Honduras suffers from an overabundance of unskilled and uneducated laborers. Most Honduran workers in 1993 continued to be employed in agriculture, which accounted for about 60 percent of the labor force. More than half of the rural population, moreover, remains landless and heavily dependent on diminishing seasonal labor and low wages. Fifty-five percent of the farming population subsists on less than two hectares and earns less than US$70 per capita per year from those plots, mostly by growing subsistence food crops.
In 1993 only about 9 to 13 percent of the Honduran labor force was engaged in the country's tiny manufacturing sector--one of the smallest in Central America. Skilled laborers are scarce. Only 25,000 people per year, of which about 21 percent are industrial workers, graduate yearly from the National Institute of Professional Training (Instituto Nacional de Formación Profesional- -INFOP) established in 1972.
Hundreds of small manufacturing firms, the traditional backbone of Honduran enterprise, began to go out of business beginning in the early 1990s, as import costs rose and competition through increasing wages for skilled labor from the mostly Asian-owned assembly industries strengthened. The small Honduran shops, most of which had manufactured clothing or food products for the domestic market, traditionally received little support in the form of credit from the government or the private sector and were more like artisans than conventional manufacturers. Asian-owned export assembly firms (maquiladoras), operating mostly in free zones established by the government on the Caribbean coast, attract thousands of job seekers and swell the populations of new city centers such as San Pedro Sula, Tela, and La Ceiba. Those firms employed approximately 16,000 workers in 1991.
About one-third of the Honduran labor force was estimated to be working in the service or "other" sector in 1993. That classification usually means that a person ekes out a precarious livelihood in the urban informal sector or as a poorly paid domestic. As unemployment soared throughout Central America in the 1980s, more and more people were forced to rely on their own ingenuity in order to simply exist on the fringes of Honduran society.
Employment Indicators and Benefits
Honduran governments have set minimum wages since 1974, but enforcement has generally been lax. That laxity increased at the beginning of the 1980s. Traditionally, most Honduran workers have not been covered by social security, welfare, or minimum wages. Multinational companies usually paid more than the standard minimum wage, but, overall, the Honduran wage earner has experienced a diminution of real wages and purchasing ability for more than a decade. When they occurred, minimum wage adjustments generally did not keep up with cost of living increases. After a major currency devaluation in 1990, average Honduran workers were among the most poorly paid workers in the Western Hemisphere. By contrast, the banana companies paid relatively high wages as early as the 1970s. Banana workers continued at the top of the wage scale in the 1990s; however, in the 1980s, as banana production became less laborintensive , the companies had decreased their investment and work force. Consequently, fewer workers were employed as relatively well-paid agricultural wage earners with related benefits.
President Callejas responded to the severe poverty by implementing a specially financed Honduran Social Investment Fund (Fondo Hondureño de Inversión Social--FHIS) in 1990. The fund created public works programs such as road maintenance and provided United States surplus food to mothers and infants. Many Hondurans slipped through that fragile social safety net, however. As a continuing part of the social pact, and even more as the result of a fierce union-government battle, President Callejas announced in 1991 a 27.8 percent increase over a minimum wage that the government had earlier agreed upon. That increase was in addition to raises of 50 and 22 percent set, respectively, in January and September 1990. Despite those concessions, the minimum daily rate in 1991 was only US$1.75 for workers employed by small agricultural enterprises and US$3.15 for workers in the big exporting concerns; most workers did not earn the minimum wage.
Honduras has long been heavily unionized. In 1993 approximately 15 to 20 percent of the overall formal work force was represented by some type of union, and about 40 percent of urban workers were union members. There were forty-eight strikes in the public sector alone in 1990, protesting the government's economic austerity program and layoffs of public-sector workers. More than 4,000 public-sector employees from the Ministry of Communications, Public Works, and Transport were fired in 1990. About 70,000 unionized workers remained in the faltering public sector in the beginning of 1991. However, the government largely made good its pledge to trim that number by 8,000 to 10,000 throughout 1991 as part of its austerity program.
