CUPE sisters Minerva Porelle and Andréane Chénier return to Canada May 31, after participating in CoDevelopment Canada’s 2016 Maquila Solidarity Tour to Nicaragua and Honduras. A delegation of 10 trade union sisters traveled to the Central America to express solidarity with the maquila workers and organizers in the textile industry where many multinational corporations are operating and exploiting workers. The focus of the tour was occupational health and safety and gender rights.

Group of women with raised fists holding a pink CUPE flag

CUPE has a long history of solidarity with host organizations the María Elena Cuadra Movement of Employed and Unemployed Women (MEC) in Nicaragua and the Honduran Women’s Collective (CODEMUH). Delegates met with courageous workers who according to Sister Minerva “have touched our hearts with the stories of their lives. We must work together to strengthen international solidarity”.

MEC is a remarkable organization that has earned a national and regional profile in Nicaragua and Central America. From their origins as a small group of women organizing underground and facing violent repression for their activism, they have become a respected national organization.

In January 2016, the government passed legislation increasing the minimum wage in the free trade zone by 8% in Nicaragua. With a core inflation rate of 5.85%, this raise was important. However, it is also long overdue. In 2015, maquila sector workers received a 0% while other sectors saw their salaries increase. Given that women represent 75% of workers in the maquila sector, this was a clear example of the systemic discrimination against women that MEC battles against.

CODEMUH organizes workers to address their immediate needs such as work-related injuries and illnesses, as well as advocating for worker rights and systemic change to Honduras’ labour laws. In San Pedro Sula, Honduras the delegation observed a protest at the Ministry of Labour. Women demanded that the Minister follow the Supreme Court order to have ergonomic assessments done in the maquila sector and to review their current 12 hour work shifts. Women workers stood united against a government that does not provide protection from violence or other health and safety violations. They demanded “Jobs yes, but with dignity.”

Honduras continues to experience extremely high rates of both violence. In 2014 Honduras was once again named the murder capital of the world. Violence against women continues to rise, as does violence and intimidation against activists, particularly those involved in land disputes. Due to a weak criminal justice system and corruption, rates of impunity are also high: approximately 95% of crimes go unpunished. Although the Honduran congress approved the “Protection Law for Human Rights Defenders” in April 2015, human rights organizations have expressed concern over lack of precision, transparency and implementation. Regardless of the new law, attacks against human rights defenders continue.

The Canadian delegation, including Minerva and Andreane, has started to formulate an action plan to strengthen solidarity with workers seeking higher standards and rights in the Maquila industry. But equally important was their ability to experience firsthand the courage and resilience of the women of CODEMUH and MEC who are fighting for economic and social justice in Nicaragua and Honduras, and who in their struggle are raising the standards for workers around the world.