Long before Hondurans were demonized by Trump for “bringing chaos” to the southern border, U.S. consumers welcomed truckloads of Honduran-grown fruit, which have for years streamed through regional trade networks dominated by multinational agribusiness. At the same time, agribusiness has helped drive the poverty and social turmoil in farmworker communities, worsening the misery that so many are fleeing en masse.
But in the past few months, a surge of political action has erupted in Honduran plantations, as workers battle for union rights and rattle the global agricultural supply chain.
Melon farmworkers had been pushing for a union contract with the Irish agribusiness Fyffes for more than two years, after the establishment of STAS (El Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Agroindustria y Similares), a branch of the labor federation FESTAGRO. In partnership with the global labor advocacy group International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), the union demanded full compliance with both domestic and international labor laws, accusing the company of systematic minimum-wage violations and denial of social insurance benefits. The campaign was met with fierce resistance from bosses, including blacklisting and retaliatory firing of union organizers.
Then last month, Fyffes appeared to relent, agreeing, at least on paper, to begin collective-bargaining negotiations with STAS. Labor activists had hoped that the talks would pave the way for a broad collective bargaining agreement to cover several thousand farmworkers and other staff and contractors at all of Fyffes’s subsidiaries. However, as the February deadline for the start of talks approached, ILRF accused Fyffes of stalling and lagging on a promise to reinstate unfairly dismissed workers. On February 12, ILRF reported that the company had “completely reneged on the agreement” and failed to respond to the workers’ grievances.
Fyffe runs operations in Honduras through the subsidiary farm Suragroh, whose history of abuse made it part of an extensive U.S. government investigation into working conditions in Honduran industrial and agricultural sectors. A 2012 labor-rights complaint filed by the AFL-CIO triggered an international investigation under the jurisdiction of CAFTA, the regional free-trade agreement encompassing several Central American countries. After a three-year investigation, the U.S. Department of Labor in 2015 published an extensive report that starkly acknowledged the grievous, systematic abuse that Honduran workers have been suffering.
Fyffe has been investigated on numerous allegations of wage theft and safety violations. In 2007, the company was cited by Honduran labor ministry officials for wage theft, but follow-up investigations years later revealed the company never paid the nearly $130,000 in owed back wages, and that wage violations continued. U.S. Labor Department investigators also uncovered 18 occupational safety violations in 2007, including “failure to provide personal protective equipment and access to potable water and failure to report [occupational safety] incidents to the proper authorities.” More recent follow-up audits have revealed that labor violations continue at Suragroh.
For the entire survey of cases covered in the report, which included manufacturers of clothing for the Walmart label, the U.S. Department of Labor concluded that the labor regulatory regime “did not appear to investigate for violations of [laws that] protect unions and their members from anti-union discrimination and other retaliation.” The report cites cases of “founding union members and union leaders who suddenly resigned, despite receiving complaints that the resignations were the result of employer pressure.”
The violations had been festering for years. Labor advocates around the world have long condemned the treatment of the Suragroh workers, particularly in light of Fyffe’s brand image as an “ethical” multinational. According to ILRF, Fyffes used aggressive union-busting tactics, including “locking union members in offices and forcing them to resign, illegally firing workers, and psychologically and verbally harassing affiliated workers.”
These abuses were also, apparently, an open secret for everyone in the industry — perhaps even the watchdogs tasked with monitoring the supply chain. After all, years have passed between the AFL-CIO’s initial complaint against Suragroh and other companies in 2012. And for three years, Suragroh workers have been resisting the management’s anti-union crackdowns following its landmark union election—the first successful unionization vote in the melon sector. But it was only late last year that Fair Trade USA (FTUSA) finally suspended the company from its certification schemes — effectively stripping Fyffes of a badge of corporate social responsibility that boosted many companies’ ethics credentials.
Fyffes’s agreement with STAS seems driven, in part, by the embarrassment of disavowal by two major ethics certification bodies — first the Ethical Trade Initiative and most recently FTUSA. But the longstanding labor crisis reaffirms how easy it is for multinationals to maintain a false image of respecting “fair trade” principles. (Neither Fyffes nor FTUSA have responded to queries. However, Fyffes has generally insisted it supports a resolution of the labor dispute, which involves a rival management-supported union at the farm, and has not interfered)
Despite halting progress at Suragroh, the entire agricultural system of Honduras remains rife with exploitation, according to ILRF. Gabby Rosazza, campaigns associate for ILRF, tells In These Times that Fyffes’s labor practices are “emblematic example of corporate exploitation,” in a system that “steals Honduran workers’ wages and violently represses them when they attempt to organize.”
“All this is currently happening in order to service the United States with melons,” Rosazza continues, “and it is now happening with a Fair Trade Certified sticker.”
In a statement following the STAS agreement, Dana Geffner, executive director of Fair World Project, said FTUSA’s “weak standards and 100 percent lack of accountability translate to ‘fair washing’ of human rights abuses,” which is “eroding the spirit and integrity of fair trade.”
Rosazza says that the Fyffes dispute shows how even supposedly independent auditors offer little meaningful oversight and instead tend to validate the corporate status quo. “The billion-dollar auditing industry is deeply flawed,” Rosazza underscores. “Audits done twice a year won’t catch abuse. We have seen firsthand how unenforceable compliance and certification programs have tragically failed to deliver on workers’ rights.”
In the future, unions should take a leading role in enforcing labor rules, says Rosazza, because “organized workers are the best defenders of their own rights.” The case of Fyffes proves that not even industry watchdogs cannot guarantee a fair supply chain. But workers — organized, militant and backed by a contract — can reveal what the fair-trade label often hides.
Across the supply chain, the conditions of Honduran farmworkers reflect the same deprivation and corporate and state impunity that have destabilized Central America and helped drive mass migration of workers to the United States. The role of the farm as a site of labor struggle reveals that Honduran workers’ fight for economic justice neither begins, nor ends, at the U.S. border.
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.