The election of self-styled socialist Xiomara Castro as President of Honduras in November 2021 has given fresh hope to the republic’s workers whose rights have been continuously eroded over decades, particularly since the 2009 coup that overthrew President Mel Zelaya, husband of Xiomara Castro. Castro does not take office until 27 January but has wasted no time in establishing a transition commission that is taking submissions from a variety of social actors, including the three trade union federations, CUTH, CGT and CTH.
According to the ITUC 2020 global rights index, Honduras is one of the ten worst countries in the world for working people. 70 per cent of the working population earn a precarious living from the informal sector in one of Latin America’s poorest and most corrupt countries where over 73 per cent of the population live in poverty and 53 per cent in extreme poverty. The Department of Choluteca in the south has Honduras’ second highest percentage of impoverished inhabitants and one in three is affected by malnutrition. There, the activities of multinational fruit company Fyffes are the epitome of neo-colonial exploitation and are a prime example of the challenges faced by the incoming Castro administration.
Fyffes are the world’s oldest fruit company. Founded in 1888, they are best known in Europe as the biggest importer of bananas and in the USA for being the largest importer of melons, all of which are grown in Central America. In 2019, the Honduran melon industry earned U$110 million, 20 per cent of the country’s agro-export earnings, and directly or indirectly supports some 68,000 people. Fyffes is registered in Ireland with a head office in Dublin and a large warehouse facility in Dundalk where they are known for their sponsorship of the local football team and for being good corporate citizens. In Choluteca, however, it is a very different story.
Every year Fyffes hires 6,500 seasonal workers, mostly women, for a growing season that lasts from November until May. Most have no other source of income and barely survive for the rest of the year from what they have earned on the plantations. Some have been doing this seasonal work for decades and have suffered badly at the hand of their employers.
Minimum wage legislation is routinely ignored and, according to calculations made by the Labour Ministry in 2016, the seasonal workers were owed an average of U$916 each, amounting to a wage theft of U$5,087,590 across the workforce. Nevertheless, rather than pay the workers what they are owed in wages, Fyffes prefer to pay the infrequent and small fines that are levied against them for non-compliance with national labour legislation.
Workers are subject to the effects of noxious chemicals such as the pesticide Telone that has been banned in the EU since 2011 and are often forced to work in the fields after spraying has taken place, before it is safe to do so.
Telone is a restricted use pesticide due to high acute inhalation toxicity and carcinogenicity. GoodGuide’s scorecard ranks it in the top 10% of chemicals that are dangerous to human health. Based on workers’ reports that Fyffes is spreading Telone (1,3-DICHLOROPROPENE, or 1,3-D) through irrigation hoses, it appears that the type in use is likely Telone EC. The product label for Telone EC specifies a limited number of handler tasks that may be performed in the treated area within five days of application and states that handlers in the treated area within five days of application must wear coveralls, chemical-resistant gloves, chemical-resistant footwear and socks, and a full-face respirator approved for pesticides.
Telone has been banned for agricultural use in the European Union since 2011 and there are proposals for restrictions in California. The Center for Investigative Reporting has linked Telone to incidents of cancer in California, where Telone was first banned in 1990, although five years later Dow persuaded the state to allow it back on the market with certain restrictions.
Yes, they use chemicals, we can smell
them. They put poison on the plants. We
aren’t given masks. Once I was fumigating
with Random. It spilled once. It felt like a
bomb in my lungs. I didn’t report it. I didn’t
receive any training before fumigating.”
– Anonymous 30-year-old man
There have been frequent reports of sexual harassment and women have been subject to pregnancy tests before being hired – in clear breach of Honduran law. Despite making the appropriate deductions from pay, Fyffes have also failed to enrol their employees into the national healthcare and pension schemes, leaving them unable to access hospital treatment when necessary, and making them destitute when they retire.
In 2016, some of the melon workers organised themselves into a branch of the agricultural workers union STAS (Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Agroindustria y Similares) to bargain for better terms and conditions. The reaction of the company was to unleash a vicious campaign of union busting that continues to this day.
Within 24 hours of the new union being formed, the four executive committee members were abducted, threatened and locked in a shed until they agreed to renounce their membership. Union members were dismissed and blacklisted and in April 2017, STAS Branch Secretary, Moisés Sánchez and his brother, Misael were attacked by thugs who beat them and slashed the latter with a machete. Moisés had worked for the company between 1993 and 2016 before being denied work because of his trade union activities.
Death threats, intimidation and the formation of two ‘yellow’ unions have featured in a concerted campaign to dissuade workers from joining STAS. Unsurprisingly, the Ministry of Labour was quick to recognise the yellow unions as being the legitimate voice of the workforce and when a locally respected labour inspector upheld some of the workers’ complaints, he was demoted and moved.
An international campaign to bring attention to Fyffes’ misdemeanours led to the company being expelled from the London-based Ethical Trading Initiative in 2019 and cost them their certification from Fairtrade USA but, otherwise, little has changed. In 2017, Fyffes had been purchased by the Japanese corporation, Sumitomo for €750 million, earning its CEO and Chairman, David McCann more than €80 million.
McCann stayed on as CEO until he retired in 2020. In the same year, ‘Fyffes farms exposed’, a detailed account of the company’s activities in Honduras, was published by a group of NGOs and international trade unions. Subsequently, a dialogue with STAS between December and May 2021 provided for a binding agreement that included the creation of Solagro, a new subsidiary company, the hiring of STAS members and the negotiation of a functioning collective bargaining agreement.
However, the company has failed to make good the commitments it made in that dialogue. ‘The new Solagro company was effectively created but Fyffes never wanted to commit to hiring our affiliates, not even the members from the sectional committee’, STAS President, Tomás Membreño told REL-UITA, the Latin American division of the IUF (International Union of Foodworkers). ‘This can’t carry on.’ he continued ‘We hope that with the changes that will come after the November elections, the new labour authorities will call a halt to this offensive by the employers and guarantee respect for workers’ rights across the country.’ Xiomara Castro had addressed the congress of the Confederación Unitaria de Trabajadores de Honduras (CUTH) in San Pedro Sula in October, and CUTH presented to her the Political Platform of the Trade Union Movement. ‘Men and women workers of Honduras, you can count on me!’ said the presidential candidate. It remains to be seen whether in government Xiomara Castro will make good on her promises.
Bert Schouwenburg is a trade union advisor. He was formerly in charge of international affairs at the GMB union where he established and maintained close links with unions on Latin American tropical fruit plantations as well as representing the ETUC on EU-Latin America trade bodies. He has lived, studied and worked in several Latin American republics and has had numerous articles printed in a variety of publications
Images and quotations about Telone pesticide taken from Fyffes Farms Exposed, published by the International Labor Rights Forum, the International Union of Food Workers (IUF) Latin America Regional Secretariat (Rel UITA), and Fair World Project, with support from 3F International.