"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.
Kernaghan says that fines for companies that break the rules are miniscule and regulators are weak. He pointed out that in the Kyungshin-Lear case, inspectors from the Honduran Ministry of Labor were prevented from entering the factory on numerous occasions, and did nothing but slap $20 fines on the company every time they were turned back.
Kernaghan is currently in Honduras with a delegation of American union leaders that is trying to meet with Kyungshin-Lear management and check out the factory for themselves.
He believes that the Honduran government will only be goaded into taking action over labor abuses if the U.S. threatens to take trade benefits away from that country.
"It's really important for the major countries, the big players to come in and promote fair labor laws," Kernaghan said. "We have told them that they can bring all their products into the U.S. duty free, and in response what we're saying, is, treat workers like human beings."
The Obama administration has not threatened to remove trade privileges from Honduras.
But there are other efforts to pressure Kyungshin-Lear that are starting to bear fruit.
In December Kernaghan's organization, the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights, received a letter from Kyunshing-Lear's partner in the United States, the Michigan-based Lear Corporation, in which the company's CEO promises to investigate "every accusation" raised by the Honduran workers.
Lear is a Fortune 500 company that focuses on making car seats and electrical systems for all sorts of vehicles. It makes billions of dollars each year, and while the company says that it does not have direct control over management at its Honduran affiliate, it certainly has some leverage.
Kernaghan described this letter as a sign of progress. He also pointed out that a representative of the Lear Corporation joined the delegation of union leaders that wants to inspect the Kyunshing-Lear factory.
But Kernaghan emphasized that workers at the factory still have a long way to go for better labor conditions to be achieved. He has been researching this particular case for the past two years.
"Something's changing," Kernaghan said, "but it's been a long time coming."