Haitian Sweatshops At Crossroads

The U.S. and U.N. have based their plan for Haiti’s redevelopment on the expansion of the assembly industry. Toward this end, the U.S. Congress passed legislation last month which would expand benefits and income for U.S. investors yet again. Haitian workers will continue to earn $3.09 a day.

Worker rights groups and other sectors of Haiti’s social justice movements are adamant that a sweatshop-based development model cannot advance either the country or its workers. First, the investments are unstable, and companies can and do pull out at a moment’s notice. Second, the work does not offer a living wage, benefits, possibilities for advancement, or skills training. Third, with the primary products and the machinery imported and the finished products exported, assembly does not stimulate Haiti’s economy.

Here Yannick Etienne, an organizer with the labor rights group Batay Ouvriyè (Worker’s Struggle), talks about the assembly sector and why it is neither a sustainable nor humane development model. Alternative models of development exist, ones that are not premised on the exploitation of some for the profits of others. Yannick talks about Batay Ouvriyè’s work to help Haitians participate in determining what redevelopment after the earthquake should look like. (Many articles in this series discuss some economically just options; see the Other Worlds Haiti page.)

We are at the crossroads. What happened January 12 was we put the traditional way of doing things under the debris of the earthquake. Haiti has to move from where it is, as the poorest country of the hemisphere with people feeling sorry for us.

This earthquake was one of the worst things that could have happened, but we have to turn it into something positive. We have to make sure that people are agents of change and right now this is a good opportunity, positive in a political sense. There are so many things that can be done to shake up the traditional way things have always worked here.

HOPE II [Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement Act of 2008; which removes tariffs on importing certain types and quantities of Haitian-assembled garments into the U.S.] is supposed to help Haiti in the assembly industry. Actually, what you have is U.S. companies benefiting by getting stuff assembled at a very low price for the U.S. market without paying taxes or customs. They’re saying, "More people will get jobs because of preferential trade access," but the workers who are making those factories’ profits are not getting anything. No ones even remembers them.

People in the factories are sweating hard and working hard and they don’t get anything. They have to have union rights. They need other forms of social support and social insurance. They need meals in the factories and funds for when there are problems.

The legal minimum wage for assembly plants that manufacture for export is 125 gourdes ($3.09) per day. If you are earning by piece rate [paid per unit, such as a sleeve, instead of for the amount of time worked], they often set a minimum that you have to meet that day, but sometimes it’s higher than what a worker can do in eight hours. Then the workers have to work longer but [instead of paying overtime] the bosses say, "No, they’re just finishing their work."

Most of the piece rate quotas have gone up since minimum wage increase [in 2009], and again since January 12. They have different gimmicks to make sure that salary isn’t paid. Now some factories are rushing people, raising the piece rate quota [so people have to work faster or longer to make minimum wage]. I’ve heard of factories where they say they can’t pay the minimum wage because they have problems. Some factory owners are saying, "If you don’t want to stay with less pay, we have 50 people to replace you." People need the jobs; most of them have lost their homes and are living in refugee camps.

Another problem is that many of the workers never got their salaries for the first two weeks of January [payday should have come shortly after the earthquake]. Some workers have been going back and forth to get their money but the factories say, "The banks were closed, we lost everything," all kinds of excuses not to pay them.

As for rights and benefits: The law says you get 45 minutes of break a day, but that’s not always respected. If you go to a doctor for a work-related injury, they’ll reimburse you, but workers don’t always have the money to pay up front. Otherwise there’s no health care. You get a little retirement money if you reach 65, but no one can stay working in factory conditions that long. There are no other social benefits. There has to be political processes to push this government to do things.

We understand that it’s a process to get rid of the assembly plants, but they have to be organized a different way, they have to be more than decent work. We need better jobs, not more sweatshops. Workers should participate in designing their working conditions and salaries and the whole environment. The people will have to say, "This is what we want," and things should be upgraded according to what they say.

People have to fight back against those anti-change forces who were ruling the country before January 12. This is an opportunity because some of the people didn’t want to get involved in any political or social action before because they were so busy taking care of their children.

Some people say Haiti has not been built, now it has to be built. We have to understand what happened in the past and change things radically, including the people who are at the top. We have to build not only awareness but also mobilize people to action. We need to shake the state, to make sure that the people really take things into their hands and get a state that will really work in the interests of the masses. The people have to be able to make decisions democratically that are in the interest of the masses.

We have found camps that have many factory workers, people who used to live in shantytowns. So some members of Batay Ouvriyè and other groups in the camps have started organizing to raise the political awareness of the situation, to make sure that things are dealt with democratically, to have discussions and debates to see what should be done to change this country and to allow people to better their lives. People can’t just work to get the food and water they need; they also need to see about the future. This is our job right now: to raise consciousness to make workers believe in their ability to change things.

In places like Ouanamenthe [a town which hosts a free trade zone and several factories], we are gathering ideas for regular citizens to say what kind of political structures and redevelopment they want. We’re getting different sectors – university students, teachers, professionals, street vendors – together. Our first question is, "If you are a worker in the factory, if you are a doctor, a teacher, an engineer, what are the things you don’t like?" Then we say, "Okay, you don’t like this, how do you want to change it?" We’re having workshops and social forums.

Haiti is a very small country. As Haiti alone, we can’t get to the radical solutions that Haiti needs. It has to be a worldwide movement, in America, Europe, and Africa; this is why solidarity is so important. You have countries like Venezuela that want to bring their support to the Haitian people. One hand has to give to the other.

We are a people that resists what we don’t like; this is one of our trademarks. We fought against one of the biggest powers [in the late 1790s and early 1800s] and got rid of the French colonists and had an anti-slavery revolution. We have that experience as an example. We can use it and see how far we can go.

Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women’s Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.