AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre led a delegation of US labour leaders to meet with their Honduran counterparts.
“What we witnessed was the intersection of our corporate-dominated trade policies with our broken immigration system,” he said.
The delegation’s report, Trade, Violence and Migration: The Broken Promises to Honduran Workers, offers a frank assessment of the history and impact of US foreign policy in Honduras.
As well as being one of the most unequal countries in Latin America, Honduras also sends the largest number of unaccompanied minors to the US from Central America.
Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America and a participant in the delegation, told Equal Times: “We need to look at our own immigration policy, concentrating enormous resources on deportation and nothing on resettlement.
“We need to look at the trade deals, in this case, the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), that accelerated free market devastation.”
After the 2009 coup that overthrew the country’s elected president, Manuel Zelaya, the US raised only pro-forma objections and then quickly restarted military aid to the junta that seized power.
“Under the left-leaning Zelaya administration, the minimum wage was raised by 80 per cent, direct assistance was provided to the poorest Hondurans, and poverty and inequality declined,” the report says.
After the coup, however, “numerous trade unionists and community activists who participated in resistance were killed, beaten, threatened and jailed,” it says.
Based on extensive interviews with unionists, the AFL-CIO report details current abuses of labour and human rights.
The Honduran government has built apparatus to put down dissent, while the Secretariat of Labor and Social Security has passed laws to reduce permanent work, protections and freedom of association.
Honduran unions “confirmed constant violations of organising rights in direct violation of CAFTA,” says Cohen.
“These included everything from the murder of leaders to the collapse of bargaining rights where they once existed.”
Teachers are facing news laws limiting their right to strike. Farm worker unionists face an increase in violent attacks and threats against their lives in the sugar cane fields.
Five union executive councils have been fired by the partnership of the Kyungshin Corporation of South Korea and the Lear Corp. of Michigan.
In the port city of Puerto Cortės, the AFL-CIO reports on deteriorating conditions due to the privatisation of docks, with over 1000 workers fired.
The head of the dockers’ union, Victor Crespo, was forced to flee Honduras after his father was killed and mother injured, and he himself received threats to his life.
A support campaign by the US International Longshore and Warehouse Union helped save his life, and eventually won guarantees that allowed his safe return to Honduras.
Increased poverty and increased militarisation
The AFL-CIO report condemns a plan – one very much in line with International Monetary Fund (IMF) polices – to reduce the cost of wages in the public sector by cutting jobs and privatising public services, especially in the electricity sector.
Previous IMF public sector cuts resulted in increased poverty and forced many Hondurans to migrate in search of survival.
The report makes the link between increasing poverty in Honduras and CAFTA.
By emphasising a policy that deregulated business and used low wages as an incentive to attract foreign investment, “CAFTA only exacerbated the desperation and instability in Honduras,” the report charges.
The increasing militarisation of Honduran society is also noted – a trend that has gone hand-in-hand with increased US military aid, which reached US $27 million in 2012.
Both Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield and Commander John Kelly of the United States Southern Command have praised Honduran “advances in security” but General Kelly has demonised migration from Central America, calling the movement of families and children a national security threat and a “crime-terror convergence.”
That migration, described in the AFL-CIO report, has grown sharply.
More than 18,000 unaccompanied Honduran children arrived in the United States in 2014 alone.
“Today, migration is seen by many families as a means to escape violence or seek employment opportunity or reunite with family, while the government has embraced the remittances from migrants as a major economic resource,” as the report states.
Josie Camacho, executive secretary of the Alameda Central Labor Council in California, was a member of the delegation. She told Equal Times:
As a mother, I couldn’t imagine why a Honduran mother would ask her child to walk 1700 miles to the border, alone, and put her in the hands of unscrupulous people. I got a real education about the consequences of our military policy, and now I see people have no choice. We should embrace and protect them – it’s part of what being a union really means.
Three quarters of those migrants, arriving in the US after the immigration amnesty of 1986, have been undocumented.
As a result, Hondurans, even children, have felt the impact of the US policy of mass deportations – about 400,000 per year for six years.
In 2013 alone, the US deported 37,049 Hondurans.
Last year, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called on President Obama to suspend deportations:
“Continuation of the deportation crisis is incompatible with our values as a country,” he said, calling for “an end to a deportation machine that criminalises hardworking immigrants while deporting hundreds and hundreds of people a day without even an appearance before a judge.”
The report, however, differs with the immigration reform policies proposed by the US administration and the Democratic Party in Congress, which call for vast expansions in temporary, guest worker programs, in which workers labour for low wages and have few labour or civil rights.
“Temporary visa programs are not a safe alternative to undocumented migration,” says the report, noting the history of rights violations in the US, and abuses in recruitment, including extortion, fraud and the confiscation of documents.
The report makes a number of recommendations for both the US and Honduran governments, chiefly that the US extends refugee status to people, especially children, fleeing violence and persecution, and ends the mass detention of migrants.
Ultimately, the AFL-CIO concludes, the US government must move away from policies that “criminalise migrant children and their families, while pursuing trade deals that simultaneously displace subsistence farmers and lower wages and standards across other sectors, and eliminate good jobs, intensifying the economic conditions that drive migration.”
Photo: In a waiting area for port truck drivers and their families in Puerto Cortės, Honduras, a driver sleeps in a hammock by his truck. David Bacon