Editor’s Note: This lightly edited article was originally published by The Real News.
Unless you’re buck naked as you read this, chances are that you’re wearing at least one garment manufactured in the Haitian apparel factories of Port-au-Prince, Caracol and Ouanaminthe. Those Hanes or Fruit-of-the-Loom briefs in your dresser drawer; the classic Levi’s denim jacket hanging in your closet; or that cheapo, trendy, puff-sleeved H&M frock you hope to add to your spring wardrobe—all of them were likely made by men and women in Haiti earning the barest of minimum wages.
Since 2019—until the government announced a modest, unsatisfactory hike just two weeks ago to quell the workers’ fighting spirit—the Haitian minimum wage for garment workers making clothing for export has been 500 gourdes a day (or $4.82 USD). The math is even crueler than expected: In exchange for an eight-hour work day, around 57,000 Haitian garment workers have been earning almost three cents less per hour than the average incarcerated worker in the United States makes, which is only 63 cents per hour.
With their products sold at major outlets like Walmart, Target, Zara and The Gap, 62 U.S. brands have profited handsomely for years by paying miserly, unlivable wages to Haitian workers. But on February 9 and 10, too poor even for strike accoutrement like matching tee-shirts or printed placards, workers marched out of the factories en masse in the first of several strategic strikes. Pouring into the streets, they raised their voices in protest of the daily exploitation and destitution they endure. Their only protest swag consisted of common leafy twigs held high in affirmation of their right to a portion of this earth’s abundance in their lifetimes. Poetry in motion; they do not stand alone.
On behalf of its 50 million members worldwide, the secrétaire général of the IndustriALL global union in Geneva, Atle Høie, wrote to Haiti’s Acting Prime Minister and President, Ariel Henry, urging wage relief for workers whose earning power is being crushed by inflation. Since then, the tidal wave of support for the Haitian strikers has continued to swell. Workers United, the successor union in North America to the International Ladies and Garment Workers Union, issued a statement of solidarity. Secretary Treasurer Edgar Romero admonished U.S. companies for their silence as their workers were being assaulted by state police, and reminded them that their actions are not invisible:
The world is watching, and will call to task the companies that are profiting manyfold on the backs of our Haitian brothers and sisters. It’s time for corporations, especially our American companies who import garments manufactured in Haiti to step up, and pay workers what they deserve.
Your brand is at stake.
Exploitation of Workers Is Stitched In
According to Ose Pierre, a representative of the Solidarity Center, the largest U.S.-based international worker rights organization, who is working to support the labor movement in Haiti, a typical Haitian garment worker starts their workday at 6:30 a.m. Too early to cook and eat before they leave home, many workers buy breakfast from vendors, a meal referred to in Haiti as “lunch before work.” With food and drink, “lunch before work” costs about 100 gourdes, Pierre told The Real News. They also buy their “manje midi,” or noon meal (a plate of rice, beans and meat), for about 200 gourdes. Transportation, depending on where they live, could cost 100 gourdes. With four-fifths of their day’s earnings wiped out by necessities, the only way to get marginally ahead is to volunteer for “the wages of production.”
Though the phrase might sound innocuous, wages of production is a discretionary bonus system based on over-and-above production, wherein a line of 10 or so workers make side deals with their bosses. “An importer decides, ‘Well, you were going to make 5,000 of these, but if you do 7,000 you can have some extra money,’” Pierre explained. “The workers have to work extra hard and fast.”
Almost every economic hardship in modern Haiti can be traced back to the unprecedented reparations debt that Haiti, the victor over France in its revolutionary war, was saddled with in 1825 in exchange for recognition of its independence and sovereignty—the equivalent of $21 billion, which has been paid over 122 years, and was resolved only in 1947. As a consequence, Haiti’s development has been strangled and mauled at every turn, a structural power inequality that has led to a neocolonial dependency on foreign investment that has proven impossible for any Haitian government to overcome. All of former Prime Minister Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s efforts to significantly increase wages—in 1991, 1994 and 2004—were answered with coups, sanctions, smears or all of the above.
Similarly, many of the political hardships Haiti faces today, like the ongoing instability and insecurity in the aftermath of the July assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, can be traced back to the Core Group. Imposed upon Haiti by the United Nations in 2004 after the U.S.-backed coup that ousted Aristide, the Core Group is a multi-national supervisory body with the nebulous mission of “steering the electoral process.” Its creation was originally proposed as a six-month interim transition support measure, yet it endures to this day.
Proponents of the Montana Accord, a civil society proposal put forward by a coalition of 70 political organizations and social groups, want to plan for a transition of power to stabilize the country and move toward free and fair elections by 2023 without outside interference. By contrast, acting President and Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who is answerable to the Core Group, has been pushing for elections later in 2022, which will again presumably be “steered” in service of the interests of the oligarchic forces within Haiti and the forces of international capital at the expense of another generation of Haitian workers.
