As the media has reported on migrant caravans coming from Honduras, we have seen images of families separated at the border and kids in cages, heightening an already polarizing debate on immigration. Yet, as the American media asks why asylum seekers are coming to the United States, they fail time and again to question the root causes of poverty and violence from which Central Americans are fleeing.
According to the World Bank, 66% of Hondurans live in poverty, and one in five live in extreme poverty. Pundits tend to talk about poverty as if it were an accident or an abstract concept — it is not. It is born and fomented in a global economy that is designed to churn out poverty wages and inhumane working conditions, robbing workers of their health, vitality, and livelihoods. Multinational brands, like Dole, Chiquita, and Del Monte, produce in Central America under the guise of “job creation” and “sustainable development.” But instead of providing decent work, jobs created by global supply chains are fundamentally based on the idea of underpaid and disposable workers. The people who grow our food are treated like silent machines that service the world’s food system.
When Workers Unite: Confronting Fyffes’ Labor Abuses
Thousands of miles away from U.S. supermarket shelves, the melon workers of southern Honduras are confronting this race to the bottom by standing up to a global fruit giant that has long used their labor but never respected their rights.
Fyffes is the billion-dollar fruit company that Americans have never heard of. They are the top supplier of bananas to Europe and the main supplier of winter-season melons to the United States. For over a decade, Honduran workers have reported rampant wage theft and exposure to toxic agrochemicals on Fyffes’ melon farms.
In Honduras, Fyffes employs up to 8,000 seasonal melon workers, the majority of whom are women. By 2016, these workers had had enough and decided to organize a union with El Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Agroindustria y Similares (STAS). In response, local bosses fired dozens of outspoken union leaders and launched a violent union-busting campaign, physically, verbally, and psychologically harassing the union members. The violence peaked in April 2017 when Moises Sanchez, STAS’ Secretary-General, was kidnapped, beaten and threatened with death by unknown assailants. Sanchez survived the attack, but the crime remains unpunished, sending an undeniable message to workers that their fight for liberation is one that confronts powerful elites in the country.
According to the AFL-CIO, at least 31 trade unionists have been killed in Honduras since 2009. Violence against workers and the suppression of their rights are tools that local employers use to keep production costs low and remain competitive in the global economy. Multinational companies often take advantage of their market leverage by threatening countries to take their business elsewhere when governments enforce environmental, indigenous, and labor rights. Under free trade agreements, companies have even filed multimillion-dollar suits against Latin American governments that have enacted laws protecting communities, claiming that these restrictions reduce the value of their investment. As a consequence, governments, like that of Honduras, turn a blind eye to blatant labor rights abuses such as the ones on Fyffes’ melon plantations.
Instead of granting workers their universal right to organize, Fyffes did what most companies do when workers unionize: they spent tens of thousands of dollars hiring expensive consultants and lawyers, created management-controlled “unions” and attempted to distract consumers with watered-down “women’s rights” programming.
Corporate Social Responsibility is Not a Substitute for Worker-Led Union Representation
The difference between STAS’ organizing efforts and Fyffes’ Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives is that the former is worker-led and can hold bosses accountable through a legally binding union contract, while the latter is merely a corporate-led, voluntary public relations scheme with no real teeth to provide justice and reparations on the ground. Fyffes has used CSR initiatives to cover up union busting and empower local management to continue the abuse with impunity. Fair Trade USA (FTUSA) certified Fyffes’ farms in Honduras despite ongoing labor conflict, and only de-certified them after thousands of people sent emails directly to FTUSA’s CEO demanding the removal of the fair trade label.
At the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), we have seen firsthand how unenforceable codes of conduct and third-party audits have tragically failed workers for the past 30 years, from the deadly factory fires of Bangladesh and Pakistan to the toxic pesticide exposure in the sugarcane fields of Nicaragua. Workers in global supply chains do not need more labels and certifications. They need their right to organize to be respected. They need to have the freedom to denounce abuse in their workplace without the fear of reprisal. Workers are the best defenders of their own rights. They don’t need top-down solutions from corporations that are merely an extension of colonialism and white supremacy.
“Charity is not the same as justice. The farmworkers want Fyffes to follow the law, not to create programs in order to distract from the company’s obligation to remediate labor rights violations,” said Ahrax Mayorga, an organizer with STAS-FESTAGRO. “We’re not against gender programming, but we’re against it when it’s used to cover up labor abuses and circumvent the law.”
Fyffes’ charade is coming to an end. The company was recently expelled from the Ethical Trading Initiative. However, this has not been enough to stop their union busting. An international campaign is now calling on U.S. supermarkets to hold Fyffes accountable.
The fight on Honduran melon farms is a microcosm of the international worker struggle — a struggle against a system that keeps people in poverty while extracting massive profit for corporations. Violence against trade unionists and other human rights defenders in Central America directly contributes to a lack of decent work in the region, one of the many factors that fuels the cycle of poverty and pushes people to migrate. While every human has a right to seek asylum, they also have a right to stay in their communities, feel safe at work, and earn a living wage.
As the British-Somali poet Warsan Shire writes in Home, “No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” Understanding – and addressing – the root causes of migration requires Americans to take a hard look at the legacy of U.S. foreign policy, and how multinational corporations help create the conditions people are running from.
Learn more at LaborRights.org/Fyffes