The first of three articles
“Haiti is open for business.”
That’s what President Michel “Sweet
Micky” Martelly said on Nov. 28 at a ceremony inaugurating a
giant industrial zone being built in Haiti’s north.
Across Haiti and abroad,
Martelly, his government, and “advisors” like former
President Bill Clinton have been pushing Haiti as a foreign
investor’s dream come true.
“We are ready for new ideas
and new businesses, and are creating the conditions necessary
for Haiti to become a natural and attractive destination for
foreign investment,” the new president said this fall in New
“The window of opportunity
is now,” an aide added. “Haiti has a new President and a
new way of thinking about foreign investments and job creation.”
The president might be new, and
there might be new actors on the scene, but there’s not much new
about the plans. Once again, Haiti’s government and her private
sector – and their international supervisors – are pitching
sweatshop level salaries as a key “comparative advantage.”
Assembly factories and free
trade zones have been part of Haiti’s “development”
planning for decades. Now, armed with billions of dollars in
grants, loans and private investment, Haitian and foreign
governments and business people are building a whole slew of new
factory zones as part of the country’s “reconstruction.”
Worse, they’ve chosen a piece
of fertile farmland for the showcase project: a giant industrial
park, heavily financed by US$124 million in US taxpayer dollars.
Six months from now, South Korean textile giant Sae-A Trading
will be opening its doors. Its plants will use as its waste
waterway a river that runs into the nearby fragile Caracol Bay.
In addition to running the risk of harming the country’s already
devastated environment, the new mega-factory will stitch
millions of garments for Wal-Mart, Target, GAP and other US
retailers, meaning that more U.S. workers will likely be knocked
out of their jobs.
Not one major media outlet – in
Haiti or abroad – has explored these and other factors of what
some have touted as a “win-win opportunity” for foreign
investors and the Haitian people. Indeed, many journalists have
But the “new” Haiti has
definite winners and losers.
Haiti Grassroots Watch
spent months on an investigation, conducting over three dozen
interviews, visiting factory zones and workers in the north and
in the capital, and reviewing dozens of academic papers and
reports, including one leaked from Haiti’s Ministry of the
Environment. Among the findings:
● Haitian workers earn less today than they
did under the Duvalier dictatorship.
● Over one-half the average daily wage is
used up lunch and by transportation to and from work.
● Haiti and its neighbors have all tried
the “sweatshop-led” development model – and it has mostly
not delivered on its promises.
● At least six Free Trade Zones or other
industrial parts are in the works for Haiti.
The new industrial park for the
north does not come without costs and risks: Massive population
influx, pressure on the water table, loss of agricultural land,
and it’s being built steps from an area formerly slated to
become a “marine protected area.”
In this series, the names of
workers have been changed to protect their identity because,
despite the fact that the Haitian Constitution recognizes the
right of free speech, and the right for workers to organize,
most workplaces are pervaded by fear due to the strong
anti-union sentiment. All interviews took place in the spring
and summer of 2011.
Salaries in the "new" Haiti
"I have a problem with my country,
Haiti,” said Evelyne Pierre-Paul. “I've been working in
factories here for 25 years, and I still don't have my own
Pierre-Paul, 50, doesn't even
rent a house. Before the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, she and her
three children rented two rooms for 10,000 gourdes (about
US$250) a year. But the building was destroyed in the
earthquake. Twenty-two months later they are still living under
a tent, in one of the capital's hundreds of squalid refugee
Pierre-Paul's average daily
take-home wage is actually more than Haiti's rock-bottom
minimum. She earns about 225 gourdes or US$4.69 a day. But that
doesn't cover even half of what would be considered a family's
most basic expenses. Like all the other workers Haiti Grassroots
Watch (HGW) surveyed, only some of Pierre-Paul's children attend
school, and the family rarely eats meat.
"When payday comes, you pay
all the little debts you accumulated, and you don't have
anything left," the worker told HGW.
Pierre-Paul sews clothes for
One World Apparel, a giant hanger-like factory owned by two-time
failed presidential candidate Charles H. Baker. The cloth comes
in duty-free, workers cut it up, stitch the pieces together, and
the clothing – for K-Mart, Wal-Mart and for uniform supply
companies – goes back out. Even though it’s not in a Free Trade
Zone (FTZ), The factory enjoys a number of tax benefits like a
15-year exemption on payroll taxes and no Value Added Tax,
thanks to the Investment Code enacted during the truncated
2001-2004 mandate of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. [Baker
helped lead the Feb. 29, 2004 coup d’état against Aristide -
Currently, about 29,000
workers, about 65% of them women, cut and sew in Haitian textile
factories assembling clothes for Banana Republic, GAP, Hanes, Gildan, Levis, and dozens of other well-known labels. But if the
Martelly government, the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC),
the U.S. State Department, the World Bank, George Soros, and a
host of others involved in Haiti's "reconstruction" see
their visions realized, there will soon be 200,000 or even
500,000 assembly workers in FTZs and industrial parks all over
That prospect doesn't interest
Pierre-Paul too much.
