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United States: Honduran Labor Fight Reveals Exploitation Behind the Migrant Crisis

By Michael Galant
Truthout
May 23, 2019

Thousands of migrants sit in cages along the U.S.-Mexico border.

U.S. policy makers and media debate their proper treatment as if they have appeared out of nowhere — fleeing hardships that are, to us, unknowable and unavoidable.

Two thousand miles away, one labor struggle reveals how false this narrative is.

In a microcosm of the conditions that have forced millions around the world to leave their homes in search of a better life in the global North, farmworkers in Honduras are fighting for their rights against the violent exploitation of a powerful multinational corporation and a global economic system designed to marginalize them.

Fyffes plc is the fourth-largest banana distributor in the world and the top importer of winter-season melons to the United States. Despite an annual $1 billion in revenue, the Japanese-owned and Irish-headquartered corporation remains a virtual unknown compared to its competitors: Dole, Chiquita and Del Monte. But in Honduras, Fyffes is infamous.

Fyffes employs up to 8,000 seasonal workers in its Honduran melon fields, the majority women. These workers have faced unendurable and often illegal exploitation. Fyffes pays sub-poverty wages, fails to provide legally mandated benefits, and leaves workers without savings for retirement. According to The Guardian, workers report that Fyffes regularly refuses to supply adequate drinking water, toilets or safety gear, and the company has been known to illegally fire pregnant workers.

When these dangerous conditions reach their inevitable conclusion — when, for example, 17 women are hospitalized from exposure to dangerous agrochemicals — Fyffes fails to deliver adequate medical care or compensation.

Corporations sending profits to and servicing the consumption of wealthy countries create the conditions that force workers to leave their homes.

In 2016, workers unionized, affiliating with El Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Agroindustria y Similares (STAS). Fyffes responded with repression, “locking union members in offices and forcing them to resign, illegally firing workers, and psychologically and verbally harassing affiliated workers.” STAS’s leader, Moises Sanchez, was “kidnapped, beaten and threatened with death.” Fyffes then hid its refusal to negotiate behind a yellow union, insisting that a rival, management-supported union was the true representative of the workers.

Despite these obvious abuses, Fyffes has mostly managed to avoid accountability. The wealthy multinational wields too much power to face consequences from the Honduran government, and international efforts have proven ineffectual. When the AFL-CIO filed a complaint under the toothless labor provisions of the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), the U.S. Department of Labor released a report detailing Fyffes’s violations of labor law but took no further action. Only in 2018, well after its abuses had become public, was Fyffes’s Honduran operation decertified by Fair Trade USA. In 2019, the Ethical Trading Initiative revoked Fyffes’s membership entirely.

After years of struggle, and thanks in part to the solidarity efforts of the International Labor Rights Forum, Fyffes signed an agreement in January 2019 to rehire fired union members, recognize STAS as the legitimate workers’ representative and begin negotiations. Shortly thereafter, though, Fyffes reneged.

While perhaps an extreme case, the STAS-Fyffes struggle is not unique.

Around the world, multinational corporations based in, sending profits to and servicing the consumption of wealthy countries create the conditions that force workers to leave their homes in hope of a better life in those very countries. These corporations are empowered by a global system of trade and investment deals like CAFTA that allow capital to shop around for the most exploitable conditions without enforceable labor and environmental protections. Meanwhile, weak, voluntary corporate social responsibility guidelines and a billion-dollar “independent” auditing industry provide a veneer of legitimacy.

The “migrant crisis” is not a crisis of migrants. It’s a crisis for migrants.

This international problem demands more than safe haven for those impacted. It demands internationalist solutions.

To stop the global race to the bottom, workers must unite across borders, joining forces to compel multinationals to uphold labor and human rights wherever they work. An internationalist labor movement can leverage increasingly interdependent global supply chains by targeting pressure at every link — from growers, to transporters, to endpoint sellers. (It’s worth asking what it would have taken for recently striking Stop & Shop workers to have added a “No Fyffes Produce” agreement to their list of demands.)

Consumers, too, can play a role. STAS and the International Labor Rights Forum request that concerned consumers pressure their local grocery stores to hold Fyffes accountable, or simply contact Fyffes directly.

While targeting the corporations most responsible, labor internationalists must also work with broader social movements to transform the global political economic structures that enable such exploitation.

A new system of trade and investment must eliminate rules that empower capital and establish strong, enforceable labor and environmental protections. A binding global treaty on business and human rights is needed to supplant impotent voluntary guidelines. International financial institutions must rewrite their agricultural policies to support sustainable small-scale farming as an alternative to multinational agribusinesses. And, ultimately, ambitious plans like a Global Green New Deal, New Bretton Woods and global minimum wage are necessary to address the roots of global income disparities.

As STAS workers struggle for a fair wage and safe working conditions, they are playing out in miniature a fight that is happening around the world — a fight for an alternative to a global system that exploits workers until they are forced to leave their homes, only to be put in cages in the countries that profited from their abuse. The “migrant crisis” is not a crisis of migrants. It’s a crisis for migrants.

The alternative is not just an end to cages, although it includes that. The alternative is internationalism.