Honduran Mine Workers Sick and Fired but Fighting Back

Daniel Martinez

Unionized mine workers in Honduras maintained a week-long strike to protest hazardous working conditions, illegal firings and a string of contract violations by the Canadian transnational mining company Glamis Gold. The strike began on October 25 when workers of Minerales Entre Mares de Honduras, S.A., a subsidiary Glamis Gold, occupied the entry and exit points of the San Martín open pit gold mine, thus paralyzing mining activity. 

The Entre Mares de Honduras S.A. Workers’ Union (SITRAMEMHSA) took action to demand that the workers’ rights be respected, denouncing a series of violations of their collective contract, lay-offs, and grave health problems. Only a few days before the action began, the Union had celebrated its first anniversary.  The organization has some 190 members of the approximately 260 people working at the San Martin mine, which is located in the municipality of San Ignacio, department of Francisco Morazan, two hours north of Tegucigalpa.

SITRAMEMHSA and Entre Mares/Glamis Gold signed a collective contract on Sept. 16, 2005, although the signed document states the agreement is retroactive, beginning in effect on Sept. 1.   According to striking workers at the occupation of the main gate to the mine, the company is violating clauses 1, 2, 8, 11 and 15, dealing with numerous labour rights.

"How is it possible that we tolerate all of these situations?  If we signed our collective contract not even two months ago and already they’re turning it upside down?" asked Daniel Martínez, president of SITRAMEMHSA.  "We do not allow this, we will not allow it, because if it’s not now, then later they’ll do whatever they please with us."

The workers were determined to continue their strike until they could meet with company officials to address and remedy their grievances.  They explained that all of Glamis’ executives had been in a meeting in the U.S. for a week and that there was no representative present who had the power to make decisions or negotiate.  As of Oct. 29, no government representatives had arrived either, neither from the Ministry of Labour nor Health, Environment or Human Rights officials.Cost Reduction: Firing Sick Workers and Increasing Contamination

On Monday, October 24, there was a meeting between representatives of SITRAMEMHSA and Glamis Gold, supposedly to approve the loans of the rotating fund—a loan policy that had been adopted as a result of the hard fought contract negotiations. But what ensued was a company announcement that 27 workers would be laid-off the following day.  David Flores, Victoriano Cruz and Francisco Hernández, mine workers who have been suffering from severe illnesses and health problems as a result of their work were included on the list.

"We cannot accept the firing of three fellow workers who have been receiving medical treatment for respiratory tract problems, stomach problems and problems in their bones," explained Martínez.  "They worked in a critical area where there was the most contact with live cyanide."

All of the fired workers laboured in the ‘grinding’ section, where the crushing machine and the conveyor belt system transport pulverized material from the to the lixiviation pools (also referred to as patios) full of cyanide solution. The union had been informed by the company that both the crushing machine and conveyor belt system would be removed and transported to Guatemala.

Therefore, at the San Martin mine, once the material is dynamited, the huge rocks will be transported in dump trucks directly to the patios.  In fact, this process had already begun; the grinder was only being operated during one night shift.

"All they care about is bringing the mountain down, getting rid of the people and maintaining operations only in the areas of lixiviation, patio, laboratory…" denounced Martínez.  "We ask that national and international authorities intervene so that the process will continue as it is set out in the company’s mitigation plan."

In addition, there is also the risk that this procedural change may increase contamination of the site and surrounding areas.  Workers pointed out on a map of the mine site that hangs from the main gate (alongside the Honduran flag and a union banner) that the dump trucks’ path crosses a significant area of contaminated waste material.  As the trucks descend to the lixiviation pools, their tires become impregnated with cyanide solution before returning along a stretch of road where the runoff from rains flow directly into the Guanijiquil stream.

Several workers present around the bend at the occupation of the second gate insisted that rainwater is not the only water that flows into the stream.  They revealed that during a recent period of torrential downpours, the company was pumping water 24 hours a day from the so-called ‘ducks’ lagoon’ to the Guanijiquil stream, which in turn feeds into the Playa river, one of the few water sources for irrigation in the valley that has not been completely usurped by the mining exploitation process.  The workers could confirm whether or not the lagoon contains cyanide or heavy metals.  However, the lagoon – which was created a few months ago as the company retained a large quantity of water with no liner underneath – gets its name from the reported fact that when ducks settle down on the water, they die.‘I suffer from pain here…’

"They tell me that what I have might be due to my age, practically, the bones, that’s what they maintain.  But as you know, we’ve worked with cyanide, so I would like them to tell us the truth.  If that’s what it is, then we’re all going downhill," worriedly expressed Flores, one of the fired workers who has not recuperated from his health problems.

