Three Fyffes subsidiaries – Melon Export, Soled and Suragro – in Choluteca in Honduras employ about 2,700 local people to clear the soil, plant seeds, spray herbicides and pesticides, turn over the melons to prevent sun scorching, and then harvest them. About 90% of the workers are women, many are single mothers, and others are elderly. The work is seasonal, lasting only four to six months.
Workers say they are usually paid less than the minimum wage of about $10 (£8) a day for long shifts under a burning sun. The company provides no water, no toilets and no medical provision if they feel unwell.
“We have to work even if we are sick,” says 65-year-old Maria Gómez, who has been with Melon Export for 28 years. “The conditions haven’t improved since I started.” Gómez’s situation is typical of many workers in developing countries trapped in poverty – with no pension or benefits on offer, the 65-year-old has no chance of retiring soon. She leaves home at 5am and returns at 6pm, and she has to bring her own equipment. “The company gives us nothing. If we don’t bring our own, they won’t let us work,” she says. Concerns about health come from the workers’ use of agrochemicals, including Gramoxone, which was banned by the EU in 2007 but is unrestricted in Honduras. Workers say they are given no protective clothing to wear when using the chemical, which has well-documented health risks. “They don’t even give us face masks,” Gomez claims.
To improve conditions, two years ago employees set up a branch of the agriculture workers’ union Stas. They say they faced opposition from the company and threats from the government, but despite this the union now has 107 members.
“They threaten not to hire union workers. It’s very cruel and oppressive,” says the general secretary, Moisés Sanchez Gómez. He says he was sacked this year because of his union role. “People here have given their life to the company and they get nothing back. I’ve worked for them for 20 years and all I have is the shirt on my back.”
Fyffes says that the union in Choluteca has not been properly constituted or confirmed by the ministry of labour. Union members have filed lawsuits to seek compensation for what they say is underpayment of their wages. But the odds are against them. The town mayor has provoked further anxiety among the workers by saying that union organisers will be to blame if the company leaves. Union members show a threatening note they got last month. “Desist from putting together unions or face the consequences … I warn you,” the note reads. Honduras is among the top three most murderous nations in the world. Human rights activists, environmentalists, journalists and union organisers are frequently targets for speaking out. Some cases cause an international uproar, such as the killing this year of Goldman Prize-winning anti-dam campaigner Berta Cáceres. Many others killings go largely unreported. Last year, a university activist, Hector Martinez Motiño, was gunned down in Choluteca.
Bert Schouwenburg, GMB international officer, said the concerns raised by the government that Fyffes will leave Honduras have created one of the worst situations he has seen in his many years in Latin America. “In an area of high unemployment where entire communities are blacklisted, this is tantamount to threatening them and their families with starvation,” he said. “Fyffes is an appalling employer that cares nothing for its workers who toil in boiling heat to produce the fruit that makes the company’s profits. They have no respect for domestic or international law governing workers’ rights and must be brought to book.”
The Choluteca workers have also had support from the Danish union 3F and other international groups.