At an event Thursday night, two union leaders from Honduras spoke to a group of students about the alleged injustices they experienced working at a Russell Athletic apparel plant.
The event, which was sponsored by Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality (SOLE), comes on the heels of news that the University of Michigan’s Advisory Committee on Labor Standards and Human Rights sent a letter to Kristen Ablauf, director of licensing for the University of Michigan.
The letter called to the University’s attention allegations of unjust firing of employees at a Russell plant in Honduras.
Last month, Russell athletic apparel fired 1,800 workers from its clothing factory in Honduras. Russell claimed the factory closure was due to economic reasons, but Honduras union leaders alleged it was their unionizing that caused them to lose their jobs.
The plant’s union president, Moises Elias Montoya Alvarado, and vice president, Norma Estella Meija Castellanos, presented their side of the story about the factory closing and the injustices they suffered as a result. Both spoke in Spanish throughout the event, and had translators convert their words into English.
Alvarado said that when the union requested a raise from Russell management, they responded by offering them a raise of 3 cents in U.S. dollars.
“We were shocked,” Alvarado said of the miniscule size of the raise.
He said that when the union refused to accept the raise, Russell management threatened to take offers to move the factory to El Salvador and Guatemala.
Holding a solid black Russell sweatshirt, Alvarado said the workers were required to meet high quotas. But Alvarado said that even if the workers hit such high marks, “we only make 1,300 lempiras, which in U.S. dollars would be about $60 a week.”
Alvarado said that when he arrived in the United States earlier this month as part of a speaking tour to raise awareness about Russell’s alleged abuses, he was stunned to see the price of the goods they had been making.
“When we came to this country we were shocked to find the prices students paid for this apparel,” he said, adding that the price of just one of the shirts in the United States equals their salary for one week.
However, Alvarado said that making more money was not the point of his fight for justice.
“We are not asking for enormous salaries,” he said, “all our organization is fighting for is dignity and a fair wage in which we can support our families.”
As a result of their participation in the unionization, Alvarado and Castellanos began receiving continuous threats to their lives from the company. Castellanos said she was so terrified by the threats that she told her kids that they couldn’t go to school one day.
The union leaders found they couldn’t even get cooperation from their own government, since many of the people who worked in business there also worked for the government. They decided they needed to get international help by going to the U.S. Congress to denounce the negligence of the Honduran government.
Since Russell has contracts with the University of Michigan as well as other universities, Alvarado and Castellanos recognized the enormous impact students on campus could have in improving workers’ rights.
“Work of students in this is totally fundamental in a number of aspects; historically students have been able to talk about these abuses being done by corporate monsters,” he said. “Students can demand that the company must follow the code of conduct set forth by the University.”
Castellanos added: “We are not here just to represent workers from Honduras but workers from all over the world putting up with these kinds of abuses.”
Students in attendance last night said they felt it was very important to understand the injustices in Honduras.
LSA freshman Claire Baker said she thought it was great to “have people actually come here who have experienced this, and once you see the faces of the workers, you can see it is real and you can connect more with it.”
LSA sophomore Britt Wedenoja said she “thought it was very beneficial to get the whole picture from the ground floor, from their point of view, it was very moving.”
Both also said they hope that this event will encourage University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman to take the necessary steps to ensure equal rights and fair labor laws in Honduras.