by Richard Glass
As part of its Workers Empowerment (WE) project, Fairfood International has been working with the Dutch trade union federation CNV International since 2008 to support selected labour union confederations in the Global South sharing skills and enhancing capacities for conducting research and developing effective campaigns aimed at improving working conditions at the beginning of the food chains.
In August 2013, Fairfood conducted a campaign training with the trade union CGT Honduras, which resulted in a campaign proposal to improve working conditions in the Honduran melon industry. The aim was to push the melon industry to commit to providing protective clothing for all 4,500 workers by the end of 2015. The resulting proposal received funding and following negotiations with the Honduran Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Health and the melon producer Grupo Agrolíbano, a four-party agreement was signed in September 2014, the first agreement of its kind in Honduras.
In October 2014, Fairfood’s Ines del Real Tovar visited Honduras to monitor progress, meeting up with CGT Honduras, as well as representatives from Grupo Agrolíbano, the Ministries of Labour and Health and the delegation of the EU in Honduras.
In this photo diary, she gives her personal account of the volatile socio-political history in Central America, the corruption and human rights abuses that still blight the region, and recent attempts to improve workers’ rights which have led to significant successes, such as those achieved by Fairfood’s partner CGT Honduras.
Central America’s struggle for peace
This is not my first time in Central America. The first time was in the nineties, a period in which the region decided to put an end to decades of dictatorships, civil war and terror instigated by external powers; the dark times when ideologies divided families and communities throughout the continent. Contra-revolutionary states brutally repressed social movements and the right to dissent was a death sentence for many, such as indigenous people, minorities and artists. In 1979, forexample, the Sandinista revolution triumphed in Nicaragua but failed to deliver on their promises of a better world for everybody, while in El Salvador a prolonged civil war left both fronts weakened until a negotiated peace was the only possible solution.
I was attracted by the democratisation and reconstruction ideals of governmental and cooperation programmes characteristic of the post-conflict period and stayed for more than 13 years working in the different countries as an expert on institutional and regional development. I am aware that my contribution to such a giant enterprise has been very modest. However, the region has given me so much back. Its unforgiving geography, rich biodiversity, colourful towns, and the courage of its people and their creativity in overcoming all challenges have been my real school of life.
Inequality and street violence
Today, almost two decades later, big challenges remain. The division between the 99% who have very little and the 1% who have almost everything has deepened. Inequality makes peace unsustainable. Criminality and corruption have become rampant both on the streets (leading to increasing numbers of gated communities) and within some institutions, and the efforts of many to contain the violence are undermined by the worst perpetrators acting with impunity. Honduras, the country I am coming back to now, sadly has the world’s highest homicide rate.
The push for change and Fairfood’s role in achieving this
There is, however, hope. Many people and organisations are working to find solutions. There is a growing interest from companies and institutions in working towards a more inclusive and sustainable territory. Fairfood focuses its efforts in the region on putting an end to the still prevalent inhumane working conditions in many of the agri-food chains. The companies doing business in the region have to understand that there is no chance for a sustained peace amidst production practices that harm natural resources and undermine the rights of the thousands of agricultural workers to a living wage and proper working conditions.
Some companies have started to do the right thing. Grupo Agrolíbano has recently signed an agreement with the Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Health and CGT Honduras to improve its health and safety policy for the benefit of around 4,500 direct and indirect workers. This governance approach towards more sustainable agri-food chains, in which actors seek win-win solutions, shows that there are indeed spaces in the region to experiment with collaborative approaches and avoid violent confrontation.
Visit to Honduras: monitoring progress and grounds for optimism
Experts say that fear can be overcome by frequent exposure. This theory doesn’t work for landing at Toncontín airport in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. It is considered one of the most dangerous airports in the world due to its proximity to mountainous terrain and its short runway. The Central American pilots who somehow manage to land an airbus 320 in one piece deserve enormous respect. As I fly across the verdant, rugged countryside of Honduras and see the approaching urban sprawl, I am reminded of the harsh working conditions we and our partners have been working so hard to improve and how far we’ve come in championing change in an often unforgiving environment.
Fairfood’s partners feel very positive about the progress made with the campaign for better protection for workers in the melon industry. Daniel Durón, Secretary General of CGT, said: “I am very pleased with the result of this project. The company is now open for the monitoring of labour conditions by the Ministry of Labour and other companies have also shown interest in the process”.
I also visited the Ministry of Labour with a delegation. The Minister explained that the national certification system on health and safety would be launched within a week. Agrolíbano has already become the first company in the country to initiate the self-evaluation procedure, which is the first step. This has been possible thanks to CGT’s campaign. The company can act as a role model for the rest of the agribusiness companies in the Global South. Denis Castilla from the Ministry stated: “In my more than 15 years working at the Ministry of Labour, I have never experienced this way of working with the labour movement. This is atypical in the country and a very good experience”.
The CGT campaign team is also seeking support for key organisations in the country. The person responsible for social programmes at the EU Delegation showed great interest in the positive results of the engagement with Agrolíbano.
Future goals: the fight continues
Fairfood will continue supporting CGT Honduras and other unions throughout Central and South America, fighting for safe and healthy working conditions. We are committed to positively influencing companies and government legislation to promote and protect workers’ rights and safeguard human dignity. The perseverance and courage of CGT Honduras is an inspiring reminder that hope should never be abandoned when dealing with goliaths.