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Curfews, Tear Gas, Poverty Wages, and Threats of Infection – Sweatshop Conditions in Honduras

The Government of Honduras gave contracts to the maquila industry to manufacture medical supplies at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but maquila workers couldn’t use public transportation. A police attack on a private bus carrying more than 30 female employees of a textile factory forced the government to admit that police officers did not follow authorized protocols.

Allan Bu

 
 

Photo:  Deiby Yánes /Contracorriente
 
Photo:  Deiby Yánes /Contracorriente

This article is adapted from an investigation originally published in Spanish and is a collaborative project from El Intercambio, Contracorriente, Gato Encerrado, Desinformémonos and Nicaragua Investiga, in alliance with Otras Miradas and with funding from the Fondo Centroamericano de Mujeres and Oxfam.

“Enano” (“Shorty”) argued with the policeman. He was driving a rickety old bus and had just attempted an illegal turn into the main industrial park in Choloma, a bustling and impoverished city outside of San Pedro Sula. It was a little past 6 a.m. on August 12. He was transporting 31 women and nine men to their jobs at the Jerzees Nuevo Día maquiladora, one of the seven companies in Honduras that manufacture clothing for Fruit of the Loom. The officer detained the bus for a few minutes and then let it pass.

Cindy, a textile worker, watched the incident from her seat on the bus. She has seen Enano many times, noting to herself that he was quite overweight. She thought about how she was going to get home safely at the end of the day. Fear of the coronavirus had been causing her a lot of anxiety recently. Cindy heard Enano say to the policeman, “Man, why are you letting all the other buses get through and not me?” 

Maquiladora workers enter the gates to the Zip Choloma industrial park where social distancing is not enforced. Photo:  Deiby Yánes /Contracorriente
 
Maquiladora workers enter the gates to the Zip Choloma industrial park where social distancing is not enforced. Photo:  Deiby Yánes /Contracorriente

Cindy’s first thought when she boarded the bus the next day was to wonder whether there would be another incident with the police. “Good morning, let’s see how the day goes today,” she said to Enano before settling into a seat in the middle of the bus. Cindy lives in the López Arellano area of Choloma, Cortés, the department with the most COVID-19 cases in the country, so she prefers to wear a mask and plastic face shield when she leaves home.

The bus departs from López Arellano, about seven kilometers from Choloma’s city center, and travels along the main avenues of the Sula Valley metropolitan area, where 80% of the country’s manufacturing and textile companies are located. Cindy listened to the reggaeton music blaring from the speakers of the old yellow bus as it lumbered down the busy avenue. 

Honduras’ export garment factories, known as maquilas or maquiladoras, closed down briefly from March 10 to April 22 due to the pandemic. They quickly reopened when the government designated them as essential businesses, which included supermarkets, pharmacies, banks, and gas stations. Some of the maquilas were granted contracts to manufacture personal protective equipment and other healthcare products, and have operated continuously since then.

 

Jerzees Nuevo Día was one of the maquilas contracted to make face masks. Its main client remains Fruit of the Loom, which is part of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Group, a business conglomerate with 270,000 employees.

President Juan Orlando Hernandez promised to give a mask to every Honduran, around nine million people. The 122 textile maquilas were then contracted by the government to manufacture masks (US$128,000 per contract) or surgical gowns ($443,944 per contract).

There are 78 maquilas in Choloma alone, so there is a high demand for worker transportation. But when public transportation was shut down, many maquilas hired private buses. Jerzees had negotiated a bus service contract with the transportation union prior to the pandemic. Reactivating 160,000 transportation workers after the shutdown proved to be complicated. 

The no-exceptions curfew mandate in March began changing every week. Early in the pandemic there were more than 54,000 police arrests for alleged curfew violations, and a 100 citizen complaints of abuse of authority by the police. 

Cindy would later say that her pleasant greeting to Enano would prove to be prescient.

The yellow bus was five minutes away from the textile factory when two National Police officers stopped it at 6:30 a.m. on August 13. They were lying in wait for Enano at the last traffic light before the industrial park. Two bus passengers later testified that the officers accused Enano of attempted assault on a police officer the day before.

One of the policemen announced that the vehicle was being impounded. Cindy recalls that the police then asked Enano for his driver’s license, but Enano refused to give it to him. Enano then suggested that one of the policemen ride with him to drop off the passengers at their workplace. The police said no and the passengers protested — they didn’t want to get off the bus. One recorded a video with her cell phone.

