Honduras: US Government Fails to Act to Prevent Labor Rights Violations

March 19, 2015

Mateo Crossa

In 2012, the AFL-CIO and 26 Honduran unions and civil society organizations handed a 78-page submission to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) claiming that the Government of Honduras violated its commitments under the Central America-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) Labor Chapter. In response to these claims, DOL published a report that “found evidence of labor law violations in nearly all the cases.” The DOL provided a series of recommendations to address the concerns raised and called for the implementation of a monitoring and action plan.

Although the report included a number of problems that ended up demonstrating labor rights violations in Honduras, some issues were addressed in a way that make the case’s future seem uncertain.

The report was published almost three years after the submission was handed in (March 26, 2012). This is not the first instance in which the DOL has been slow to respond to claims of CAFTA-DR labor violations. In April 2008, the DOL received a submission from the AFL-CIO and six Guatemalan workers’ organizations alleging that the Guatemalan government had violated its obligations under the CAFTA-DR to effectively enforce its labor laws. After reviewing the submission, DOL issued a report in January 2009 finding significant weaknesses in Guatemala’s labor law enforcement and making specific recommendations for improvement. It also stated that the Office of Trade and Labor Affairs (OTLA) “will reassess the situation within the next six months following publication of this report and determine whether further action is warranted.” However, instead of six months, six years have passed and OTLA has still not announced what it will do. In the case of the new Honduran report, the OTLA assures that within 12 months it will assess whether there has been progress in resolving the labor violations, but is there any chance that this timeline will be respected?

Moreover, the DOL report is incomplete. The submission filed at the DOL by U.S. and Honduran unions shows a clear concern about the National Plan for Employment by the Hour, approved by the Honduran government on November 5, 2010, saying, “it is a special emergency program that, on a temporary basis, promotes hourly employment with the goal of stimulating good jobs, supporting existing jobs and avoiding unemployment and underemployment” The decree allows employers to hire workers by the hour, part time or full time, under short-term contracts or contracts for specific work or services. Under this program, “contracts can be for as short as two hours per day in rural areas or three hours in urban areas.” Labor organizations claimed that this program limits the possibility of union organization, generates labor instability and precarious working conditions and violates the labor code. However, the report does not seem to address these concerns as requested by the submission. Curiously, the report mentions that “to date there have been no formal complaints to the [Government of Honduras] regarding this program.” However, the labor organizations in Honduras claim otherwise. The Women’s Rights Center (CDM), an organization with a long history of struggle for labor rights, conducted research [PDF] from 2011 to 2013 and not only showed that the National Plan for Employment by the Hour violated labor rights, but also that the process to make it legal was irregular:

There is no need for an Hourly Employment Law. The work falling under “hourly employment” is legally regulated since 1974 by Law Decree 121 that regulates the application of the minimum wage; so it is already legal to hire a part-time worker if labor rights and permanent contracts are respected as indicated by the general rule of labor law.

In spite of these facts, the National Plan for Employment by the Hour became law last year, and despite the concern expressed by labor organizations in Honduras, it was entirely overlooked in the report published by the DOL.
The DOL report recognizes that some workers in Honduras are getting paid below minimum wage and that this is a problem that must be urgently addressed. However, the submission also mentions that wages in export processing zones are among the lowest in the country: 

In January 2012, the monthly minimum wage for a garment worker in a factory that employs 151 or more was set at 4645.34 lempiras (LPS) (~$244.87) whereas the minimum wage for a worker in a similar size manufacturing firm is 6944.01 LPS (~$366). Additionally, the monthly minimum wage for garment workers located in five designated depressed areas in Honduras who do the same work as other garment workers in the country is only 3463.89 LPS (~$182.60). 

According to a report [PDF] by the Maquila Solidarity Network and groups based in Central America, the monthly cost of the basket of basic consumer goods (including services) was 681 dollars in Honduras in 2012. In other words, the minimum wage in export processing zones only covered approximately one-third of basic monthly expenses. Today, this low purchasing power has hardly budged and real wages in export processing zones in Honduras remain the lowest [PDF] in Central America. 

The DOL Report does not mention this serious shortfall although it is reported in the submission and represents a violation of Conventions 95 and 131 of the International Labor Organization, and Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The submission includes a long list of trade unionists who were murdered, assaulted or threatened from 2009, the year that Honduras experienced a military coup d’état, to 2011. After describing each case, the submission states that “the U.S government should urge the government of Honduras to investigate and prosecute those responsible for threats of acts of violence against trade unionists related to their traditional trade union activities, as well as those involved in pro-democracy activities related to the 2009 coup.” This issue wasn’t addressed in the DOL report either, even though, as the submission states, these attacks are also labor rights violations since “they prevent the victim from exercising the labor rights protected under the trade agreement and have broad chilling effects on the exercise of those rights by other workers.”

Honduras is set to receive more loans and funding from the U.S. government, the International Monetary Fund, the Inter-American Development Bank, and other governments and international institutions that wish to promote a new axis of development in this country through new economic and export-oriented zones called ZEDES (Zones for Economic Development and Employment), also known as “charter cities.” However, if the ZEDES projects, which we have described in previous posts, proceed without the submission claims being fully addressed by Honduran authorities, we should not be surprised if labor rights in these new zones will be violated even more systematically and with even greater impunity. To adequately resolve and prevent labor rights abuses, OTLA must work actively with labor organizations that have been monitoring working conditions in Honduras day after day to identify and demand that action be taken against violations. Additionally, government and multilateral funding for private investment schemes should not go forward so long as these violations continue.  

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