COVID-19 Update: Situation Dire for Women Workers in Honduras’ Maquila Zones

Update from the Honduran Women’s Collective – (CODEMUH)
Maria Luisa Regalado, Director

CODEMUH Director Maria Luisa Regalado arrived in BC on March 12 on a speaking tour with the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators (FPSE), the same day that CoVid 19 was officially declared a pandemic. Within days, the tour had to be cancelled and CoDev was faced the challenge of getting Maria Luisa back home after the de facto government in Honduras suddenly closed all borders.

She ended up spending three weeks in Mexico, until the Mexico City government ordered hotels closed and Maria Luisa was forced into the street. What ensued was an epic multi-country journey involving diplomatic corps, police escorts, border patrols and detention by the Honduran military, before Maria Luisa was safely back home in the northern maquila town of Choluma – and under strict orders not to leave her room for two weeks.

When she was finally able to emerge, María Luisa found a community transformed by the closing of factories and a strict lockdown that allows most residents to leave their homes only once every two weeks.

Maria Luisa originally wrote the article below as a report to FPSE, but CoDev has published it here in the belief that the challenging conditions faced by the women CODEMUH works with are of interest to all CoDev’s members and supporters.

Choloma Cortés, Honduras, June 13, 2020 – Honduras was already experiencing the worst setbacks in its history, a precarious situation under a government that has centralized decision-making, eliminated social programs and imposed fiscal programs that are destroying small and medium-sized companies. Small family businesses are forced to close operations because they can no longer pay taxes and have joined those working in the informal sector. Women are the most affected. The scenario was already complicated by the lack of independence of State powers. The Supreme Court of Justice and the National Congress are practically under the command of the President of the Republic.

This is aggravated by the crisis generated by the Covid-19 pandemic, a situation that has worsened economic, social and gender conditions. Since the government had largely privatized the public health system, conditions were already precarious. With the arrival of Covid-19, the system has collapsed.

The management of the pandemic emergency is centralized in the administration of de facto president, Juan Orlando Hernández, under a repressive system that has largely put the institutions of the State in the hands of the army. The government has implemented a “solidarity grocery bag” emergency food distribution system, but it is representatives of the ruling National party and the military who distribute it. In addition, government purchases of food aid and emergency health materials have been marred by levels of corruption excessive even by Honduran standards.

Some measures the Government has taken in response to the pandemic are: The State of Sanitary Emergency decree and the State of Emergency with suspension of constitutional guarantees in four provinces. Among these measures are a strict curfew that prohibits Hondurans from leaving their homes unless they have special permits. The National Congress also approved a special law to spend USD $ 420 million on the construction of 95 temporary hospital centers, medicines and the hiring of health personnel. But anti-corruption and human rights organizations have received alarming complaints regarding non-compliance with State obligations. There are also various complaints about high levels of corruption. Meanwhile the population endures a total curfew, already in its third month, and is uninformed and without resources for subsistence.

Increase in Violence Against Women
The mandatory confinement measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated violence against women in Honduras. Dozens of complaints are reported daily for domestic and intra-family violence. From when the lock-down began March 17, until mid-May, the National Prosecutor’s Office reports 651 complaints filed by women suffering domestic violence. The National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) uses the term “the other pandemic” for the violent deaths of women, which have reached 180 so far this year. Feminist organizations are calling on authorities to declare this wave of killings of women an emergency. From January to May of this year, 41,708 women filed reports of domestic and intra-family violence through the 911 emergency line.
The economic situation of the maquila worker population, especially women, in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic is extremely difficult. Impoverishment and begging have increased, especially among women who are responsible for the home economy and the care economy.

Layoffs and Labour Violations
Maquila workers have faced various violations of their human rights since the beginning of the crisis. The Labour Minister recommended that the maquiladora employers deduct vacations and statuary holidays from workers for the days they were unable to work (because the factories were shut down) from the second fortnight of March to April 12. So, the working population has already given up their vacation and paid statuary holidays for the entire year, some until the holidays of January and February 2023.

Once vacation time was used up, the companies suspended workers’ contracts for between 8 and 18 weeks. The working population, enduring compulsory confinement, is left with no recourse to these measures, as the Labour Ministry and Social Security Institute have kept their offices closed since the pandemic measures began. The government approved decree 33-2020, which provides a subsidy of 6000 lempiras (about Can $335) monthly for workers whose contracts are suspended. 3,500 lempiras are paid by the government and 2,500 by the employers, but employers are not required to participate in the program, and not all have. There is no way for workers to file complaints regarding the series of violations they face, because the labour ministry is closed.

A Pandemic of Fear
As of June 24, 2020, there were 13,943 people in Honduras infected with the Covid 19 virus and 405 dead, according to government figures. A pandemic of fear, a collapsed public health system and management of the pandemic by a president tainted with high levels of corruption have all served to generate panic in the population about the pandemic.

On June 8, the government implemented a “smart plan” to reopen 20% of the economy, without considering that Honduras is at the peak of the pandemic and that a high number of working women have been infected. The situation is taking a significant toll on the mental health of maquila workers. They face fear about the pandemic, stress from the long lockdown, and serious emotional problems caused by panic over the pandemic, concern that they may lose the employment due to the economic crisis, discrimination if they are infected. They cannot even return to their communities because they will not be accepted there and travel between towns is restricted.

In the context of the pandemic CODEMUH faces challenges in continuing its work. The organization redefined its work strategy to prioritize addressing the various violations of women’s rights that have arisen in the context of the crisis. The lockdown has meant an increase in violent acts against women in labour matters and in their gender condition, as well as fear, panic, a feeling of powerlessness, and serious emotional and economic damage. Their fears are exacerbated when they see that they are at risk of permanently losing their job and also of the risk of becoming infected if they return to the factory floor.

Despite the context in which we are living, CODEMUH’s 31 years of experience has allowed it to reorient its strategies and make use of virtual means to continue the training process, providing legal advice, documentation of violations of workers’ rights, and strengthening alliances, especially the Gladys Lanza Women’s Tribune against Femicides. All of this is carried out via cell phone networks, as most maquila workers do not have access to computers or internet. During the last two months, CODEMUH has used the cellphone App Whatsapp to train 150 women in biosafety measures. CODEMUH is also collaborating with mental health professionals to use the same network to provide ongoing collective psychotherapy for working women in the region.

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