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Honduran workers given voice on radio

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
El Progreso, Honduras

It is late in the evening when Dunia Montoya comes on the radio. In ramshackle houses throughout the Sula Valley, women, exhausted from sewing shirts they will never wear, listen to her message as they wash dishes or iron their clothes. In their work world, where a production bottom line is the only thing that matters, Montoya pays attention to their everyday needs.

Montoya is host of "Las Golondrinas" -- "The Swallows" -- a new radio program directed at workers in an industry that has become the No. 1 employer in Honduras: the final assembly of garments for the U.S. market. Ninety percent of the maquila workers are women.

Montoya's locally produced program airs four nights a week. The show mixes music with legal instruction, poetry with complaints of human rights violations. It's a place, Montoya said, "where workers are treated like humans, like young women with dreams, problems, hopes and fears." Such respect for poor women is an anomaly in El Progreso.

Montoya, 25, knows her journalistic material. She grew up in the banana fields that still fill the huge expanses between industrial parks along the rapidly developing northern coast of Honduras -- Central America's quintessential banana plantation turned maquila republic.

Her father was a school teacher and a union organizer. When Montoya was 9, her father disappeared. He may have been killed for political reasons, but Montoya suspects he just grew tired of caring for his growing family and ran off.

Montoya's mother kept the family alive by harvesting bananas for shipment to the United States. Montoya eventually worked her way through university studies in journalism, then got a job at a radio station in San Pedro Sula, the booming commercial capital of Honduras that lies at the other end of the Sula Valley. Yet she found the station too comfortable, too removed from life in the workers' village. She quit her job and became an interviewer for several organizations investigating the nascent maquila industry's impact on Honduran society.

Listening to the workers she interviewed, Montoya became familiar with the problems the young women faced. Many had left their rural communities and come to the valley for a job that paid several times more than they could earn back home. But in exchange for those lempiras that rapidly lost their value, the young women endured abuse in the workplace and went home in the evening to small, exorbitantly priced hovels.

Montoya soon grew tired of observing and got a job in the quality control department of a U.S.-owned factory that manufactured brassieres. She was uncomfortable directing young workers. After 11 months on the job, Montoya was dismissed: "My boss told me I wasn't cut out for the work," she said.

Shortly after Montoya left the production line, Fr. Joe Owens, station manager of Jesuit-run Radio Progreso, recommended her as host of a new program he was starting in cooperation with the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras -- CODEH. Montoya took the job.

Before the program aired, she met with a group of young maquila workers being trained by CODEH as activists. The group discussed what form and name to give the program, finally deciding on "The Swallows," a reference to what they see as flighty international capital invested in maquilas running in empty warehouses only until its owners find cheaper labor elsewhere.

"The workers are also swallows," Montoya said. "They come here full of dreams from the countryside, but when they realize the situation isn't what they thought it was going to be, when they start being mistreated, then they start the pilgrimage from one factory to another looking for better work, traveling in circles through the valley."

After three or four years of mindless work, Montoya said, "the women return to the countryside tired, worn out and many times sick, possessing the same few options they had when they first left."

"Las Golondrinas" made its debut in December in a slot following a program by the banana worker's union.

For her shows, Montoya has interviewed mistreated workers, women's health specialists, maquila owners and government officials. Her stint inside the maquila means she knows the technical jargon of the workplace -- cloth types, buttonhole specifications and the symptoms of work-related illnesses.

The show is growing in popularity. Indignant workers come to the station in El Progreso searching for Montoya, hoping she'll take up their case. Montoya airs most of the testimonies and provides counsel about where to turn.

"One of my biggest satisfactions is to help a worker lose her fear so that she can go speak as an equal to her employer knowing that she can't legally be fired for speaking out," Montoya said.

Promoting union organization is more complicated. "I can help educate the workers about their rights and obligations, but I can't encourage them to form unions when they'll just get fired as a result," she said.

Only about one-sixth of the country's 200-plus maquilas have unions. Attempts to organize additional workplace unions have been stymied by industry "blacklists" and government laxity in enforcing labor laws. Honduran unions are also notoriously corrupt. Human rights activists claim unions have done little for the maquila workers.

"Some union leaders have folded under to the interests of the company owners," said Ramon Custodio, president of CODEH. "They help prevent the organizing of the workers, they turn a blind eye when pregnant women get fired or the workday is lengthened beyond what is humanly possible."

