Respect and dignity for women agricultural workers 2

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In Honduras, melons represent 11% of agricultural exports. They are mainly cultivated by women who represent two thirds of the workforce. Human rights violations in the industry are numerous and include precarious contracts, long work days, salaries below the national minimum, discrimination and virtually non existent access to health services. This International Women’s Day our partner, COSIBAH (1), has appealed for the multinational fruit company Fyffes to ensure that their principal Honduran subsidiary, Suragro, respects the rights of their workers. COSIBAH also asks that the Ministry of Labour enforces the effective implementation of labour laws in the industry.

One of the largest multinationals in the fruit sector, Fyffes, historically producers and exporters of bananas, has expanded their trade to include melons and pineapples which now account for a third of it’s revenue. Fyffes prides itself on supplying ‘first class’ fruit which is sourced with respect for the environment and growers. However women employed in the melon plantations of it’s Honduran subsidiary, Suragro, may question with how much respect they are being treated.

In August 2011 COSIBAH launched an investigation into the conditions of agricultural workers from 600 households in Choluteca and Valle, the main melon production areas in Honduras.

The investigation revealed that female employees are mostly young single mothers with 4-5 children to support. Melons are grown in greenhouses on a seasonal basis between April and September and all women are employed in temporary positions. Only men are employed in management positions which offer the sole opportunity of permanent employment in the sector. Unions cannot organise and defend the rights of women in such precarious employment with little knowledge of their rights and employers who actively repress the freedom to join a union.

Workers are paid less than 70% of the national minimum wage, which is itself far below a living wage. Workdays are long - sometimes women have to wake up at 3am to travel to their workplace and return between 8 and 10pm - and overtime is not paid.

An overwhelming majority of women (between 89% and 97%) lack access to effective social security protection. Yet accidents at work (particularly related to the use of machinery) and health problems caused by intensive agrochemical use (respiratory diseases, skin problems and vision) are common, and exacerbated by a failure to provide adequate protective equipment.

Although access to the national system social security system should be guaranteed employers frequently fail to pay contributions therefore denying women access to services, notably health care. Where access is provided to private care, medical services are too far away to respond in time to accidents on the plantations. Suragro does little to protect the health of workers unless under external pressure to do so.

For example, one worker, Augustina Alvarez, had a finger amputated as the result of an accident at work but was only able to secure the financial compensation she was legally entitled to because of pressure from COSIBAH.

Suragro is the biggest employer in the melon industry and yet sadly the most persistent violator of worker’s rights, particularly with regard to gender discrimination, including the dismissal of pregnant women who are subsequently denied their maternity rights.

COSIBAH and COLSIBA (the Latin American Coordination of Banana and other Agro-industrial Product Worker Unions) are asking for international solidarity to support their demand that Fyffes and the Ministry of Labour accept responsibility for the working conditions of women in the melon industry and ensure that they are substantially improved.

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