Honduran Melon Workers Push for Union Rights

Seeking to improve their wages and working conditions, melon workers in the politically marginalized southwestern corner of Honduras are fighting to win recognition and a contract for their young union. Photo: John Walsh

“Those melons are contaminated by exploitation.” That’s what one melon worker in Choluteca, Honduras, told me she would say to a U.S. consumer thinking about buying the fruit grown, harvested, and distributed under the control of the multinational Sumitomo and marketed under the brands Fyffes and Sol.

“They don’t use that money to pay us well,” she said. “What happens is they wind up with their pockets full, and we wind up with our bellies empty.”

Seeking to improve their wages and working conditions, melon workers in the politically marginalized southwestern corner of Honduras are fighting to win recognition and a contract for their young union, a local of the Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Agroindustria y Similares (STAS, the Union of Agricultural and Related Workers).

The vast majority of the four to five thousand melon workers in Choluteca are women paid less than the country’s official monthly minimum for agricultural workers: 6,848 lempiras ($292.15).

While the workers do get paid the daily minimum wage, 228 lempiras ($9.73), the boss, by limiting their number of days of work per week to maybe four, can get away with paying only about half the monthly figure. It’s another example of how “flexibility” for management can translate into poverty for labor, especially in an area such as southern Honduras where employment opportunities are limited.

MELONS ARE BIG BUSINESS

It’s not that the melon sector is small. In 2016 Honduras exported some 268 million kilos (295,419 tons) of cantaloupes, honeydew, watermelons, and other melons with a value of $53.3 million, according to the statistics of the Central Bank of Honduras. Melons are the country’s fourth-largest export, after coffee, electronics, and fish.

Nor is the corporate master a lightweight. Early this year Ireland-based Fyffes was taken over by the Japanese conglomerate Sumitomo, a trading, marketing, and investment operation with a market capitalization of $16.8 billion.

During my trip in May to Honduras to meet with workers from the operations owned by Fyffes/Sol, the women I spoke to described:

  • being ordered to enter fields where toxic chemicals were just applied
  • working in those fields without protective equipment such as boots and gloves
  • being fired when management learns they are pregnant
  • receiving only token health care—along the lines of “take two aspirin and go to the public hospital”

The workers also say that the company provides no support for childcare or transportation, and that retirement is unheard of—although being denied work because of advancing age is not.

To get to the villages where the workers live, you have to navigate semi-paved and unpaved roads. It’s only recently that these communities got connected to the electric power grid.

UNION DRIVE MET WITH VIOLENCE

STAS, started in 2013, is the newest member of the agricultural union federation, FESTAGRO, founded in 2012. Several of the other member unions date back to the great Honduran banana strike of 1954.

The employers have responded to the melon organizing drive with intimidation, threats, and assaults. Their tactics range from captive-audience meetings, familiar to U.S. workers and organizers, to anonymous and public threats against leaders.

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This pattern reached a peak in April, when a group of men with their faces covered cornered Moisés Sánchez, the leader of the Choluteca local of the STAS, as he bicycled home. They held him at gunpoint, and when his younger brother Misael attempted to intervene, one of the attackers slashed him in the face with a machete.

Moisés was held captive and searched for over half an hour. The attackers threatened to kill him if he kept organizing the union. Only two things allowed him to escape alive—the fact that they found what they were looking for, Moisés’ phone containing union information, and that a large group of villagers arrived to rescue him.

The attack, condemned by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, joins a series of threats and assaults against labor activists in Honduras, including FESTAGRO leaders.

Though it’s not uncommon for the targets who are not killed to be driven into exile, Moisés is still in Choluteca.

INTERNATIONAL CENSURE

The systemic violations of labor rights in the Honduran melon sector have begun to receive international attention. In 2012, Honduran labor organizations and the AFL-CIO filed a petition under the Central American Free Trade Agreement, CAFTA-DR, alleging that Honduras has failed to enforce its labor laws. In 2015 these allegations were substantiated in a report by the U.S. Department of Labor, and in consequence that year the two governments signed a “Labor Rights Monitoring and Action Plan.”

This move follows two other bilateral labor action plans between the U.S. and Colombia and Guatemala. But all three share the same weaknesses: tending to favor changes on paper—in laws, regulations, policies, and budgets—over genuine changes on the job.

Even self-policing bodies with corporate participation have decided that the lack of respect for labor rights by Fyffes in Honduras is intolerable. In May the board of the Ethical Trading Initiative, an alliance of companies, unions, and non-governmental organizations based in London, adopted a recommendation to suspend and potentially expel Fyffes from membership unless the situation improves.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

The level of public protest in Europe, where Fyffes sells more bananas, has not yet been matched in the U.S., where it sells more melons.

To win real improvements, Choluteca melon workers say they will depend on consumer pressure where most of their product is sold, in the eastern U.S. Between now and August—while the retailers and Sumitomo/Fyffes will be negotiating the contract for the next harvest—is a pivotal time.

You can listen to the voices of the workers themselves—both full-length interviews in the original Spanish, and an edited, translated version—at bit.ly/KBOOmelons . Then decide for yourself whose side you are on, and what you are going to do about it.

One concrete thing anyone can do is talk to the manager at your local grocery store. Ask where the melons come from, explain that you’re concerned about the labor conditions for the workers who supply them, and ask the grocery manager to raise this issue with the wholesaler. You could also bring your complaint straight to the source: Sumitomo has corporate offices around North America, including a head office in New York.

John Walsh is a longtime union shop steward active in Latin America solidarity work.