Meet Me At The Airport, Mr President
At the Copenhagen Fashion Summit last week, Juan Orlando Hernández, President of Honduras, issued the following invitation: ‘If you would like to go to Honduras to look around for yourselves, I will be personally at the airport waiting for you’.
Ignoring the heckler at the back of the room who called out ‘Mr President, stop the military from murdering community activists’ the President of Honduras launched into a promotion for his country as a leading garment exporter to the US and his ambitions for a larger European market share. The garment and textile industry is part of the newly launched Honduras 2020, a $3.4 billion project which aims to make Honduras into the country of choice for brands and retailers wishing to source sustainably. ‘We will do this through a real sustainable model focussing on key topics such as sustainable working conditions, protecting the environment, using the latest technology to reduce consumption of resources, moving from fossil fuel to renewable energy sources’ stated Juan Orlando Hernández, who continued by highlighting his country’s ambition to source 80% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.
The commitment to reduce fossil fuels clearly doesn’t extend to the President himself, who rented a luxury jet to fly to the conference from Vista Jet, whose clients include celebrities such as Beyonce and the Beckhams. The President’s short presentation would have cost $360,000 in travel alone, according to one source, prompting dozens of critical comments on the Copenhagen Fashion Summit Facebook page.
The President continued to address the 1200-strong audience by underlining how seriously his country takes the social side of sustainability. ‘We enjoy an excellent and safe work environment and taking care of our people is our main focus and our responsibility’.
The President went on to say that Honduras was ‘the second most fair location for garment production’. After an investigatory email to the Americas Apparel Producers’ Network, I received a response from Managing Director Mike Todaro who clarified that the President was referring to the The AAPN Asia/Americas Report Card. Honduras came 2nd overall in the AAPN Report Card which is completed by sourcing executives. However, as far as I can see from online information about the Report Card, only one out of the 8 criteria relates to social compliance/sustainability and the other 7 include elements like cost, speed and product development.
According to War on Want 53% of garment workers in maquilas, or garment factories, in Honduras are young women from deprived backgrounds who have little education. Most are unaware of their rights, exploitation is widespread and workers are actively discouraged from joining unions. The Solidarity Center says trade unionists are routinely threatened, intimidated, harassed and even murdered, with the criminals rarely brought to justice.
31 trade unionists have been assassinated and 200 injured in attacks since 2009, according to the umbrella federation for US unions AFL-CIO. In fact, in March last year the US Department of Labour issued a damning 143 page report documenting widespread and serious violations of labour rights in Honduras. The report detailed numerous cases where Honduran employers engaged in acts of anti-union discrimination, imposing non-union pacts to frustrate collective bargaining, as well as cases of non-payment of wages, forced overtime and numerous occupational health and safety violations.
On average, the wages earned in maquilas are equivalent to only 37% of the cost of the basic basket of consumer goods in Honduras. Moreover, the gap between wages for workers in maquilas and those in other industries is widening. The race to the bottom will continue unless we take a systemic approach to the issue of a living wage by working with governments and unions to set a legal, enforceable minimum wage in their country which ensures workers can meet their basic needs.
Without supply chain transparency and a commitment from fashion brand owners and factories to invest in better working conditions, living wages and workers’ rights, garment workers will remain disempowered and unable to independently negotiate labour conditions.
The garment and textile industry has undoubtedly brought jobs to the country, but not necessarily good jobs. It is often argued that any job is better than no job, but there is no reason why we can’t be creating decent jobs, jobs with dignity, without any significant impact on the retail price. The fact that people are desperate isn’t an excuse to exploit them. A Fashion Revolution is needed because brands, even the best of the brands who are working most proactively towards a living wage, will never change the system.
‘You should come see if this jobs really help people get out of poverty, with the kind of wages they make, with no labor rights. They are not even given a place to have their meals, they have to take lunch in the street and then come in back to work! Did you really believe what this man went to say to your event!’ commented RS Bruise on the Copenhagen Fashion Summit Facebook page.
So, in response to RS Bruise and all the other Honduran citizens whose commented on the visit of Juan Orlando Hernández to the Copenhagen Fashion Summit: Yes, we will come and see for ourselves #whomademyclothes. We will come and see whether Honduras really is one of ‘most fair social locations in the Western hemisphere for garment production’, as claimed in the President’s presentation.
I am ready to take the President of Honduras up on his offer to visit garment factories in his country and trust that he will keep his word. Meet me at the airport, Mr President.