Textile workers in Honduras organize to defend their rights together

Although diagnosed with a disability due to excessive work and stress, Maria Gutierrez couldn’t convince her factory manager initially to lower the production outputs she was expected to deliver. But with the help of a feminist collective, supported by UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality, she was able to defend her rights. Today she is known for her organizing skills among the textile workers of Honduras. The 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women discussed promoting women’s right to organize as an integral part of women’s economic empowerment.

Date: Monday, March 27, 2017

María Gutiérrez leaving the industrial estate of Delta Honduras, the textile company where she works  UN Women/Héctor Gómez
María Gutiérrez leaving the industrial estate of Delta Honduras, the textile company where she works. Photo: UN Women/Héctor Gómez

Every two weeks, the 22 members of the Honduran Women’s Collective meet in their office in the city of Villa Nueva, Honduras, to discuss common challenges and identify solutions. María Gutierrez, a 40-year-old textile worker, radiates a contagious energy as she speaks at the meetings. Members of the Honduran Women’s Collective (CODEMUH) know her for her organizing skills and for motivating women to speak out and support each other in securing their rights in the workplace.

When María Gutierrez, 19 at the time, first started working at Delta Honduras Maquila, a factory producing sport-shirts in northern Honduras, she didn’t feel so empowered. She worked 9.5 long hours per day, with a 30-minute lunch break and two 10-minute breaks during the rest of the day. To meet the production targets, she often did not take those breaks—until her body could not take it anymore.

"I started feeling physical pain and stress. When I consulted the doctor in the company clinic, he only gave me pills that made the symptoms disappear temporarily," Gutierrez recalls.

María Gutiérrez began working for the textile company Delta Honduras when she was 19-years-old. Photo: UN Women/Héctor Gómez
María Gutiérrez began working for the textile company Delta Honduras when she was 19-years-old. Photo: UN Women/Héctor Gómez

A study carried out by the Metropolitan Autonomous University of Mexico and CODEMUH in 2012 found that 46 per cent of the textile industry workers suffered from depression, 46 per cent showed symptoms of distress and 62 per cent showed symptoms of muscle disorders [1].

When Gutierrez finally went to see a doctor outside the factory clinic, she was diagnosed with chronic cervical spine problems or the cervicobrachial syndrome, and tendonitis of her left shoulder. She got a certificate for occupational incapacity, attesting a 37 per cent permanent partial disability.

Because of her health condition, Gutierrez asked the company to lower her production goal, so she could take her breaks, but her manager demanded exactly the same outputs as before. Adding to that pressure, her colleagues started harassing her, calling her lazy.

The stress at work affected her personal life, and her relationships with her children and her husband. "At night, I felt this tension in my chest. I felt like I was dying," recalls Gutierrez.

As she fell deeper into depression, Gutierrez was about to give up work when she heard about CODEMUH, a feminist organization with more than 27 years of experience in defending the human and labour rights of women in Honduras, and joined them.

"We are fighting against gender-based violence and addressing violence at the workplace, especially safety and occupational health risks," explains María Luisa Regalado, Director of the organization CODEMUH.

The “maquila” industry plays a major role for the manufacturing sector in the country, employing more than 100,000 workers[2. Through the Fund for Gender Equality, UN Women collaborates with CODEMUH to organize and train the women workers in the textile industry of eight municipalities on the northern coast of Honduras to promote their rights and safety.

The industrial estate of Delta Honduras, the textile company where María Gutierrez works. Photo: UN Women/Héctor Gómez
The industrial estate of Delta Honduras, the textile company where María Gutierrez works. Photo: UN Women/Héctor Gómez

"The lives of Maquila workers change when they have the opportunity to educate themselves and organize with other women. Together, they can raise their voices and truly benefit from the economic activities instead of being exploited,” says Liena Isaula, UN Women Programme Specialist in Honduras.

"I learned to defend my rights as an employee and not to overwork myself," says María Gutierrez, who decided to fight for herself and her job

Gutierrez negotiated hard for better working conditions for herself at the factory and for access to the medical care she needed through the company. Due to her partial disability, she also secured a pension. "Now I support other women in similar situations. Women workers should be aware that their working and living conditions can change if they know their rights and organize collectively," says Gutierrez.

Notes

[1] CODEMUH and Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana 2012: Condiciones de trabajo y prevalencia de trastornos musculoesqueléticos v psíquicos en población trabajadora de la maquila de la confección http://www.corteidh.or.cr/tablas/29545.pdf

[2] World Bank 2015: Honduras Economic DNA http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/150731468189533027/pdf/97361-WP-PUBLIC-Box391473B-Honduras-Economic-DNA-First-Edition-11Jun2015-FINAL-PUBLIC.pdf

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