The situation then escalated. “Look, everyone, I’m going to spray tear gas if nobody gets off,” threatened one of the policemen. A few passengers shouted, “Go ahead and do it!” Cindy heard a loud crack and the bus began to fill up with smoke. The 40 passengers started to scream.

Some people jumped out of windows, but most made a desperate break for the door, crying and cursing as they tried to get out. Cindy watched a worker get kicked by his friends as he tried to get off the bus. Someone else fell out of a window on top of another vehicle. 

Just minutes after the tear gas attack, staff from Jerzees arrived to treat the victims. Sixteen workers suffered some degree of trauma, four were taken to the Honduran Institute of Social Security (IHSS) hospital, and 12 were temporarily incapacitated by the tear gas. One of those was Cindy. As she tried to get away from the tear gas, she heard screams from someone lying on the bus floor. She tried not to step on her friend, and then jumped from the bus, spraining her left ankle, which put her out of work for 21 days. That same day, a report about the tear gas incident went viral in Honduras, but many soon forgot about it.

A Policeman on Trial

Every political crisis in Honduras is accompanied by a surge in police and military brutality. During the 2009 coup, the police and military forces brutally broke up demonstrations, resulting in 20 murders. Just two years later, a string of murders by police and links to organized crime drove the National Police into crisis. A police purge began, and structural problems in the institution were revealed. 

During the 2017 elections, the National Police and the Army again repressed widespread protests of electoral fraud. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Honduras (OHCHR) identified a common link between the 22 deaths caused by members of the police and military. The guilty parties still have not faced justice. In January 2020, a senior police official named Leonel Sauceda was jailed after he could not account for 14 million lempiras (US$560,000) missing from public coffers.

One day after the police gassed Enano’s bus, the National Police admitted that the two officers did not follow “proper” protocol when they argued with passengers and then sprayed them with tear gas. Improper, but not excessive. It issued a statement deploring the incident and temporarily assigned the two officers to desk work.

The police officer involved in the case is escorted to a hearing at the judicial building. When the hearing concluded, he was escorted out the back door to avoid photographers. Photo:  Deiby Yánes /Contracorriente
 
The police officer involved in the case is escorted to a hearing at the judicial building. When the hearing concluded, he was escorted out the back door to avoid photographers. Photo:  Deiby Yánes /Contracorriente

Jair Meza, the National Police spokesperson, informed Contracorriente a few weeks later that the incident with Enano was due to the previous day’s altercation, and because the police were suffering from “work-related stress.” Meza downplayed the incident, and seemed to justify the policemen’s actions. “Lots of people just ignore [the police],” he said, dismissing the fact that the maquila employees were on their way to work and weren’t ignoring anyone. 

After a two-month investigation, the police disciplinary office (Dirección de Asuntos Disciplinarios Policiales, DIDAPOL) recommended dismissal for the officer who set off the tear gas canister, but absolved the other officer, saying he did not actively participate in the incident. This recommendation was presented to the Ministry of Public Safety, which will make the final decision.

The case is now in the courts. The Attorney General has accused the officer of depriving the bus passengers of their basic human rights. Violations of constitutionally guaranteed human rights by government officials is a criminal offense. The accused officers will face trial, but are free on bail until then.

“We will investigate this incident and take appropriate steps to prevent such incidents from happening again,” said Jerzees Nuevo Día in a statement regarding the attack on the bus. We were unable to contact Jerzees Nuevo Día to obtain a statement about the police spraying tear gas in the private bus it hired to transport its employees to work.

On the day of the incident, there were about 815 Jerzees employees going to work in 13 private buses. They receive the minimum monthly wage of 8,226 lempiras (US$370). To keep their jobs and earn a bonus, they must exceed 100% of the daily production goal. Jerzees considers this high productivity job performance. 

Every day that Cindy leaves home to board one of those buses, she has that bonus on her mind. On that August 13, she wanted to reach the 110% goal, as she’s saving to help her 17-year-old daughter with college expenses.

Many maquiladoras like Jerzees forced their employees to return to work after the shutdown without providing transportation to and from the factories. So, Cindy walks down the steep street every day at 6:10 a.m. to the bus stop where she waits for Enano’s bus to the Jerzees factory.

The passenger in the middle of the bus

Cindy has been working in the maquilas since she was 18. She is a 34-year-old mestizo woman with big eyes, straight hair and a loud voice. Remembering her desperation, she talked to us in solemn tones about how she escaped her seat in the middle of the bus.