One recent night, after a
ten-hour workday, the slightly hunched sewing machine operator
met with a journalist in one of her tent's "rooms." A
plastic table and a few chairs are jammed up against the canvas
walls. In the other "room," the worker has a bed where
she and all her children sleep. Clothes are neatly piled in the
corner. Pierre-Paul makes food – lots of spaghetti – on a
charcoal fire outside.
"I don't see any future in
this for my children," she commented.
That's not surprising.
Pierre-Paul's wages have one-third less buying power than they
did 25 years ago when she first began her factory career.
Minimum wage has gone from about US$3 a day in 1982 (in 1982
dollars) to 200 gourdes, which is about US$1.61 a day in 1982
dollars [about US$5 in 2011 dollars - HL] . Even taking into
account Pierre-Paul's slightly higher average wage, she still
makes only US$2.53 a day in 1982 dollars. [Haiti’s minimum wage
in 1982 was $2.64 a day - HL.]
During its investigation, HGW learned that
most workers today earn more than the minimum wage, but that the
salary remains less than it was in 1982.
An in-depth study conducted by HGW with eight workers in the capital and from the country's
biggest FTZ – the Dominican-owned CODEVI park on the
Haitian-Dominican Republican border – determined that the
average worker wage is about 236 gourdes a day – that's $2.53 in
1982 dollars. (Two factory owners, Baker and Clifford Apaid,
confirmed that average.) According to HGW's statistics, the
average worker's annual salary, including the traditional "thirteenth
month" bonus, would be about $153 a month or $1,989 per
HGW's study also found that the
average worker spends more than half of his or her wage just
getting to work and back and eating lunch.
Averages of workers' typical commute and lunch expenses
Percentage of a day’s wage (236 g or $5.90)
Transportation to and from work
Main meal of the day (at work)
Transportation and food represent only a
tiny percentage of a workers’ responsibilities. For example, the
average worker surveyed supports over four people, three of them
children. Average school fees carried for each worker, according
to HGW’s study, come close to US$690 annually.
While HGW could not verify all
of the figures, a recent study from the US- labor federation
came up with an even higher numbers for transportation, school
fees and other expenses. According to the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity
Center, a “living wage” for an average factory-worker
family with one wage-earner and two children should be about
$749 per month – almost five times the current average
assembly worker wage of $153 per month.
“This figure represents the
actual cost of living and serves as a baseline for an
appropriate minimum wage that will promote sustainable economic
development,” the Solidarity Center noted in its Mar. 3,
“The salary question is a
veritable scandal,” economist Camille Chalmers told HGW in
an interview. “The salary has gotten lower and lower, also.
[Workers] get paid in gourdes but in fact [because almost half
of food eaten in Haiti is imported], they consume in dollars.”
Pierre-Paul said she knows the
salary is not enough.
“I don’t have any choice,”
she explained. “My parents didn’t have me learn a skill, so
when I was 25, and I didn’t know what else to do, I resigned
myself to factory work.”
Pierre-Paul’s boss, factory
owner Charles H. Baker, admits the salary is not “livable.”
“If a person is honest, it’s
clear that it’s not enough,” Baker admitted. “If I could
give a worker 1,000 gourdes a day, I’d pay that. But the
conditions in Haiti don’t permit us to pay 1,000 gourdes.”
Baker and other factory owners
might claim they want to pay more than sweatshop wages but they
have fought salary hikes and unions ever since they got into the
Under the Duvalier regime –
when wages were actually higher than today – only the
dictatorship-sanctioned “union” was allowed. Since then,
owners have (so far) nearly crushed any organizing efforts.
Thanks to the hard work of the
labor group Batay Ouvriye (Worker’s Struggle) and the courage of
workers there, who endured threats, job losses and even
beatings, over 3,000 laborers at the CODEVI park on the
Haitian-Dominican border belong to a union. The union negotiates
a collective contract for all the workers there.
This fall Batay Ouvriye and
textile workers got a union going in the capital. On Sep. 15,
organizers announced the new, legally registered Textile and
Clothing Workers Union (SOTA - Sendika Ouvriye Tekstil ak Abiman).
