In Honduras, Labor Rights are Human Rights


By Laura Schroeder

The video begins with slow, dramatic music.

The words “Grupo Jaremar” flash against a concrete wall, followed by shots of factory equipment and signage surrounded by lush foliage and zooming cars.

A deep male voice announces in Spanish that Grupo Jaremar, a Central American palm oil conglomerate, delivers high-quality products with the customer in mind.

Then, the stories start.

A company executive announces through a megaphone, “We don’t want to be the biggest business in the world. We want to be the biggest business for the world.” A young woman in front of a freshly painted building — electric blue — beams, telling viewers that she has a new house because of Grupo Jaremar.

“Thanks to Jaremar I graduated, and now I work at this great business,” a hard hat-clad worker explains.

The film cuts to a shot of a woman in a hairnet kneading dough and flipping tortillas, who says, “Now we have stable work. We’re the owners of our own business, and we’ve been working for two years. We’ve sustained ourselves thanks to Grupo Jaremar’s donation.”

From providing affordable medical care to fighting hunger to investing in microenterprises, the business’ social responsibility claims are constructed as rapidly as the electric blue house in the video. This, however, is not the whole story.

In fact, it is far from it.

Workers at two of Grupo Jaremar’s plantations in Honduras, Agromeza and Agroguay, have been hired on contracts that last half a year or a year, making it easier for management to exploit workers. The company has failed to fully pay workers as required by Honduran Labor Law, and they do not receive overtime pay or sick leave. There has been routine exposure to dangerous chemicals and unsafe conditions for workers at Grupo Jaremar plantations.

Further, when over 300 members of the agro-industrial union STAS (El Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Agroindustria y Similares) went on strike in October 2017 following the illegal dismissal of 18 union affiliates, they were physically harmed or told they would be taken to prison by company-backed security guards.

Grupo Jaremar refused to grant entrance to labor inspectors and did not appear at two mediation requests from the Honduran Ministry of Labor. After mounting pressure from national and international union partners, 140 temporary workers were recently rehired, but 17 — the majority of whom are union leaders involved in the 5-month strike — have not been re-hired. Over the course of the strike (October 2017 – March 2018), 300 families struggled to buy sufficient food and pay for their children’s education fees.

Situated in a context of political and economic instability and increasing threats against human rights defenders, the case of Grupo Jaremar and its relative impunity in the face of human rights abuses reflects a larger system of violence that transcends borders.

Honduras, home to rampant gang activity and one of the highest murder rates in the world, is becoming increasingly politically unstable as endemic corruption goes largely unaddressed by the government. Juan Orlando Hernández’s contested 2017 presidential victory led to mass protests and the death of at least 30 people, many of whom were killed by security forces. As international bodies such as Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and Organization of American States (OAS) called for an examination of the allegedly fraudulent election, the United States supported Hernández, who came to power with U.S. military assistance after a 2009 coup.

Tied to the ongoing political crisis, civil society groups in Honduras such as STAS face increasing crackdowns from authorities, often threatening the security and well-being of leaders and affiliates and — in many instances — costing them their lives. Hondurans, like the workers at Grupo Jaremar plantations, are confronted with severe human rights abuses as authorities, mired in corruption, protect the interests of businesses instead of small landowners. In 2016 alone, 33 human rights defenders were assassinated. The fatal shooting of Berta Cáceres, an environmental and land rights activist who countered the agendas of powerful corporations, has been one of the most high-profile cases.

Approximately 60% of Hondurans lived in poverty in 2016, and the country currently has the highest rate of economic inequality in Latin America, exacerbating political instability. With an unemployment rate of 7.4%, coupled with political volatility and state-sanctioned violence, the state of the nation’s economy is a push factor for migration. More than 190,000 people have been internally displaced by violence and conflict in Honduras since December 2016. Between January and October 2017, more than 14,735 people have fled the country in pursuit of greater physical and economic security.

Some of those who risked the journey north to the United States received Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which allows them to live and work in the U.S. legally. Now, the Trump administration is ending TPS for Honduran migrants, a decision that will terminate protection for 50,000 individuals. An estimated 85% of those previously covered under the legislation participate in the labor force, compared with 63 percent of the U.S. population. Many argue that Honduras, a fragile state, does not have the capacity to receive those losing TPS and that these individuals will be vulnerable to extortion and violence at the hands of transnational gangs.

This is a system in which businesses like Grupo Jaremar, driven by market incentives and shielded from the legal consequences of worker rights abuses by state-sanctioned impunity, benefit.

From individuals working at Grupo Jaremar plantations to the U.S. government to civil society organizations, these are stories that implicate us all: the woman in front of the blue house, the man in a hard hat, your friends, your neighbors, and you.

It’s time these stories are told.

Image: Flickr