30 July 2008
Over the last 20 years, sweatshops, or maquiladoras as they are known in Latin America, have become an integral part of the Honduran economy. Honduras is now the 4th biggest exporter to the US worldwide and the largest exporter in Central America.
Employing 133,000 people, of which 70% are women, the main export is clothing to well-known brands like WalMart, Fruit of the Loom and GAP. Though the maquila industry has brought much needed investment to Honduras, few have benefited and any gains have come at the expense of poor labour rights.
Working in partnership with the Honduran Women’s Collective, otherwise known as Codemuh, War on Want is dedicated to exposing and taking action against the violation of basic human rights within sweatshops. Codemuh has been instrumental in monitoring and documenting these abuses, especially amongst women, and its current campaign focuses on occupational health.
Maquilas work according to daily production targets set by factory management. There are widespread complaints from workers that these targets are excessively high and not realistically achievable in the legal maximum 8-hour working day. Often workers do not drink water because they can’t afford the time to go to the toilet. In many cases workers are forced to put in extra hours in order to comply with targets and in certain cases workers were found doing double shifts of 24 hours.
One of the biggest complaints amongst workers is of health-problems, of which repetitive strain injury is common. Long-term maquila workers have put their health at risk by repeating the same movement over 6,000 times a day. Once a worker’s health begins to deteriorate they often receive little support or treatment from the employer and in certain cases employers have neglected their responsibilities by failing to acknowledge that the problem is a result of difficult working conditions.
In response to this problem Codemuh has launched a campaign calling for the Honduran National Congress to reform the outdated labour laws. On a recent visit to Honduras War on Want participated in a stakeholder forum: Public Policy in Relation to the Health of Workers, attended by politicians, government officials, health specialists, trade union leaders, the media and women sweatshop workers. This was an opportunity for women workers to share their experiences.
Santos Lourdes is one such case. A 32-year old single mother, Lourdes has worked in maquilas since she was 13. A fast and reliable worker her daily production target of 400 dozen items, was soon increased to 450 and later to 500 dozen items. Since supervisors were pleased with her performance and she was desperate for extra money, she began taking on double shifts of 24 hours, reaching production levels of up to 1,000 dozen items.
When she first began to experience muscular pain in her upper left arm Lourdes took painkillers to get through the day, and sleeping pills to get through the night. 4 years on when the health problems prevented her fulfilling production targets, her supervisors began to ignore and mal-treat her. The pain had reached desperate levels when a colleague recommended Codemuh. With Codemuh’s help she began the process of negotiation.
The Canadian factory owners, GILDAN pressured her to leave but offered a redundancy package of only 30,000 lempiras (£800) without accounting for her occupational health problems. She refused and thanks to Codemuh was given sick pay for one and a half years.
Codemuh is doing fantastic work on behalf of all of maquila workers in Honduras and War on Want is proud to be supporting them in these efforts.
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