"Factory forces workers to use diapers." That's the headline that ran in many Honduran news outlets earlier this week.
The stories smeared a local factory that exports car parts to the U.S, saying that workers were being forced to wear diapers at the job because their bosses didn't want them to waste any time on bathroom breaks.
The news outlets misunderstood the story somewhat, according to Evangelina Argueta, a local union leader.
But even if the eye-catching headline was false, there still seem to be plenty of problems at Kyungshin-Lear, the Korean owned auto-parts company that is mentioned in the Honduran news reports.
For starters, workers at this factory claim that the company has restricted bathroom time so severely that some female employees have actually chosen to wear diapers on the assembly line to avoid wetting themselves.
Workers also accuse the company of firing almost anyone who joins the factory's union, especially those who take on leadership roles. Union leaders claim that Kyungshin-Lear forces pregnant women to stand up for hours as they assemble electrical wiring systems for U.S. cars, and say that the company has violated workers' rights to privacy by placing video cameras in the factory's bathrooms.
Kyungshin-Lear denies these accusations. A spokesman, who is based at the company's Alabama sales office, told Fusion that the Honduran factory does not limit workers' bathroom time. He added that the Honduran government had not notified the company that it was breaking any laws, and also sent us a statement written by Honduras' National Commission for Human Rights, which says that officials from that agency visited the factory, and found that employees were allowed to move freely within the workplace.
But other agencies have spoken about possible violations of workers' rights. In a press release issued on Monday, the Honduran Ministry of Labor said that it had met with company leaders, and is currently inspecting conditions at the Kyungshin-Lear factory, in an effort to ensure that "workers' rights are respected."
Local union leaders are only cautiously optimistic about these assurances. There are many other cases in the country where the government has promised to fix things, but has not managed to stop abuses against workers.
Government inspectors try to enter Kyungshin-Lear's factory in Honduras, but are turned back, photo by Evangelina Argueta
In 2012, for example, the AFL-CIO, America's largest federation of unions, sent a report to the U.S. Department of Labor, in which it talked about five garment factories and nine plantations where the Honduran government had failed to protect workers rights.
All of the companies mentioned in the report were exporting goods to the U.S. and benefitting from the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Some were even associated with well-known American brands like Chiquita and Hanes.
According to the AFL-CIO, these companies regularly committed abuses, like firing union leaders without cause, and preventing unions from gaining legal status. Some of the companies listed in the report also failed to pay workers what was promised to them, did not allow their workers access to proper healthcare and illegally hired children for jobs.
The report concludes that the Honduran government is not complying with provisions written into CAFTA that oblige it to ensure fair labor standards. It asks the U.S. government to conduct further research into the alleged abuses and call the Honduran government for consultations.
Charles Kernaghan, a human rights activist who has researched labor conditions in Central America for the past three decades, believes that lots of the abuse is happening because there's not enough oversight from Honduran authorities.