Marys Suyapa Gómez, a young woman from Choluteca, Honduras, has been a seasonal worker on melon plantations for 15 years. In October 2015, she was told by supervisors at the Suragro company that there would be no more work for her because she was pregnant. Marys had three months remaining on her contract.
Marys shared her story during a meeting held in June 2016 between USLEAP and 11 workers (10 of them women) who had formed their sector’s first-ever union branch six months prior. The meeting took place less than a month before Marys’ baby girl was due to arrive. When asked if she knew other women who shared her experience, Marys nodded matter-of-factly. The other women present immediately spoke up to confirm what Marys had said, insisting that their employer had a long history of dismissing women who became pregnant before their contracts were up.
Suragro is owned by Fyffes, a large Irish multinational fruit company that has historically downplayed allegations of labor abuses on its melon plantations in Honduras. In April 2016, the UK NGO Banana Link filed a complaint against Fyffes with the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), an alliance of companies, NGOs and trade unions, for allegedly violating ETI’s requirements on workers’ rights. Fyffes has not yet made a public commitment to meet with the Honduran unions that represent the melon workers in order to discuss the allegations.
Marys’ story of rights abuses on the job is just one of many shared with a group of NGO and trade union representatives from the U.S. and Europe during a recent international delegation to Honduras.
On June 13, at least 60 members of the community “La Permuta” gathered to meet delegates from USLEAP, the British general trade union (GMB), the United Federation of Danish Workers (3F) and German NGO Banafair. Most had worked for Melon Export (another Fyffes subsidiary) during the recent harvest season.
In a region with scarce income opportunities, 21 Melon Export workers were fired in April 2016 after organizing the sector’s second union branch to push for better working conditions. The entire community is now afraid they will be black-listed when the new season begins in October, essentially denied employment because of their support for the union last season.
One woman, who was afraid to speak until she was promised anonymity, reported that her brother, a father of two young children, believes he has been a victim of targeted, anti-union dismissals and blacklisting.
The workers spoke of being paid for only 8 hours of their 10-hour shifts and working without pay on Sundays. Local management, they reported, did not provide shoes or gloves to protect workers from pesticides.
“Nada,” they said. Translation: nothing.
“If we complain,” one woman explained, “we get fired.”
Older community members said that Melon Export failed to make social security payments on their behalf, which left them with no retirement when they became too old to work.
“The companies have used up our whole lives,” said one elderly former worker.
A middle-aged man named Esteban shared a particularly dramatic story. One day, he said, he took his lunch break 10 minutes early, and was punished severely for it: illegally forced to go five days without pay. The experience left him feeling humiliated.
While in Choluteca, the delegation joined up with Honduran trade union federation FESTAGRO to share their concerns about workers’ rights abuses with the regional office of the Ministry of Labour.
The Chief of Labor Inspectors openly stated that local companies prefer to pay fines rather than follow the law, and the Regional Director agreed. Both believe that fines are too low to deter illegal behavior, since they are cheaper than paying minimum wage. (In late June, FESTAGRO helped 93 workers bring a legal case against the melon companies for wage theft and illegal dismissals of union leaders.)
Ministry officials hope that a pending inspection law in Honduras that raises labor fines could improve employer compliance, but warn that the office needs more resources to adequately enforce existing laws. The four local inspectors currently share only one vehicle to cover a region spanning 1,680 square miles, they said.
In a same-day press conference at the Ministry, USLEAP and other international delegates told journalists that they will advocate with their respective governments, and with brands who purchase Honduran melons, to push for change. An article published by major Honduran newspaper La Tribuna the following day quoted USLEAP staff, who emphasized the well-documented failure of Fyffes’ Honduran subsidiaries to comply with labor laws as required by CAFTA.
Asked what he would say to Fyffes CEO David V. McCann, a Suragro worker named Waldyr Rodriguez thought for a minute and said, “You have to do an investigation.”
Waldyr described working 12-hour shifts fumigating the fields with only boots and a tarp for protection. Waldyr and his colleague, Maria Berty Gomez, said supervisors told them that a piece of fruit was worth more than they were.
Both workers live in Chaparrosa, a community that overlooks a picturesque valley with mountains along the horizon. Maria’s doctors say the reason she can’t see the view anymore is because she is going blind, and that it was likely caused by 15 years of working in the melon fields without protective eyewear.
To fight back, Maria and Waldyr helped form the historic union branch at Suragro, and they have resisted intense pressure to resign as leaders. Waldyr explains that now, “the fear is having no work when the season begins again.”
Following increased international attention, Fyffes now appears to be more willing to engage with the unions to address ongoing problems. If Fyffes does launch an investigation, they must meet with fired workers and current workers, and protect them from retaliation for speaking out.
Equally as important, Fyffes must not drag out the process. Workers are counting on being granted new contracts in October, and their right to unionize must be respected. The dismissed union leadership at Melon Export is still waiting for justice.