Update on Situation in Honduras

To:Primary Contacts, WRC Affiliate Colleges and Universities
From:Scott Nova
Date:July 23, 2009
Re:Update on Situation in Honduras

I write to provide you with an update concerning the military coup in Honduras, which occurred on Sunday, June 28, and the impact on labor rights in the country. Honduras is the fourth largest exporter of apparel to the United States and is a production hub for several of the world’s largest t-shirt manufacturers: Russell/Fruit of the Loom, Gildan, and Hanesbrands. A number of major university licensees source logo product there. Thus, the labor rights environment in the country is an important issue from the standpoint of university codes of conduct.

The coup, which deposed the elected President of the country, Manuel Zelaya, has been condemned very broadly by the international community – including by the US government, the governments of countries throughout Latin America, the European Union, the United Nations General Assembly, and the Organization of American States, which has suspended Honduras’ membership. One reason why the international consensus in opposition to the coup has been so strong is that the actions of the Honduran military suggest a potential return to the dark days of Latin America’s history, when military coups, and associated violence and repression of democratic rights, were a regular occurrence.

President Obama expressed this concern shortly after the coup: “We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the president of Honduras…It would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition rather than democratic elections…The region has made enormous progress over the last 20 years in establishing democratic traditions in Central America and Latin America. We don’t want to go back to a dark past.”

The coup poses both immediate and long-term threats to human rights and labor rights in the country. As we discuss in more detail below, the immediate problem is the coup government’s suspension of civil liberties, including freedom of assembly and association, its efforts to prevent peaceful protest and the free flow of information, and its violent repression of organizations and individuals who are advocating for the return of the elected president and the re-establishment of constitutional order. The long-term danger is that the coup will not be reversed and that democratic institutions in the country, including the rule of law, will be severely undermined. As we have seen in countries around the world, there is a strong correlation between the nature of a country’s government and the extent to which workers’ rights are respected in the country. While labor rights compliance remains poor in most countries exporting to the US (and Honduras before the coup was no exception), we see the worst conditions and the least hope for progress in countries that lack democratic governments and a healthy civic life. Thus, the degradation of democratic institutions in Honduras would in all likelihood substantially worsen an already problematic labor rights environment.

In this update, we provide information on the following topics:

  • The human rights and labor rights situation in Honduras since the coup
  • The actions of key leaders of the Honduran apparel industry and the challenges this presents for US brands and retailers doing business in Honduras
  • The prospects for the restoration of democracy and the rule of law

-Human Rights and Labor Rights in Honduras since the Military Coup

Since seizing power on June 28, the coup government has taken a series of actions that have violated the rights of the country’s citizens. The regime has suspended civil liberties and democratic freedoms by decree; threatened, intimidated and censored the press; and committed numerous acts of harassment, arbitrary detention and violence against democracy advocates and peaceful protestors. These actions have drawn condemnation and calls for respect for human rights from Amnesty International, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the OAS and numerous other international bodies and governments.

We provide below a list of some of the key facts ands incidents, as reported by US and European media, human rights organizations, and civil society groups in Honduras:

  • One of the first acts of the coup government was to suspend civil liberties and democratic freedoms by “emergency decree” – including freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, freedom of association and freedom from arbitrary detention.
  • Numerous human rights activists and trade union leaders have been harassed, beaten and detained. As of July 13, some 1,286 people had been detained by the regime, in a widespread crackdown on peaceful protest and dissent. There have been numerous instances of harassment and beatings of peaceful protestors. In one representative case, a parish priest was leading a group of Hondurans who were traveling by bus to attend a pro-democracy march in the capitol. The military shot out the wheels of the buses. When the group protested this action, soldiers beat the protestors and arrested many of them. The government’s suspension of freedom of association and freedom of assembly has not only made it difficult and dangerous for Hondurans to exercise their democratic rights; it has also sharply curtailed the capacity of unions and NGOs in the country to carry out their normal work.
  • A number of public officials have been detained by the military, including the mayor of the nation’s second largest city and the foreign minister of the legitimate government, who was later forced into exile. At least a dozen public officials have gone into hiding.
  • The regime has used lethal force against peaceful protestors. On July 5, soldiers fired into an unarmed crowd at a rally outside of Tegucigalpa airport, killing a teenager. When the boy’s father went to a human rights group to seek justice for his son, the coup government responded by arresting him; he has since been held without charge.
  • One of the most prominent grassroots activists opposing the coup, Roger Ivan Bados, was murdered on July 11 by unidentified assailants, in an act reminiscent of the death squad killings that plagued the country during Central America’s dark era of violence and military coups in the 1980s. Bados was also a longstanding labor leader. Another democracy activist, Moises García, was pulled off of a bus the same day and murdered in front of family members by persons who have not been identified. A commission of human rights defenders, lead by a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has reported five extra-judicial killings since the coup.
  • The coup government has carried out extensive censorship of the media. On the day of the coup, the military blocked the transmission of radio and television stations across the country, including CNN. Numerous stations were ordered to cease operations, including four independent television stations and the Jesuit radio station in the city of El Progreso, whose office was stormed by soldiers (that station is now broadcasting clandestinely). Employees of another station reported that the military fired on their office and then forced them to close. (One result of these efforts to prevent the free flow of information was that many Hondurans had no idea, in the first week after the coup, that the international community had condemned the coup and called for the restoration of democracy.) Soldiers have detained numerous journalists, including reporters for the Associated Press. Several journalists have been expelled from the country. Journalists and media outlets that have reported on demonstrations against the coup have been harassed and threatened. Among other incidents, the military detained a prominent political cartoonist, Allan McDonald, along with his infant daughter, and burned all of the cartoons in his office. The government has demanded commitments from some media outlets that are still functioning that they will not use the word “coup” in their coverage.
  • The regional office in San Pedro Sula of one of the main national union federations, the CGT, was invaded and ransacked by unknown persons; numerous files and computer records were stolen. This is one of several reported acts of harassment against Honduran unions since the coup.

Of great concern from a labor rights perspective, the WRC learned on July 3 that apparel workers at some factories were being coerced or enticed by factory managers to participate in demonstrations in support of the coup (many factory owners in the apparel sector, and business owners in other sectors, support the coup and the current regime). The WRC is still gathering evidence on this issue, but at this juncture we can confirm the following:

  • On July 3, some apparel factories shut down production, in part or in whole, and bused workers to pro-coup rallies and marches (this activity may also have occurred on other days). Thousands of workers were affected. Many of the workers who participated did not feel they had the option to refuse.
  • Some or all of these workers were provided with t-shirts in the color worn by regime supporters and some were paid cash to participate. (We are not certain of the amounts of money involved, but we have received reports that some workers were paid 500 lempiras – $26 – which is about three days’ pay.)
  • Factories from several different free trade zones were involved and the managers of at least some of these zones were systematically contacting the factories within their zones and urging them to get their workers to these demonstrations.

Although we have preliminary evidence, we are not prepared at this point to report on the participation of specific factories. We are continuing to gather information and will report further as soon as is feasible.

This is very disturbing behavior by factory owners. Pressuring and bribing workers to engage in political acts, including acts that may be contrary to workers’ interests, values, and beliefs, is a serious violation of workers’ associational rights.

Immediately upon learning of this situation, the WRC wrote to licensees and other brands that directly employ workers in Honduras (Hanes, Russell/Fruit of the Loom and Gildan) asking them to direct their local managers to refrain from participation in such activities. We also wrote to licensees and other brands that source from contract factories to ask them to urge their local business partners to do the same. Hanes, Russell and Gildan have stated to us that their factories have not participated in these activities and that they have communicated to local managers that such behavior is against corporate policy. Gear for Sports has informed us that they have communicated to this effect with their contract suppliers. We assume that other licensees have taken appropriate steps to communicate to their contractors that such behavior would violate applicable codes of conduct. The WRC will be doing fact gathering in the weeks ahead in order to verify companies’ reports concerning their own facilities and in order to determine which factories did coerce or induce workers to attend these political events. We hope that all licensees, and all brands with operations in the country, will be vigilant on this front in the days ahead.

Overall, with respect to the direct and immediate impact of the coup on labor rights, the primary problems are those outlined above: political coercion of workers by factory management, harassment and detention of union leaders, and the inability of unions to carry out their functions freely under the coup government. We do not yet have an indication of the impact of the coup on other areas of code of conduct compliance, but we will be gathering information as thoroughly as the situation on the ground allows. As noted above, in addition to short-term effects, we are concerned about the implications for the labor rights environment if the coup ends up doing lasting damage to the country’s democratic institutions.

