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Hondurans Protest as Elites Attempt to Use Pandemic to Enrich Themselves
With virtually no government assistance, laid-off Honduran factory workers have had no choice but to defy extreme lockdown measures and take to the streets.
Research & Commentary
April 21, 2020
Residents of Choloma, an industrial town in northern Honduras, blocked the main highway connecting the city of San Pedro Sula to the Port of Cortes on April 10. Choloma and nearby towns are the center of sweatshop production for U.S. brands in factories called maquilas. They are also the epicenter of COVID-19 in Honduras.
The workers blocking the road that morning burned tires, put up barricades, and demanded the government give them the food they had been promised. A worker demonstrating in Choluteca in southern Honduras told the Honduran media outlet UNE-TV, “They told us they’d be here at seven this morning with food, but no one came. We’re hungry. There are 70 villages waiting for food.”
Since mid-March hundreds of thousands of workers in these towns have been laid off as clothing manufacturers Hanes, Gildan, and Fruit of the Loom and auto parts maker Empire Electronics, among others, announced two- to four-month shutdowns. A few maquilas are calling some workers back to make medical equipment.
In some unionized factories, workers got two weeks’ pay as severance. Other workers got their accumulated vacation pay and nothing more.
Maria Luisa Regalado is the director of CODEMUH, the Honduran Women’s Collective, an organization that focuses on the occupational diseases of women maquila workers. She summed up what she’d heard from workers: “We’re scared to lose our jobs…but we feel impotent. Those of us who are renters don’t know how we’ll pay the rent. There’s a lot that’s unknown. We don’t know what’s going to happen with our lives.”
Meanwhile, Hondurans in the U.S. are having trouble sending remittances back, since many have lost their jobs. Remittances normally make up 20 percent of the Honduran GDP.
The Honduran government’s response to the pandemic is a textbook example of how the rich and powerful use a crisis to grab and profit as much as they can through undemocratic means. Of course, “disaster capitalism” isn’t new in Honduras, whose people have faced shock after shock since the 2009 coup backed by the Obama administration.
The military overthrew a popular constitutional government and introduced the politics of privatization of everything, including the rivers. There have been massive corruption and state-sponsored drug trafficking as well.
Since post-coup President Pepe Lobo announced Honduras was open for business in 2011, a torrent of voracious multinationals have set up low-wage shops, hydroelectric dams, and mining projects. The 2013 general election and the unconstitutional 2017 re-election of President Juan Orlando Hernandez, commonly called JOH, were both stolen.
Since then Honduras has devolved into a complete narco-state. JOH’s brother, Tony, was convicted last year in a New York City court of large-scale narco-trafficking and JOH is an unindicted co-conspirator. Of course, that hasn’t stopped the Trump administration from maintaining full support for the corrupt administration.
The result today: 63 percent of Hondurans live in poverty (up from 47 percent before the 2009 coup), half of them in extreme poverty. Seventy percent of Hondurans depend on the informal economy — such as farmers markets and driving mini-cabs — to make ends meet.
The notorious caravans of Hondurans fleeing north to the U.S. in the last few years were a direct result of the economic devastation of working people, the corruption, and the terror of living in a narco-state.
No one believes the government will use the $420 million to rebuild the health care system. It, like so many millions in U.S. aid, will end up in the accounts of corrupt officials.
Corruption and Dictatorship
JOH closed the country’s borders on March 15 (except to deportees from the U.S.), imposed an absolute curfew, and suspended fundamental constitutional rights, including the right to freedom of expression, private property, freedom of circulation, and habeas corpus, allowing indefinite detention.
The military and the police set up checkpoints across all major boulevards and roads around the country and forcibly closed public street markets, tear-gassing some who resisted. Public transportation was suspended. Authorities detained thousands, including long-time dissidents. Hundreds of people caught driving had their vehicles confiscated with no way to retrieve them.
Declaring an absolute curfew in a country with such harsh political and living conditions and with no social safety net makes life impossible for Hondurans. COFADEH, the Committee of the Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras, a human rights organization, claimed: “A curfew can’t be obeyed when people are dying of hunger.”
Health Care Disaster
“Destroy, then privatize” is a classic disaster capitalism strategy, which now means the Honduran health care system is completely unprepared to face the pandemic.
