The U.S. Embassy in Haiti worked closely
with factory owners contracted by Levi’s, Hanes, and Fruit of
the Loom to aggressively block a paltry minimum wage increase
for Haitian assembly zone workers, the lowest paid in the
hemisphere, according to secret State Department cables.
The factory owners refused to
pay 62 cents an hour, or $5 per eight-hour day, as a measure
unanimously passed by the Haitian parliament in June 2009 would
have mandated. Behind the scenes, the factory owners had the
vigorous backing of the U.S. Agency for International
Development (USAID) and the U.S. Embassy, show secret U.S.
Embassy cables provided to Haïti Liberté by the
transparency-advocacy group WikiLeaks.
The minimum daily wage had been
70 gourdes or $1.75 a day.
The factory owners told the
Haitian parliament that they were willing to give workers a mere
9 cents an hour pay increase to 31 cents an hour – 100 gourdes
daily – to make T-shirts, bras and underwear for U.S. clothing
giants like Dockers and Nautica.
To resolve the impasse between
the factory owners and parliament, the State Department urged
then Haitian President René Préval to intervene.
“A more visible and active
engagement by Préval may be critical to resolving the issue of
the minimum wage and its protest ‘spin-off’ -- or risk the
political environment spiraling out of control,” warned U.S.
Ambassador Janet Sanderson in
a June 10, 2009 cable to
Two months later, Préval
negotiated a deal with Parliament to create a two-tiered minimum
wage increase – one for the textile industry at $3.13 (125 gourdes) per day and one for all other industrial and commercial
sectors at $5 (200 gourdes) per day.
Still, the U.S. Embassy was not
pleased. Deputy Chief of Mission David E. Lindwall said the $5 a
day minimum “did not take economic reality into account”
but was a populist measure aimed at appealing to “the
unemployed and underpaid masses.”
Haitian advocates of the
minimum wage argued that it was necessary to keep pace with
inflation and alleviate the rising cost of living. As it is,
Haiti is the poorest country in the hemisphere and the World
Food Program estimates that as many as 3.3 million people in
Haiti, a third of the population, are food insecure. Haiti had
been rocked by the so-called “clorox” food riots of April 2008,
named after hunger so painful that it felt like bleach in your
According to a 2008 Worker
Rights Consortium study, a working class family of one working
member and two dependents needed a daily wage of at least 550
Haitian gourdes, or $13.75, to meet normal living expenses.
The revelation of U.S. support
for low wages in Haiti’s assembly zones was in a trove of 1,918
cables provided to Haiti Liberté by WikiLeaks.
“As a matter of policy, the
Department of State does not comment on documents that purport
to contain classified information and strongly condemns any
illegal disclosure of such information,” the U.S. Embassy’s
Information Officer Jon Piechowski told Haïti Liberté in
response to a request for a statement. “In Haiti,
approximately 80% of the population is unemployed and 78% earns
less than $1/day – the U.S. government is working with the
Government of Haiti and international partners to help create
jobs, support economic growth, promote foreign direct investment
that meets ILO labor standards in the apparel industry, and
invest in agriculture and beyond.” (According to the UN, 78%
of Haitians live on less than $2, not $1, a day.)
For a 20 month period between
early February 2008 and October 2009, U.S. Embassy officials
closely monitored and reported on the minimum wage issue. The
cables show that the Embassy fully understood the popularity of
The cables said that the new
minimum wage even had support from a
majority of the Haitian
business community “based on reports that wages in the
Dominican Republic and Nicaragua (competitors in the garment
industry) will increase also.”
Still, the proposal engendered
fierce opposition from Haiti’s tiny assembly zone elite, which
Washington had long been supporting with direct financial aid
and free trade deals.
In 2006, the U.S. Congress
passed the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership
Encouragement (HOPE) bill, which gave Haitian assembly zone
manufacturers preferential trade incentives. Two years later,
Congress passed an even more generous version of the duty-free
trade bill called HOPE II, and USAID provided technical
assistance and training programs to factories to help them
expand and take advantage of the new legislation.
U.S. Embassy cables claimed
that those efforts were imperiled by parliamentary demands for a
wage hike to keep pace with soaring inflation and high food
prices. “[Textile i]ndustry representatives, led by the
Association of Haitian Industry (ADIH), objected to the
immediate HTG 130 (USD 3.25) per day wage increase in the
assembly sector, saying it would devastate the industry and
negatively impact the benefits of the Haitian Hemispheric
through Opportunity Partnership Encouragement Act (HOPE II),”
June 17, 2009, confidential cable
from Charge d'Affaires
Thomas C. to Washington.
confidential cable one week earlier, on June 10, noted that the ADIH study had found that “overall, the average salary for
workers in the [garment assembly] sector is HTG 173 (USD 4.33),”
only 67 cents a day less than the proposed minimum wage.
Nonetheless the study urged opposing any rise in the minimum
wage because “the current salary structure promotes
productivity and serves as a competitive wage in the region.”
Tighe notes, however, in his next sentence that the “minimum
salary for workers in the Free Trade Zone on the Haiti-DR border
is approximately USD 6.00,” a full dollar more than the 200
gourdes ($5) demanded. Still, the ADIH report concluded somehow
“that a minimum daily wage of HTG 200 would result in the
loss of 10,000 workers,” more than one third of Haiti’s
27,000 garment workers at that time.
Tighe said that the “ADIH
and USAID funded studies on the impact of near tripling of the
minimum wage on the textile sector found that an HTG 200 Haitian
gourde minimum wage would make the sector economically unviable
force factories to shut down.”
Bolstered by the USAID study,
the factory owners lobbied heavily against the increase, meeting
President Préval on multiple occasions and more than 40 members
of Parliament and political parties, according to the cables.
The Haiti cables also reveal
how closely the US Embassy monitored widespread pro-wage
increase demonstrations and openly worried about the political
impact of the minimum wage battle. UN troops were called in to
quell student protests, sparking further demands for the end of
the UN military occupation of Haiti.
On Aug. 10, 2009, garment
workers, students and other activists demonstrated at the
Industrial Park (SONAPI) near the Port-au-Prince airport. The
police arrested and carted away two students, Guerchang Bastia
and Patrick Joseph, on the charge of inciting the workers.
Demanding their immediate release, the protestors marched to the
Delmas 33 police station, where the police fired tear-gas and
the throng replied with rock-throwing. In the course of the
demonstration, the windshield of U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Tighe’s
vehicle was smashed, and he took refuge in the police station.
Later, when journalists asked him about the incident and the
minimum wage controversy, Tighe wouldn’t comment but just said
that “it is always a minority which creates disorder.”
Due to the fierce
demonstrations of workers and students, sweatshop owners and
Washington won only a partial victory in the minimum wage
battle, delaying the $5/day minimum for one year and keeping the
assembly sector’s minimum wage a notch below all other sectors.
In October 2010, assembly workers’ minimum wage increased to 200 gourdes a day, while in all other sectors it went to 250 gourdes
“Every time the minimum wage
has been discussed, [the assembly industry bourgeoisie in] ADIH
has cried wolf to scare the government against its passage: that
raising the minimum wage would mean the certain and immediate
closure of industry in Haiti and the cause of a sudden loss of
jobs,” wrote the Haitian Platform for Development
Alternatives (PAPDA) in a June 2009 press release. “In every
case, it was a lie.”
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