Tex and Hugger, the professors said, “without paying their approximately 1,800 workers the terminal compensation mandated by law—in some cases, without even paying them for hours already worked. The total owed to workers tops $2.5 million.” Godoy and Gregory charged that Nike is using the political crisis as an excuse not to act on the workers’ claims. “Nike’s inaction amounts to coup profiteering,” they wrote. (Seattle Times, Sept. 25)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Sept. 27

See our last post on Honduras.