In the private sector, 1990 saw ninety-four strikes in sixtyfour firms as workers fought for wage increases to combat inflation. A forty-two-day strike at the Tela Railroad Company (owned by Chiquita Brands International--formerly United Brands and United Fruit Company) was unsuccessful, however, and that defeat temporarily ended union efforts at direct confrontation.
In 1993 Honduras had three major labor confederations: the Confederation of Honduran Workers (Confederación de Trabajadores de Honduras--CTH), claiming a membership of about 160,000 workers; the General Workers' Central (Central General de Trabajadores--CGT), claiming to represent 120,000 members; and the Unitary Confederation of Honduran Workers (Confederación Unitaria de Trabajadores de Honduras--CUTH), a new confederation formed in May 1992, with an estimated membership of about 30,000. The three confederations included numerous trade union federations, individual unions, and peasant organizations.
The CTH, the nation's largest trade confederation, was formed in 1964 by the nation's largest peasant organization, the National Association of Honduran Peasants (Asociación Nacional de Campesinos de Honduras--Anach), and by Honduran unions affiliated with the Inter-American Regional Organization of Workers (Organización Regional Interamericana de Trabajadores--ORIT), a hemispheric labor organization with close ties to the American Federation of LaborCongress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO). In the early 1990s, the confederation had three major components: the 45,000-member Federation of Unions of National Workers of Honduras (Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Nacionales de Honduras--Fesitranh); the 22,000 member Central Federation of Honduran Free Trade Unions (Federación Central de Sindicatos Libres de Honduras); and the 2,200-member Federation of National Maritime Unions of Honduras (Federación de Sindicales Marítimas Nacionales de Honduras). In addition, Anach, claiming to represent between 60,000 and 80,000 members, was affiliated with Fesitranh. Fesitranh was by far the country's most powerful labor federation, with most of its unions located in San Pedro Sula and the Puerto Cortés Free Zone. The unions of the United States-owned banana companies and the United States-owned petroleum refinery also were affiliated with Fesitranh. The CTH received support from foreign labor organizations, including ORIT, the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), and Germany's Friedreich Ebert Foundation and was an affiliate of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).
Although it was not legally recognized until 1982, the CGT was originally formed in 1970 by the Christian Democrats and received external support from the World Confederation of Labor (WCL) and the Latin American Workers Central (Central Latinoamericana de Trabajadores--CLAT), a regional organization supported by Christian Democratic parties. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, the CGT leadership developed close ties to the National Party of Honduras (Partido Nacional de Honduaras--PNH), and several leaders served in the Callejas government. Another national peasant organization, the National Union of Peasants (Unión Nacional de Campesinos--UNC), claiming a membership of 40,000, was affiliated with the CGT for many years and was a principal force within the confederation.
The CUTH was formed in May 1992 by two principal labor federations, the Unitary Federation of Honduran Workers (Federación Unitaria de Trabajadores de Honduras--FUTH) and the Independent Federation of Honduran Workers (Federación Independiente de Trabajadores de Honduras--FITH), as well as several smaller labor groups, all critical of the Callejas government's neoliberal economic reform program.
The Marxist FUTH, with an estimated 16,000 members in the early 1990s, was first organized in 1980 by three communist-influenced unions, but did not receive legal status until 1988. The federation had external ties with the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), the Permanent Congress for Latin American Workers Trade Union Unity (Congreso Permanente de Unidad Sindical de Trabajadores de América Latina--CPUSTAL), and the Central American Committee of Trade Union Unity (Comité de Unidad Sindical de Centroamérica--CUSCA). Its affiliations included water utility, university, electricity company, brewery, and teacher unions, as well as several peasant organizations, including the National Central of Farm Workers (Central Nacional de Trabajadores del Campo--CNTC), formed in 1985 and active in land occupations in the early 1980s.
FUTH also became affiliated with a number of leftist popular organizations in a group known as the Coordinating Committee of Popular Organizations (Comité Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Populares--CCOP) that was formed in 1984. Dissident FUTH member formed the FITH, which was granted legal status in 1988. The FITH consisted of fourteen unions claiming about 13,000 members in the early 1990s.
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