Cindy at home in the López Arellano area where most of the maquila workers live. Photo:  Deiby Yánes /Contracorriente
 
Cindy at home in the López Arellano area where most of the maquila workers live. Photo:  Deiby Yánes /Contracorriente

Cindy lives in the López Arellano area, which accounts for almost half of Choloma’s population. It’s one of the country’s most densely populated areas. Most of the Jerzees workers on Enano’s bus live there. The neighborhood is named after Oswaldo López Arellano, a general who governed Honduras for eight years after the 1963 coup. 

According to government data, about 132,000 people live in the 40 neighborhoods of López Arellano. It’s considered to be a “hot zone” for its high crime rate, which ranks third in the country behind Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula.

A gang called La Rumba is warring with the Mara Salvatrucha gang (MS13) for this turf. They fight for control to sell drugs and extort money from large businesses in this area. The residents mostly work in maquilas, informal employment, or live on remittances from abroad. 

Cindy is a woman of few words. She currently lives in a small room that she rents for 1,200 lempiras (US$48) a month. One part of the house is used as a small store that sells rice, beans, sugar, and soda. She lives in that small room with her two daughters. The older one will be 17 soon and is finishing high school. “She wants to be a psychologist or a lawyer, something that she likes,” says Cindy excitedly. Her younger daughter is nine and is in elementary school.

Cindy prefers not to give her full name for this interview because she’s afraid. She doesn’t say what she’s afraid of — reprisals at work or for having been involved in an incident with the National Police. She winces in pain as we talk. Fifteen days later, her ankle is still swollen from jumping off the bus filled with tear gas.

Cindy’s swollen ankle, sprained while trying to escape the tear gas. Photo:  Deiby Yánes /Contracorriente
 
Cindy’s swollen ankle, sprained while trying to escape the tear gas. Photo:  Deiby Yánes /Contracorriente

“We thought we were going to suffocate,” says Cindy. Enveloped in a black cloud, she desperately tried not to breathe in the smoke. She heard a man yelling for people to stop kicking him. Trying to avoid him, she jumped off the bus. She walked a few steps and threw up. Disoriented, she sat down by the side of the road. She tried to stand up but couldn’t — her ankle had swollen and was turning purple. She had also injured her hand. 

Someone took her to the IHSS hospital where she was told she had a sprained ankle, and was given a 21-day disability leave of absence from work. She learned that she would only receive 25% of her wages from Jerzees for those three weeks. She also had to pay for her medications out of her own pocket, including an injectable pain medication that cost US$8 per dose. Cindy took more than 10 doses. When she returned to work, she still had some back pain. “At least I didn’t get the coronavirus during the hospital visits,” she says.

According to IHSS data, six maquila workers (four men and two women) have died from the coronavirus, and 151 more have been infected in the factories.

María Medina, a union leader in the Jerzees factory, told us that some of her co-workers were infected and two died from COVID-19, although she wasn’t sure whether they were infected at work. But this didn’t shut down the factory, she says. Medina is recognized for having successfully negotiated the reopening of Jerzees Honduras in September 2009, after its owners closed it down to pressure union organizers. In January 2008, 1,300 workers were fired from this factory.

Like most factory workers, the Jerzees employees were forced to take mandatory time off when the government shut down most of the economy. Employers were asked to negotiate with their workers regarding compensation for this time off. The reality is that the workers were forced to take vacation.

Representatives from the government met with labor and employer organizations to negotiate relief payments for the suspended workers, and agreed to a one-time payment of 6,000 lempiras (US$240) each; the government contributed half of this amount. 

The government paid more than US$23 million for relief payments to maquila workers. Jerzees Nuevo Día alone received 5.3 million lempiras (US$218,000) for 892 workers, which amounted to $122 for each worker during the two-month furlough. This enabled the maquila industry to avoid spending large sums to pay the wages of its furloughed employees. But the workers had to make do with significant cuts in income.

The maquila is still operating. Near the site of the attack on the maquila workers’ bus, dozens of people, entire families, are begging for money on the main road. The long pandemic confinement has turned thousands of people into beggars. For the time being, Cindy and Maria are grateful to have jobs, grateful that they can keep on working.

Enano’s bus remains impounded by the Choloma police as evidence for the investigation into the case. Photo:  Deiby Yánes /Contracorriente
 
Enano’s bus remains impounded by the Choloma police as evidence for the investigation into the case. Photo:  Deiby Yánes /Contracorriente
 


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