"I suffer from pain here in the coccyx and in the bones… And I’m worried that they’ll toss me out and I’ll be going pretty much good just for firewood.  And not just me, but also I look at my fellow workers, maybe even all of us, and my family."

Sipicapa Town Gathering

[Photo: Residents of Sipakapa, San Marcos, Guatemala gather in the town square to hear the results of their community consultations in June, 2005.  (98% rejected mining activities in their territory]

Another fired worker, Cruz, is facing similar problems. And Hernández, who also worked in the department with the crushing machine and the conveyor belt system, told of a serious accident he had in 2003 and of the numerous health problems he has faced since that time, reducing his capabilities both for work and for life in general.

"On one occasion, where I was working – because there you work with cyanide, there’s live cyanide there – some tubing rebounded back at me and the solution poured over my entire body.  I went to wash myself, because you have to bathe immediately.  But from then until now I have felt ill.  It started with dizziness and vomiting," said Hernandez.

Hernández has worked 12-hour days for five and a half years in this hazardous department.  He and fellow-workers receive only minimal protection, such as disposable little facemasks.

"Since last May, a pain started in my legs and I couldn’t walk.  I went to Tegucigalpa. I went to see the doctor.  The doctor [from the clinic in Tegucigalpa] told me that it was a problem caused by the chemicals here, and so they did tests and even sent one to the United States, the samples, you know," said Hernandez.  "And two months later the test came back and [the doctors hired by the mining company] told me that no, that there wasn’t anything wrong with me, that the test came back clean."

He said the doctors gave him medicine that has helped ease some of the pain he was feeling in his legs. But the pain has transferred to other extremities.

"I can’t lift my arms up, I can’t even work what’s mine anymore," said Hernandez. "I’m still going to the doctor, but I don’t get better.  But they still say that no, I don’t have anything."

The company doctor’s "evaluation" of Hernandez’s health problems shouldn’t come as a surprise. Former manager of Entre Mares, Eduardo Villacorta, in an interview with Revistazo.com in 2003 stated:

"All that bit about cyanide is a big myth.  Cyanide is no more dangerous than the baygon you use in your home to kill mosquitos."

This would explain why company never explained the dangers of cyanide to the workers.

"They never said it was harmful," said Hernandez.Illegal Deductions for Medical Attention and Hidden Results

Ever since the workers can remember, the company has never fulfilled its responsibility for the total coverage of their medical costs.  The company used to deduct 20 percent of all medical bills directly from the workers’ salaries.  It was a contentious point during the negotiation of their collective contract, one that SITRAMEMHSA fought for—and won—warning the company that they would no longer permit workers to be billed for their health care.

"Clause number 11 is clear," declared Daniel Martínez.  "It talks about the worker receiving 100 percent coverage in all those cases – accidents, professional and non-professional illnesses.  They’ll be covered 100 percent."

However, the company has continued to deduct 20 percent of all of their medical bills from the workers’ pay.  They must either pay this share in cash when they arrive at the clinics in Tegucigalpa or the amount is deducted from their paycheck. Although, ever since the collective contract was signed, the company no longer makes note of these deductions as medical costs, but instead as personal loans, even when the company has no policy of loans for workers.  The only loan policy is the rotating loan fund, but this was a conquest of the union and not company policy, the workers explained.

"The rotating fund was created specifically for emergencies, not to support a medical plan that is the sole obligation of the company, because it is a responsibility of the company," Martínez pointed out.

Flores recounted that the last time he went to get a test done at the Policlinica in Tegucigalpa, he was refused medical attention because he did not have sufficient funds. The clinic personnel told him that they had not negotiated with the mining company doctors, although it is the same clinic visited by almost all mine workers.  They called the company, which asked Flores to front a part of the bill in cash, assuring him that he would be paid back later.  As the amount was not within his financial means, Flores was not cared for and had to take the bus back to the Siria Valley with his son.

"Here, if you don’t have money and you go to the doctor, you die, because they don’t give you any money here to be able to go," said Hernández.

Clearly, the workers most affected by the illegal medical costs demanded by the company are the same workers most affected by health problems.  In the case of the fired workers, Glamis intended to deduct the 20 percent of medical bills from their severance benefits.  In some cases, such as that of Flores, this amount comes to more than twenty thousand lempiras (approximately $1,050).

Another great cause for concern is the fact that the workers do not even have photocopies of their test results, diagnostics or other documentation related to their health conditions.  The company holds all of the documentation.  In many cases, the workers are not even familiar with the content of this documentation and only know what the doctors working for Glamis tell them.