-The Actions of the Honduran Apparel Industry

There is widespread support for the coup, and the current regime, on the part of leading apparel manufacturers in Honduras. Neither the condemnation by the international community nor the state of political isolation in which the coup has left Honduras seems to have caused any re-evaluation by key leaders of the industry. This support has taken multiple forms, including vocal support for the coup regime in Honduras; advocacy on the regime’s behalf in the United States and before the international community; efforts (as discussed above) to compel apparel workers to attend rallies and marches in support of the coup; and the hiring of lobbyists in the US to advocate for the coup and against the return of the elected president. There may, of course, be other activities that have not been reported publicly.

The widespread support for the coup among Honduran industrialists appears to stem in part from President Zelaya’s efforts to raise the minimum wage earlier this year and the cordial relations he maintains with civil society groups, including the Honduran labor movement. Political and ideological factors of course also play an important role: Honduras is a deeply polarized society, economically and politically, with historic tensions between the poor majority and the business and political elite. As Zelaya came to be seen as an advocate for the poor, his relations with the business and political elite deteriorated. These sectors also reacted with great hostility to Zelaya’s friendliness with the governments of countries like Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. Supporters of the coup government claim that the coup was justified, citing disputes between the President and the Congress and Supreme Court over potential constitutional reforms and alleging unlawful actions by the President. However, as the US and governments around the world have recognized, such disputes do not justify seizing a democratically elected President at gunpoint, expelling him from the country, and then instituting an unelected regime under martial law.

The strong and active support of Honduran apparel manufacturers for the coup poses challenges for these companies’ business partners in North America, and especially for those apparel brands that have wholly-owned and operated production facilities in the country – including Hanes, Gildan, and Russell/Fruit of the Loom. For example, all three of these companies are members of the primary apparel trade association in the country, the Honduran Apparel Manufacturers Association (AHM). Senior Honduran executives of both Russell/Fruit of the Loom and Hanes sit on the organization’s Board of Directors. The leadership of the AHM has been very active in support of the coup – its President, Daniel Facussé, was in Washington in early July advocating on behalf of the coup regime and holding meetings and press conferences with other regime supporters. There is a substantial risk that the participation of these companies in the organization will be viewed, inside and outside of Honduras, as an indication that they share the AHM’s position in favor of the coup.

Indeed, civil society groups with which the WRC is in communication report that many Hondurans already assume that multinational corporations operating in the country share the views of the local business elite.

Along with several labor rights NGOs, the WRC has urged the three major t-shirt brands, as well as other licensees and brands with major sourcing operations in Honduras, to issue statements ensuring that the pro-coup position of their Honduran business partners is not mistakenly attributed to them. This has led to an effort by a number of key brands, working with NGOs, to develop a joint brand statement on the issue supporting the restoration of democracy and urging respect for civil liberties and labor and human rights. A draft has been circulated, but the discussions are not complete. It is not certain that the statement will go forward and, if so, which brands will participate. We hope the brands will proceed and we will forward to you any statement that is issued. 

-The Outlook for Honduras

The international community remains united in urging the restoration of democracy and constitutional order in Honduras and the return to office of the elected President. No government has recognized the coup regime. Honduras’ membership in the Organization of American States remains suspended and further sanctions appear likely.

Despite this, it remains unclear at present whether President Zelaya will be restored to office. A mediation process has been underway in Costa Rica, led by the President of that country, Oscar Arias. President Arias has made it clear that any agreement must include the restoration of the elected President. The talks had made no progress, as of yesterday, because of the coup government’s insistence that it would not accept President Zelaya’s return to office under any circumstances. There were indications yesterday that the regime’s position may be softening, which, if true, could lead to a breakthrough.

Meanwhile, the human rights crisis in the country continues and there is great concern that violence against opponents of the coup government will escalate if a resolution is not achieved soon.

The WRC will continue to monitor the situation and its impact on labor and human rights. We will remain in regular communication with civil society organizations in the country. We will keep you informed as to pertinent developments.

Please let me know if you have any questions about this information.

Scott Nova
Worker Rights Consortium
5 Thomas Circle NW
Washington DC 20005
ph 202 387 4884
fax 202 387 3292
[email protected]