In an earlier version of this article we wrongly identified the interviewee as Reyna Quintanilla, who is also a member of CODEMUH. Our apologies to Reyna Tejada, whom we have now identified correctly –the LAB team.
‘CODEMUH is an organisation concerned with rights, especially women’s rights. That’s its core activity. It is 23 years old. It started in the capital, Tegucigalpa, but at the request of our members it moved its headquarters to the north, to Cortès, the centre of the sweat-shops or maquilas, where women were being abused. We started organising, persuading women that this organisation could defend their rights.’
‘Was it difficult to persuade the women? Was there a lot of fear?’
‘Yes, it was difficult. We had to make contact with the women and persuade them. We’re faced with a patriarchal, male-dominated system, in which women don’t take decisions – the men take them. At the beginning it was difficult to get the women to leave their homes, that world within four walls, and so we invented activities, making toys or costume jewellery. And when they came, we explained about rights, and how we had to know about them and stand up for them. But when the women went home, they could show that they’d been making toys and things.’
‘We had to find different ways. We produced information material, worked out what services we could provide.’
But now, after 23 years, is CODEMUH established and respected?
‘Yes, CODEMUH now is recognised nationally and internationally. We’ve grown a lot. Many women have been through this process. We have over 1,000 women organised, most of them workers in the sweat-shops, and the workers’ mothers, who look after the children, along with young people and adolescents who study. Most of the sweat-shop workers are very young.’
And what work do they do? Is it making clothes?
Yes, clothes. CODEMUH works systematically with them to educate them about their rights. We tell them that they are women first, before being workers in sweat shops, and about our bodies, that no-one has a right to interfere with our bodies except us, about reproductive rights. It’s education about gender, about sexual and reproductive rights and about violence in the workplace. We have 32 groups in the communities dealing with violence in the workplace and three leaders supporting them and taking up cases.’
I saw on your website that industrial injuries are a serious problem.
‘Yes, because apart from the discrimination women suffer, and domestic violence, they suffer from industrial violence. The firms are violating their rights to freedom and health. We investigated the whole subject of health and safety in 1996 and got an understanding of it. We started doing workshops and forums. We invited the firms’ doctors and the social security doctors, and representatives of the social movements to get them to understand the problem. And we carried out a series of studies to see that was happening. And we found that part of the problem is the way the sweat shops organise the work, the long working day, the positions that the workers are forced to adopt. Under the Honduran labour code, the working day is eight hours, or seven at night, sometimes six. But the sweat-shops have breached the labour code and invented this system they call ‘four by four’, four days working and four days off. It sounds wonderful – you only work four days and have four days off – but the hours are long. And women carry out 60,000 repetitive movements per day, and this is causing problems to women’s bone-structure.
‘So we went to see what the social security system could offer. It has an industrial injuries commission, but it wasn’t working: there was an office, but no staff. We got this office to work, so that women could be examined by specialists, and the commission could rule whether the problem was an industrial injury or not. 48 workers have now had their injuries classified as industrial injuries, in other words, it was ruled that the firm caused the injury and is responsible. And 12 women now have pensions from the social security for the rest of their lives. The firms pay compensation for the injury, but no more. We say, ‘Your body is priceless,’ but the amounts of compensation fixed in the labour code are derisory. But if even if it’s a small amount, it’s compensation. And now the labour code recognises industrial injuries in the sweatshops. That’s an achievement. The code was drawn up over 50 years ago, and recognised industrial injuries in mines, but not in sweatshops.’
Why don’t the sweatshops have to follow the labour code? Are they in an exempt zone?
‘They do have to follow the labour code, but these foreign companies don’t even obey the Constitution. It’s a problem with our government, which is so tolerant. These translational companies come to our country and get the best sites to set up their factories. They break our laws, and receive services almost free: they have exemption from water and electricity charges, and on top of that exploit the workers.’
Who owns the sweatshops?
‘The great majority are from the United States. There is Honduran capital, Asian capital, but most is from the US, where the goods are sold.’
Reyna also described the impact on working conditions of the coup d’état that overthrew President Manuela Zelaya in June 2009.
‘After the coup there was a worsening of labour relations. There was an hourly employment law, presented as a “response to the crisis”. This was introduced for three years as an experiment. The three years is coming to an end, but the President of Congress has said, “The law worked.” The business lobby is saying: “ Why not make it permanent?” And they’re collecting signatures to make it permanent. But it’s a violation of the labour code. Under this law, women wouldn’t have the right to maternity leave, or a Christmas bonus, or holidays, or even to social security cover, because they’d be paid hourly. It’s a tremendous step backwards for working conditions, and we in CODEMUH are fighting it, along with other social movements.’
‘We’re campaigning against it, and if it passes, we’ll resist it. We’ve distributed leaflets at the industrial estates explaining it to the workers.’
‘The majority of people who took to the streets in opposition to the coup were women, and CODEMUH was there. It is a member of the National Popular Resistance Front, part of the executive in the north-west. We campaigned for the restoration of constitutional government, for President Zelaya to return to power, but we didn’t succeed. And in the campaign we stress the violation of human rights, violence against women, murders of women, and the attack on labour rights.’
What are the prospects for the resistance?
‘Well, we were in resistance before the coup, resisting patriarchy, machismo and the capitalist system, and we know that the way to resist is to organise and educate women, and this is the only way we’ll achieve changes. The government is violating our basic rights as people, as women, rights to education and health. Cuts are occurring in these services. In many hospitals there are no drugs: people just have the prescription and nothing else. Electricity bills are very high, public services are being privatised, and we’re campaigning against this because in the end the people most affected are women. We will carry on fighting for a decent life and for respect for our rights as women.’
You talked about murders of women. Tell us a little more about this.
‘It’s a very difficult situation. There was an increase in murders of women in 2011. In 2010 over 400 women were murdered, in 2011 over 500, and by November 2012 the figure was already 500. And the women being murdered are very young, 18 to 25 or 30. The majority of these murders go unpunished; 90% aren’t investigated. And they’re not recorded specifically as murders of women. When we ask for information, they say investigations are taking place, but we find that the authorities aren’t really concerned. They’re not interested in giving answers to the people, or in justice, for the two big groups who are vulnerable, young people and women, who are victims of murder.’
And why is this happening? Is it domestic violence?
It has to do with domestic violence, but it’s very hard to find out what happened in these cases. For example, in our organisation two women were murdered. One was in her house talking to someone, and someone went past on a bicycle and shot her. And the other was getting ready to go to work in the sweat-shop early in the morning, and she was murdered too. And we’ve asked the authorities for reports about what happened, but we’ve got nowhere. And the families are also very frightened of reporting the killings.
Were they killed for their trade union or community activities?
‘At the time of the coup, there were murders. There was organised violence, disappearances., and women were murdered for being involved in the resistance. It’s really difficult. The authorities don’t do anything. In fact, during the coup the repression against the resistance was terrible, from the army and even the police. There were rapes of women who’d been taken to police stations, rapes by the police. It’s a way of trying to shut us up, because the methods used are often symbolic. They’re tortured, raped, shot in the mouth. It’s sending a message.’
Is there a message you’d like to send to people who read this interview?
‘International solidarity is very important. It’s important in countries where governments don’t do anything, to secure just for the poorest people. Solidarity is important at times that human rights are being violated. People can take action in their countries, and spread the information we provide.’