By Garrett Brown and Bob Jeffcott
A group of brave women’s rights and labor activists in San Pedro Sula, Honduras were the recipients of the 2016 International Award of the Occupational Health and Safety Section of the American Public Health Association (APHA). The distinction was formally announced at the association’s annual meeting. Lynda Yanz, Executive Director of the Maquila Solidarity Network, based in Toronto, Canada, traveled to Denver, Colorado to accept the award on behalf of the Honduras Independent Monitoring Team (EMIH) at the November 1st awards luncheon.
EMIH has been working to document and improve harsh working conditions for the approximately 145,000 garment workers in Honduras for close to two decades. The Honduran garment industry, centered in San Pedro Sula, has been a major supplier of international clothing brands and generates millions of dollars in export income every year.
However, labor and human rights activists in Honduras have been subject to deadly violence by factory owners, large landowners and the government itself. In March 2016, Berta Cáceres, an indigenous and land rights leader, was assassinated in Honduras and over 100 other labor, rural and human rights activists have been killed in recent years.
Undaunted by this atmosphere of violence, EMIH has continued its work to support the rights of garment workers throughout the country. Beginning in 2014 and continuing into 2016, the EMIH has carried out an ambitious Occupational Health and Safety Diploma Program with grass roots union members in garment and auto parts maquiladora factories and the agro-export industry in Honduras.
EMIH has been working closely with a coalition of unions that select workers to participate in a series of training workshops, which take place every Saturday over a 10-week period. In the April 2014 to April 2015 period, a total of 40 workers from 12 workplaces were selected by their unions to participate in the program. A second group of 40 trainees graduated in April 2016. To date, more than 80 workers from various sectors have completed the course.
The workers are trained to identify health and safety hazards and to carry out health and safety inspections of their workplaces. A major objective of the program is for course graduates to play an active role in joint worker-management health and safety committees in their workplaces.
Although such committees are legally required in Honduras, they are seldom active or effective, and the “worker representatives” on the committees are often selected by management and are seldom given even basic OSH training.
EMIH’s training methodology emphasizes a rights-based approach and gender perspective and draws upon the team’s knowledge and experience in carrying out labour rights monitoring of Honduran workplaces.
The program includes training on types of safety hazards and how to identify them, prevention methods, work-related illnesses and injuries, the importance of personal protective equipment, Honduran legal requirements and international conventions on health and safety, brand codes of conduct and complaint processes, and proposals on health and safety to be considered in collective bargaining.
Students in the course also put their learnings into practice by carrying out health and safety inspections in workplaces. Each union member that participates in the course receives a backpack that includes resource materials from the course and hazard detection equipment.
EMIH ensures that past graduates continue to develop their skills and keep in touch with each other by convening periodic update meetings and offering workshops on specific health and safety issues. EMIH acts as a resource to past and current graduates as they develop their experience and leadership role at the workplace.
In addition, EMIH has facilitated exchanges in which graduates of the course travel to the southern region of the country where they exchange experiences with workers in the melon and shrimp sectors. EMIH’s work to unite workers in the industrial sector (garment) with agricultural and seafood workers (fruit and shrimp) is breaking new ground in the Central American nation and setting an important example for labor activists everywhere.
EMIH has begun to share the experience of the program with others in the region. In September the team facilitated a three-day training workshop in El Salvador with union members and women labour rights promotors at the invitation of a coalition of labour organizations.
In accepting the OHS Section’s award on EMIH’s behalf, MSN’s Lynda Yanz said,
“EMIH’s innovative and unique training program has not only strengthened worker’s voice in health and safety committees, but has also helped develop new union leadership at the workplace level. The award is an important recognition of the team’s many years of work.”
The Maquila Solidarity Network was founded in 1994 in Toronto and is a labor and women’s rights organization itself that supports the efforts of workers in global supply chains to win improved wages and working conditions, and greater respect for their rights.
MSN works with organizations like EMIH, primarily in Central America and Mexico, on cases of worker rights violations, and on joint projects and initiatives focusing on systemic issues affecting workers’ and women’s rights. MSN also works with the Clean Clothes Campaign in Europe and grassroots labor and women’s organizations worldwide to improve working conditions in global supply chains, including in Bangladesh and other major apparel producing countries.
Garrett Brown is a certified industrial hygienist who worked for Cal/OSHA for 20 years as a field Compliance officer and then served as Special Assistant to the Chief of the Division before retiring in 2014. He has also been the volunteer Coordinator of the Maquiladora Health & Safety Support Network since 1993. Bob Jeffcott is a founder and long-time staff member of the Maquila Solidarity Network in Toronto, and a labor activist in Canada.