On the morning of December 3rd, in Choluteca, Honduras, 14 women melon workers had to be hospitalized after their exposure to toxic chemicals on a Suragroh melon plantation owned by the Irish food and fresh produce multinational Fyffes. None of the 150 workers sickened that day were provided with the necessary safety gear to protect them. One of the victims, who asked to remain anonymous, told a local newspaper, “we began to feel our eyes burning and the urge to vomit…and our legs felt weak and we started to fall down. Our legs didn’t respond to be able to stand up.”
Labor rights abuses such as these are well-documented in Honduras’ melon export sector, which employs an estimated 25,000 workers – 70% of them women. A 2012 ILRF report revealed that over 85% earned less than the minimum wage and were subjected to other illegal working conditions. A third of melon workers were single mothers with two or more children. In addition to their family responsibilities, they put in 12-14 hour workdays, seven days a week. These women left home before sunrise and returned late at night, relying on neighbors to supervise their kids.
The vast majority of Suragroh workers are employed on an informal basis (with no written contract). This lack of paperwork enables the company to avoid paying for benefits through the Honduran Institute of Social Security (IHSS), a practice that disproportionately impacts women by denying them access to health care, maternity leave, and education vouchers for their children to attend school. Women workers also face discrimination on the job, with most lacking access to restroom facilities, and one-fifth reporting having been fired after becoming pregnant.
Despite these proven violations, the Honduran government has routinely failed to hold companies accountable, and workers have long been unable to speak out, afraid their contracts won’t be renewed the following year. Unlike their counterparts in Honduras’ banana sector - where women are actively involved in well-established unions - melon workers have not yet been able to organize into unions to fight for just wages and working conditions.
But things might be changing: on January 28th, 2016, workers for Suragroh achieved a historic milestone, becoming the first in their sector to unionize. The trade union federation FESTAGRO, an ILRF partner, helped workers establish a local branch of the trade union STAS, which presented a list of demands to Suragroh in the presence of officials from the Honduran Ministry of Labor. With this important step, the local union leadership – most of them women – officially requested an agreement to begin negotiations and collective bargaining to address the injustices they face.
Not surprisingly, local management is fighting dirty to crush the nascent union and protect its profits. The day after presenting their demands to management, four union leaders were locked up in an office for hours where the company’s Chief of Security threatened them until they signed a document renouncing their membership in the union.
Yet Suragroh workers didn’t back down, electing a new union leadership board of five women and men the very same day. The company quickly tried to use the same intimidation tactics to force the five leaders to renounce, but the workers resisted.
Since then, Suragroh has failed to meet two legal deadlines to respond to workers’ demands and agree to negotiations, and a local Ministry of Labor official refused to deliver a subpoena ordering Suragroh to appear before the body. According to FESTAGRO leader Nelson Nuñez, companies in Southern Honduras are vehemently opposed to accepting the existence of even one union, fearing it may inspire others to follow in the Suragroh workers’ footsteps.
This is not the first time Suragroh has been called out for violating Honduran labor laws. The company was named in the CAFTA complaint filed in 2012 by the AFL-CIO against the government of Honduras. In a 2015 report, the U.S. Department of Labor confirmed the complaint’s allegations that Suragroh failed to pay the minimum wage, among a lengthy list of other violations.
Suragroh’s intransigence is being enabled in part by parent company Fyffes, who inexcusably takes the lies told by local management at face value. And despite Fyffes’ membership in the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) – which requires honoring workers’ rights – the company has failed to take workers’ claims seriously.
In response to letters written by ILRF and the Solidarity Center informing CEO David McCann about the union’s treatment, Mr. McCann said only that Fyffes “is engaged in employee consultation processes in the countries in which we operate,” and that they “believe it is appropriate that local processes should be used to resolve local issues.” And in a statement to The Guardian, ETI Executive Director echoed Fyffes’ erroneous claim that “there are local processes in place in this case.”
On February 11th, the British trade union GMB called for Fyffes to be expelled from the Ethical Trading Initiative, a move that substantially increases pressure on the company. The Honduran union STAS sent its own strongly worded letter to ETI on March 3rd, declaring, “We categorically refute these statements from Fyffes” that it is handling the situation locally. STAS’ letter pointed out that Suragroh has refused to negotiate and included official government documents to back up workers’ claims. Fyffes is now in possession of a Honduran Ministry of Labor report declaring that Suragroh owes workers over $80,000 from 2015 and has until March 7th to pay up.
Fyffes needs to take this case seriously, along with other cases of labor abuses in its supply chain (including in Costa Rica, where union members have been systematically fired). ILRF is working with European allies in the “Make Fruit Fair” coalition, to demand that Fyffes and Suragroh end their entrenched disregard for workers’ rights, including discrimination against women workers.
ILRF echoes STAS’ demand that Fyffes “initiate a process of investigation into these allegations,” so that workers can “have trust in assurances that the company monitors and enforces labor laws in the countries where it has business operations.” Fyffes must immediately halt the threats against union leaders, agree to initiate negotiations and collective bargaining, and bring its labor practices into compliance with Honduran labor law and the ETI.
Speaking to international solidarity groups, union leaders recently recounted the insults they had been subjected to for years at the hands of employers, who, they said, “give more value to a tomato than a worker.” But they have joined farm worker women from across Central America to push back against attempts to silence them, and ILRF will continue to amplify their voices for as long as it takes, until companies – including Fyffes – start to listen.