Garment Workers Forced to Strike, Face Tear Gas and Live Rounds
In tension with these systemic constraints, the Haitian constitution (Section 35: Freedom to Work) explicitly guarantees workers certain rights and duties: Among them the right to a fair wage, rest, vacation and bonus, and to unionize and strike. But legal ideals aside, for decades, garment workers have been denied anything approaching the standard of fairness.
In theory, the Superior Council of Wages (SCW) is responsible for analyzing socioeconomic factors and ensuring that the minimum wage reflects changes in the cost of living at scheduled reporting intervals. Additionally, any rise in inflation over 10 percent triggers a requirement for action under Article 137 of the Haitian Labor Code. But the SCW hasn’t fulfilled its charge; thus, on January 17, noting a current inflation rate of 22.8 percent, a coalition of nine trade unions representing or affiliated with garment workers in Haiti sent an open letter to Henry seeking a wage increase from 500 gourdes ($4.82) per day to 1,500 gourdes ($14.62). With that, the unions fired their opening salvo in what Mamyrah Prosper, international coordinator of the Pan-African Solidarity Network, called in her March 2 piece for Black Agenda Report, a “Different Fight for 15.”
In February, having been ignored by Henry, the unions joined the workers in the execution of a number of strategic, multi-day strikes to force the issue. Interested onlookers could follow events as they unfolded on the “Madame Boukman—Justice 4 Haiti” Twitter account, after she began posting about ValDor Apparel, a Florida-based company that shuttered its factory in Haiti on December 31, absconding with its workers’ wages. Madame Boukman told The Real News that, building on the positive international responses to her tweets, she’s seeing growing support for the workers’ movement in and outside of Haiti.
“It’s a movement that can transfer immense power from the small, but powerful, economic elite to the poor masses,” she observed. “Haiti’s minimum wage is the lowest in the region due to years of violent suppression by external and internal forces. With a near non-existent parliament, a de facto prime minister and no president, the masses are taking it into their own hands to set a path to a living wage.”
Their actions have started to move the needle. Talks between the government, foreign factory owners, and the unions have resulted in several incremental advances and concessions on wages and proposed supports, like transportation to work. But so far the negotiations have fallen short of the strikers’ primary demand: On February 21, the SCW acted to raise the minimum wage across sectors, and the highest wage, applicable to garment workers who are part of the import/export tranche, is now 770 gourdes, which amounts to roughly half of what garment workers are demanding.
Strikers returned to the streets again on February 23, but this time they were met with lethal state violence meant to terrorize them back to their sewing machines at any price. Pierre suspects this police violence has had the opposite effect and has stiffened strikers’ resolve, though videos of the police assault against peacefully demonstrating strikers are certainly shocking.
“The workers were protesting: They have their mobiles with music, and Haitian music is playing, and they’re dancing, and they have their flyers saying what they want—their demands,” he explained. “Then the Haitian National Police came. They used tear gas.”
Besides choking on the gas, some of the workers were burned by canisters that hit their bodies and feet. Amid the mayhem, another unknown police force reportedly came and shot into the crowd.
“Masked police without any identification badges came in white cars with generic plates… and they shot the peaceful workers, and three journalists,” Pierre said. Photojournalist Maxihen Lazarre was killed, and two other journalists were injured. Another worker was shot in the foot, three people were hospitalize and many others were injured, according to local reporting. The factories were then closed—ostensibly, the closures were for Carnival celebrations, but more likely they were intended to allow worker outrage, like the toxic gas fired by police, to dissipate.
“People ask me if I am safe in Haiti, and I say, ‘I am not safe, but I am quiet,’” Pierre said.
A History of Unaccountability Pervades the International Community’s “Investments” in Haiti
Sandra Wisner, senior staff attorney for the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, thinks it’s time the international community acknowledged its role in creating these conditions on the ground. “It needs to take a look at itself,” she told The Real News, “and focus on providing a long-term, rights-based approach to development in the country instead of prioritizing foreign interests.”
The Caracol Industrial Park, where the recent spate of garment worker actions started, is a good case study.
In 2010, after the devastating earthquake, it was decided by foreign actors—the United States and the Inter-America Development Bank—to locate a new garment center in the northeast district, distant from the epicenter. But in the process of building the garment center where they did, Wisner explained, Haitians were dispossessed of valuable fertile land, replacing subsistence farming with a textile industry that exploits cheap labor. A dozen years later, hundreds of farmers and their families are still waiting to get paid for the seizure of their land and the loss of their livelihoods.
“It was slated to provide 65,000 new jobs to the country,” Wisner said of the original plan for the garment center. “But as of two years ago, it had only provided around 14,000 jobs. When the international community comes into the country and decides what development is going to look like, no matter the repercussions for Haitians, there needs to be accountability for that.”
“Where is the accountability for that?” she asks.
Frances Madeson writes about liberation struggles and the arts that inspire them. She is the author of the comic political novel, Cooperative Village. Follow her on Twitter at @FrancesMadeson.