"This is one of the problems that I would like to be taken into account," said Martínez.  "When the workers go for an analysis, the doctors from the region here don’t give them any information.  And when the worker goes to find out the results and ask for an explanation, the doctors from here get mad at them."

Martinez said company officials would tell workers that the "door is wide open" in regards to their concerns. Unfortunately, and expectedly, this equated to "the door is wide open" for you to leave and somebody else to take your place, a response that Martínez equates to "psychological torture."

Glamis Gold’s Glitter: Abuse and Destruction

Based in Reno, Nevada, but incorporated in Vancouver, BC, Glamis Gold has been the target of resistance in Canada, Honduras, Guatemala and the United States. In the latter, the publicly traded Canadian company planned an open pit gold mine in the Californian desert, along a pathway of sacred sites in Quechan territory. After then-governor Gray Davis finally responded to the organized opposition by instating special mitigation measures for the project, Glamis Gold responded with a case against the US, demanding $50 million under the investment protection clauses and dispute settlement mechanisms of NAFTA’s infamous chapter 11.

In Guatemala, Glamis’ Marlin project in the indigenous Maya highlands of the department of San Marcos has been the focal point for the growing national movement against large-scale mining in the country. Despite the lack of consultation with and the opposition of the indigenous residents negatively affected by the project, Glamis received a 40 million dollar loan from the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation for the Marlin gold mine, which has since been linked to two murders at the hands of public and private ‘security’ forces. Nevertheless, local communities and the national movement maintain the overwhelming rejection of mining activities expressed in participatory community consultations by the residents of the indigenous municipality of Sipakapa earlier this year in June.

Road Blockade

[Photo: Mine workers’ blockade of the secondary entrance/exit to the San Martin mine.]

Glamis Gold’s San Martin mine in Honduras has been a contentious endeavour from the start. Local town and community residents organized the Siria Valley Regional Environmental Committee to articulate their opposition to the mine, denouncing the project in open town hall meetings and participating in protests and marches. Following the initiation of mine operations in 2000, the Committee has continued its community-based work for the environment and justice, supported by several independent studies backing the Committee’s denunciations of local health problems and environmental contamination.

"As the Siria Valley Regional Environmental Committee," explained Carlos Amador, a member of the Committee, "we are very worried about the situation of the Entre Mares workers, especially the serious health problems they are suffering from and the information regarding contamination caused by the company. We support them because we see that they are fighting for a just cause."

Back to Work, Everybody

On the morning of Nov. 1, the SITRAMEMHSA members were back at the gates, but this time to go back to work – including the 27 who were to have been fired. As interest and solidarity had begun to grow, Glamis Gold decided to negotiate to put an end to what the company referred to in a recent report as an illicit ‘work stoppage,’ ceding to the union’s main demand for the workers’ reinstatement.

It is not exactly a fairy tale ending.  David Flores, Victoriano Cruz and Francisco Hernández are still suffering from the same serious health problems.  The vast majority of residents from nearby communities are also suffering from similar health problems. In addition, water is scarce, the local economy is ruined and the local environment continues to be contaminated by the poisonous chemicals used at the mine and the heavy metals released by the mineral extraction process.  And residents of San José de Palo Ralo, a community relocated to make way for the mine over five years ago, have still not received legal documentation for their lands and homes.  All the while, Glamis Gold continues to accumulate millions in profits.

Still, the first major action of a young union has achieved its most important objective.  Perhaps the victory of their collective action will give the workers the strength and courage to continue fighting for the rights they upheld during their strike: for independent tests of sick workers and fair compensation and justice, for free and unbiased medical attention, for full disclosure of their health conditions, for strict control of cyanide and contaminated water and waste material and for the respect of their collective contract.

Perhaps SITRAMEMHSA will continue to struggle against company abuses, in keeping with the vow so adamantly expressed by union president Daniel Martínez during the strike:

"Today we are not permitting any more of these abuses.  And from today forward, from the 25th when we took this action, from that day on, we’re setting a precedent for Minerales Entre Mares.  Now the workers are no longer alone; the workers are represented by the Entre Mares de Honduras S.A. Workers’ Union, SITRAMEMHSA.  And we’re going to struggle to the very end, to make them respect us."


Rights Action (Derechos en Accion) carries out and supports community development, environment, emergency relief and human rights work in Honduras, Guatemala, Chiapas (Mexico), Haiti and elsewhere.  For more information, to make tax-deductible donations or to get involved, contact Rights Action:  info@rightsaction.org, 416-654-2074, www.rightsaction.org