After a 1954 banana strike, trade unions emerged as a major force in Honduran politics. In 1999, with 14 percent of its labor force organized, Honduras was the most heavily unionized country in Central America. Still, the strength of unions diminished in the 1990s. Despite the labor movement's opposition to privatization, the Flores administration remained committed to economic reforms that would give up state-owned companies to the private sector, while union calls for higher wages were ignored.
While the law in Honduras grants workers the right to form and join unions, there have been cases reported of employers seeking to disrupt union activities by harassing or firing union sympathizers. As of 1999, the labor court in Honduras was considering numerous appeals by workers who claimed to have been fired by their companies for engaging in union activities.
Forced labor is forbidden by law, but there have been some cases reported of forced overtime in the maquila sector, particularly for women. Child labor is prohibited as well. Children under 14 years old are barred from the workforce, even if they have parental permission to work. Allowing a child to work illegally is punishable by up to 5 years in prison; however, frequent violations occur in rural districts. According to a human rights report issued in 1999 by the U.S. State Department, an estimated 350,000 children in Honduras work illegally.
The labor force in Honduras is mostly unskilled. The general level of education is low and training is limited. Children between ages 7-13 receive free, compulsory education, but in order to continue after the age of 13 tuition is required. A majority of families cannot afford to pay for education, and instead of continuing with school, most children move into the labor force after they turn 14. In 1999, out of 841,236 children aged 15 to 19, only 187,561 were receiving regular schooling. The illiteracy rate in Honduras is around 19 percent. Public spending on education, traditionally low in Honduras, has declined in recent years, falling to 4.1 percent of the gross domestic product in 1999.
In January 1998 the average minimum wage in Honduras was raised 17 percent. In 1999 it was hiked another 25 percent, and in 2000, the wage was raised again, this time by 8 percent. The wage varies from sector to sector, the lowest being US$2.12 a day in non-export agriculture. The highest minimum wage is paid in the export sector, where workers receive at least $3.47 a day. Even the highest minimum wage is insufficient to provide a standard of living over the poverty line.
The maximum workday is 8 hours. Workers cannot be required to work more than 44 hours in a week, and they must be given at least one 24-hour rest period every 8 days. The labor code stipulates that workers be given 10 days of paid vacation after 1 year of work, and 20 days after 4 years of work. These laws, however, are often ignored. Demand for jobs is so high that workers cannot afford to complain.