By Jennifer Moore
One night, Mariana had a dream. She dreamed that she was happy to go to work. Full of energy, she imagined herself arriving at the textile factory in a Honduran industrial park. Listen here:
Mariana’s supervisor greeted her and Mariana was delighted to find a comfortable ergonomic chair waiting for her in front of the machine that she operates. She took breaks during the day and chatted with her co-workers. When she left the factory after eight hours, she still had energy to spare. Her family welcomed her home and she smiled to see a warm pot of food ready on the stove.*
Mariana’s dream is a distant reality for poor women workers in the textile factories that populate export processing zones in Honduras. It is the vision, however, that the Honduran Women’s Collective imparts when they inform women about their rights. With their office located in Honduras’ principal export processing zone in the north of the country, en route to the main sea port, this feminist collective’s goal is to give women the support they need to raise their voices against exploitative practices in the textile industry.
Dedicated to research and advocacy for the last twenty one years, the Collective, also known by its acronym CODEMUH, is unique in Honduras for making occupational health its focus. It has carried out groundbreaking investigations and important media campaigns at the national level that have put health and safety on the public agenda and made it a matter of concern in factories. But it is a struggle.
Honduras’ 133 textile companies employ about 93,000 workers of which women make up fifty seven percent according to Honduran Central Bank figures for 2008. On average, they earn about CAN $200 per month. In a landmark study carried out by CODEMUH between 2004 and 2006 with participation from Honduran and Mexican medical specialists, women tended to hold the riskiest jobs in factories and pay a high price with their health. Sponsored by War on Want, OXFAM International and CoDevelopment Canada, seventy-five percent of women examined showed signs of fatigue from excessive work and ninety-two percent presented symptoms of musculoskeletal injuries due to repetitive movements or holding the same position for long periods of time. On average per day, a woman may repeat the same movement over six thousand times and sustain the same position for ten to twelve hours. Additionally, CODEMUH’s research showed that textile workers tend to be young and their career in factories short. Ninety percent of women workers surveyed were under 33 years old, seventy-five percent had children and twenty percent were single with children. Only 6.3% had worked in the factories for longer than ten years.
At high risk for debilitating injuries and often out of work by their early thirties, this study depicts a highly precarious situation. When women leave or are fired, they lose the right to medical attention. With scarce options for future work, the cost of their future care tends to be born by the worker, her families and the state. Considering this reality, the report concludes that not only are large textile companies getting the benefit of tax breaks for setting up in export processing zones and the advantage of low wages, they also get the “low cost of young, healthy workers, who don’t demand services and who will leave when their health and ability to keep working diminishes.”
CODEMUH holds both government and industry responsible for this situation. Since their report was published, CODEMUH has been fighting for reforms to Honduras’ outdated labour legislation and to make the social security system more responsive to workers’ needs. Their proposal for revisions to the occupational health chapter of the Honduran labour code, however, was stalled when President Mel Zelaya was ousted in the June 2009 military coup. Since that time, they have actively participated in the National Popular Resistance movement to oppose regressive changes in labour legislation and women’s rights. On the international front, they are focusing on campaigns to better conditions in two factories supplying HanesBrands Inc. from the US and Canada’s Gildan from which dozens of workers have reported serious injuries.
CODEMUH believes that things could be different. Instead of seeing young, healthy workers as expendable, the Collective maintains that each young woman deserves to live out Mariana’s dream; to be able to make a living with dignity.
*Adapted from CODEMUH’s Guide to Occupational Health.