Canadians and Hondurans share OH&S stories

CoDev’s Labour Program Director, Carol Wood, is accompanying a group of occupational health and safety activists on an exchange with our Honduran partners CODEMUH, sponsored by the BC Federation of Labour. Sat, Apr 2nd they met with women leaders and activists from the organization, as well as a group of workers with serious health problems resulting from their work in the maquilas.

The temperature in the office began to rise almost as soon as the air conditioning was turned off. Twenty workers and 8 Canadians packed into the main room of the CODEMUH office in Choloma, waiting for their turn to speak. We introduced ourselves, and the women were encouraged to speak. At first, the stories came hesitantly and were very short. But as the meeting progressed, the details started to come out in longer and longer lists: excruciating pain in the shoulders, aching backs, tingling fingers…

And the stories were eerily similar: workers ignore the first signs of occupational health problems; the problems persist and finally the worker speaks to the employer; the employer provides some symptomatic relief; the problem worsens; the women can no longer work or have a normal home life; the employer refuses to compensate or accommodate the worker.

It’s a terrifying spiral for these hard-working women, and though our Canadian partners recognized some of their complaints, the lack of support system for these women is shockingly different than our situation in Canada. We spent a part of our evening going over what we heard in the afternoon, trying to find the connections and articulate the differences.

There were a lot of sighs.

This coming week, we will spend 3 full days with the women of CODEMUH, delving into the details of occupational health and safety: what preventative measures are or could be, what work site structures are best suited to resolve problems, ergonomics, health and safety training, organizing techniques, and probably a cross-section of other concerns. The learning will go both ways, and will likely happen in places nobody expected. It will be a chance to learn from each other, and hammer home why solidarity is the only thing that works.

As the third hour of the meeting wore on, the faces around the room were rosy with sweat, but the concentration never varied. By the time we decided we really were too hot and weary to go on, Gord Lechner, a delegation participant, gave us words that provided a way to refocus our energy: “Hearing your stories made us sad, but they also made us really angry. Now we have to take this anger and turn it into action, so we can all create change!”

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