The 85,000 jobs provided by the maquilas discourage government leaders from meddling with an industry that provides employment where other sectors have failed. Instead, government policy is to lure the maquilas with tax breaks and other incentives. "The government has grown dependent on the maquilas," said Montoya. "They think that this solves the employment problem."

So maquila managers, unafraid of reprisals, routinely ignore Labor Ministry inspectors. And according to Maritza Paredes, a lawyer who heads CODEH's maquila work, a majority of maquila personnel directors are former Labor Ministry inspectors, forming an old-boy network. "They're more papist than the pope when the law is on their side," Paredes said.

Maquila owners deny charges that they're antiunion. "I believe in unions that are modern, unions that don't affect the productivity of the company," said Jesus Canahuati, vice president of the industry's umbrella group, the Association of Honduran Maquiladores.

Canahuati was an architect of a 1995 agreement between the association and several labor unions to establish a joint committee to resolve workplace disputes. If the bipartisan committee can't solve a problem, then the Labor Ministry is supposed to step in. The process was set up after industry leaders grew tired of trekking to Washington to defend their operations before congressional hearings. "Our position is that it is better to wash our dirty laundry at home," Canahuati said.

Hugo Maldonado, CODEH's San Pedro Sula director, claims that while the agreement has been used by the Honduran ambassador in Washington to "dazzle" prospective textile buyers, at home it has meant little improvement because the unions are "used as utensils in the kitchen of the maquila association."

What alternative, then, do maquila workers have to defend their rights? CODEH has no answer. "We still haven't found the formula for these women to organize without risking too much," CODEH president Custodio laments.

So Montoya does what she can on the radio, educating, reporting, prodding. When she gets a complaint from a worker, Montoya tries to get a response from the maquila management before airing the testimony. But she said she is usually told at the factory gate that the manager isn't available.

Jorge Interiano, manager of the maquila owners' association, said he is "too busy to listen" to the Jesuit-sponsored program. But some maquila owners have noticed the show. After Montoya aired complaints in January about the Hill maquila in El Progreso, attorney Gustavo Zavala, who owns 34 percent of the factory, came to Radio Progreso and threatened to sue for defamation of the maquila's character.

Zavala told NCR that Montoya "only puts on the air the person who makes the complaint. She should also show the situation from the perspective of the owner." Yet Zavala acknowledged that Montoya invited him to air his side of the dispute on the program, something he refused to do. "They invited me to talk but I didn't know the details of the case," he said. Zavala did not pursue the suit.

Station officials say other maquila representatives have also complained, but Montoya continues to give voice to the workers.

When she talks about the industry, Montoya is careful to point out differences between maquilas. U.S.-owned plants, for example, tend to "treat their workers a little better than the rest," she said.

At the other end of the spectrum, according to Montoya, are some 50 maquilas owned by Korean and other Asian companies, including firms from Taiwan and China. "The Koreans win first place for mistreatment and bad working conditions," Montoya said. Workers say Korean managers frequently hit, threaten and verbally and sexually abuse women workers.

Workers' rights advocates admit that since the beginning of the maquila boom in Honduras seven years ago, the work environment has improved. "Some of the working conditions are better. There are air conditioners and air extractors in some plants and now the workers don't have to sing in Korean or bow to their Korean bosses as before," said CODEH's Maldonado.

Salaries have also improved, a result of both pressure from CODEH and the unions as well as competition within the industry for skilled workers. The minimum wage in the maquilas is today about 40 lempiras a day, a little over three dollars. A worker can earn a lot more with production bonuses. Although not much by U.S. standards, this is a higher salary than those earned by a Honduran police officer or teacher. Wealthy families have reportedly started complaining that they can't afford to hire a maid because young women prefer to work in the maquilas.

Maldonado argues that these wages remain low when compared to the profits made by maquila owners and the U.S. retail chains that market the items produced here.

Moreover, Maldonado argued, the treatment of workers "hasn't changed much over the years. They continue being insulted and called names. They continue being forced to work extra hours and fired without cause."

Canahuati admits there are problems in the industry, but claims people like Maldonado aren't fair. "What bothers us is that people generalize. They take isolated cases and present them as if they were the norm in the industry," Canahuati said.

Some maquila owners suggest the critics' real objective is to close down the factories. Yet Montoya, for one, insists she's not against the maquilas. "We're not trying to get them to leave," she said. "We just want them to respect their workers."

National Catholic Reporter, June 6, 1997