The destruction and privatization of the health care system began in 2013 when JOH’s National Party stole $350 million from the Social Security system, which provides for health care and pensions, in part to finance his campaign. What followed was the stripping of hospitals of essential supplies and maintenance funds.
Then a 2016 law undermined the national health care system for workers, a victory that had been won after a strike of banana workers in 1954. The new law laid the framework for an eventual gutting of universal health coverage for workers, forcing them to obtain health care from private vendors at much higher out-of-pocket costs. It was met with widespread protest by labor federations and social movements.
Now the government has approved $888 million to confront COVID-19, after requesting millions of dollars to fight the virus from international financial institutions like the World Bank, the Inter American Development Bank, and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration. Many fear this money will be diverted to corrupt officials.
Then the Congress, a few days before the lockdown, earmarked $420 million of the $888 million to implement the “Special Law for Economic Acceleration and Social Protection.”
The law intends to build more than 90 hospitals around the country to confront the COVID-19 crisis but hands the administration of public hospitals to the private health care industry. This law, together with its 2016 predecessor, transfers workers’ collective health care coverage currently under the Honduran Institute for Social Security to a for-profit system run by private providers.
No one in Honduras believes the government will use the $420 million to rebuild the health care system. It, like so many millions in U.S. aid, will end up in the accounts of corrupt officials while projects the money is supposed to fund are built only on paper.
According to long-time union leader Carlos H. Reyes of the bottling union STIBYS: “The majority of Honduran people and analysts think that the money is being saved for a future electoral fraud to maintain the dictatorship that is sustained by corruption and drug trafficking.”
Suyapa Figueroa, president of the Honduran Medical College, told CNN that the Honduran “health care system had collapsed” even before the first 150 COVID-19 cases were confirmed.
Not surprisingly, the curfew and privatization were greeted by a strike of health care workers, who immediately walked off the job to protest lack of personal protective equipment and basic supplies. Many now are working without adequate protection.
Fate of Jobs and Collective Contracts
At first many of the maquilas that produce clothing for the North American market refused to suspend operations. Despite the government lockdown, workers were expected to defy the curfew and show up, then work without PPE or social distancing measures. The department of Cortes — the center of maquila work — quickly became the breeding ground for the virus, and workers began to walk off the job in protest.
As of this writing there are a questionable 400 cases and 27 deaths in the country, but given the lack of testing, the impossibility of social distancing, and the gathering of hundreds to protest hunger, that number is likely much higher and rising. To date, a doctor who worked in Gildan and two Hanes Brand workers in the city of Villanueva have died from COVID-19.
Now more than three weeks since the lockdown, most of the maquilas have shut down, leaving workers high and dry. Some, however, are producing medical masks and gowns and remain open. In some cases, there have been reports that companies are suspending permanent, collective work contracts and replacing their existing workforce with workers contracted under the Temporary Labor Law.
Under this law, passed following the 2009 coup, employers can hire temps for three months with no benefits. Previously, jobs were permanent, and workers could only be fired for cause.
Businesses in other sectors are union-busting as well. Members of STIBYS who work for SAB Miller, Coca Cola, InBev, and Pepsi are still on the job — beer and soft drinks are being treated like essential industries. Many members are refusing to work until they get PPE; in response, companies are firing them and hiring temps.
‘Not a Single Step Backwards’
The extreme lockdown measures with no government assistance and next-to-no social safety net have forced many Hondurans into the streets. Sparked by indignation, hunger, and outright rejection of the corrupt government, many communities across the country have defied the lockdown, organized protests, and blocked roads. They are demanding food assistance for all, not just allies of the ruling party, from the $888 million approved for the crisis.
The Honduran social movements, including human rights organizations, indigenous communities, and dozens of other movements, are demanding that the government put the Honduran Medical College and public health experts in charge of handling the crisis, not state security forces.
They are also demanding labor and salary guarantees for public and private workers, an end to labor violations by employers, and freedom for political prisoners.
They are calling for “hours of noise” and “pot-banging sessions” (cacerolazos) each evening, asking people to make noise from the confines of their homes to demonstrate their rejection of the government’s actions.
Originally published by Labor Notes.
Karen Spring is a Honduras Solidarity Network coordinator based in Tegucigalpa. Follow HSN on Facebook and Twitter and Karen’s blog Aqui Abajo. Judy Ancel is a labor educator and president of the Kansas City-based Cross Border Network. See their new report “When Fleeing is the Only Option” at crossbordernetwork.org.