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May 2, 2015

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Fighting for women’s rights--and lives—in Honduras

VANCOUVER - Convention delegates received some sobering news about Honduran workplaces and women’s rights from this year’s international solidarity speaker, who thanked CUPE BC for its support of her organization’s work.

Reyna Isabel Tejada Mateo, regional coordinator for CODEMUH, told delegates that Honduras—with a population of nearly 8.5 million people—has the highest murder rate in the world, with a woman being killed every 16 hours. In maquilas (factories) where most employees are women, international companies including Canada’s Gildan are breaking the law by forcing employees to work shifts of up to 11.5 hours, endangering their health and safety.

CODEMUH, a grassroots women’s organization that has supported women maquila (factory) workers in the north of Honduras for the past 22 years, receives countless complaints from women facing health and safety problems in their workplaces.

In one 11.5-hour shift, she said, a maquila worker will typically do 60,000 repetitive movements while sewing between six and seven thousand arms onto shirts. People who work in these factories often become sick and their bodies have difficulty functioning. They represent the lowest paid sector in Honduras, earning only $245 a month.

Mateo talked about Rosa Garcia, a 35-year-old woman she knows who has been working in a Gildan factory for 13 years. Rosa has three different injuries caused by work-related repetitive strain: one on her shoulder, one around her tendons and one on her back. When she’s off work, she requires assistance from her four daughters to brush her hair and do basic errands.

“They always say: ‘We’re not against work, but what we want is dignified work,’” said Mateo. “But this system is causing a lot more injuries, so we are fighting to improve conditions and get the companies to comply with the laws. These businesses don’t pay any taxes for importing or exporting materials; on top of that, they’re violating the rights of women.”

CODEMUH, which has more than 25 years of experience in Honduras, has recently won two cases at the country’s Supreme Court involving women whose rights were violated. The organization is currently appealing four different cases involving women who were fired from their jobs, including one from Gildan. It is also working on a proposed new occupational health and safety law.

“We hope that by the end of this year or beginning of the next to propose this law to our government, and we hope for the support of CUPE BC in doing so,” said Mateo, to a great round of applause from delegates.

“We know that, with this support from CUPE BC, we will be able to win these four cases we’re working on and continue the fight in Honduras.”

Mateo showed delegates her T-shirt, which bore a logo with a witch on a broom.

“The witch symbolizes strength,” she said, “but women need the broom as well, because they shouldn’t just be at home taking care of the children but should fly off to make positive changes for everyone.”

She concluded her speech by leading delegates in the shouted refrain: “Stop workplace violence! Jobs yes, but with dignity!”

Mateo’s remarks in Spanish were simultaneously translated by CoDevelopment Canada (CoDev) executive director Kathryn Janzen. CoDev, with assistance from CUPE BC, has begun a partnership with CODEMUH.

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