In less than two weeks, however, five SOTA executive committee
members had been fired, one of them from Baker’s One World
Batay Ouvriye’s spokeswoman
Yannick Etienne said the firings – which factory spokespeople
said were for “violations,” were totally predictable. “It’s
very coincidental that one week after the union is announced,
five committee members are fired,” she said. “They
decapitated the union.”
Asked about the incident, Baker
said his lawyer had advised him not to comment. But according to Batay Ouvriye, workers were fired after handing out leaflets in
the street, refusing to work overtime, and other actions which
are completely guaranteed by Haitian law.
After a long investigation, on
Nov. 24, 2011, a United Nations organization revealed that the
firings were not just. Better Work, an organization set up by
the UN’s International Labor Organization (ILO), noted that “there
is solid evidence showing that the representatives of SOTA were
fired because they belong to a union” and recommended “the
reintegration with back pay as a means of reparation” for
the union members.
The September firings are only
the latest in the three decades of repression and union-busting.
Anti-union, pro-"race to the bottom"
Evelyne Pierre-Paul has never been in a
union. As a sewing machine operator at Baker’s One World
Apparel, she's afraid to even talk about the subject.
"You have to create unions
in secret because if you utter the word, you can get fired,"
Pierre-Paul said. "The bosses say that if we form unions,
we'll destroy business."
National law and international
conventions guarantee Haitian workers the right to organize and
to collective bargaining. As recently as 2010, however, the
International Trade Union Confederation's (ITUC) Annual Survey
of Violations of Trade Union Rights noted that in Haiti "employers
have enjoyed absolute freedom" to repress organizers, due to
political turmoil and other factors.
"Those trying to organize
workers in a union are constantly harassed or dismissed,
generally in breach of the labor legislation,” the ITUC
survey reported. “To prevent workers from joining unions,
employers give bonuses to those who are not union members."
More recently, Better Work,
charged by the ILO with assuring all Haitian textile factories
taking advantage of the U.S. congressional HELP [Haiti Economic
Lift Program] act comply to international labor standards, said
much the same thing. In its April 2011 report, Better Work noted
numerous violations like the lack of written contracts, the lack
of proper record-keeping on hours worked, forced overtime and
too much overtime, failure to grant proper paid leave, and
failure to give proper lunch breaks. Better Work investigators
also noted that there were no unions in any of the
"Better Work Haiti notes
very significant challenges related to the rights of workers to
freely form, join, and participate in independent trade unions
in this industry in Haiti," the report said.
But while Better Work notes "significant
challenges" regarding the right to organize, director
Richard Lavallee admitted that his office can't do much to
assist that situation, aside from file reports and make
"Better Work has a
collaborative relationship" with the factories, he told HGW.
"Coercitive power doesn't come from Better Work."
Incredibly, Lavallee told HGW
that workers said they didn't understand the meaning of "union."
"When we interviewed workers
to ask if they had colleagues who were fired because of trying
to organize, we heard responses like, ‘What is a union?'" he
Whether or not Lavallee really
believes that is possible, one thing is certain: factory owners
and supervisors know which workers speak with Better Work
investigators. Information in a report that criticizes a factory
or certain supervisor would be easy to source. It is highly
probable that workers exercise self-censorship.
That's certainly what workers
Ginette Jean-Baptiste operates
a sewing machine in Baker's One World Apparel. She was
interviewed by HGW away from the workplace. She echoed what
workers at Haiti's factories have said for decades: talking
about unions and organizing can lead to a pink slip.
"We can't make our demands
heard at all,” she told HGW. “You can't talk about that
even with each other because someone will tell on you and you'll
Decades of Union-Crushing
In 2004, when Batay Ouvriye (BO) was
helping organize at the Dominican-owned maquila park CODEVI on
the Haitian-Dominican border, hundreds of workers were laid
off. BO and others claimed the lay-offs were a direct result of
the organizing. But at the time, Baker, then vice president of
the Association of Haitian Industries (ADIH), did not hesitate
to defend the Dominican employers.
"I'm very disturbed because
as a Haitian, I'm trying to create jobs," he told Inter
Press Service. "These people [BO and its international
supporters] are spreading lies on the Internet. This kind of
thing kills our business here."
But they were not lies. And
business was not "killed."
BO and the workers prevailed.
Today, over 3,000 workers at CODEVI are unionized and all
workers benefit from a collective bargaining agreement, although
salary remains rock-bottom. Minimum wage for the approximately
6,500 workers is 868 gourdes (US$21.70) a week.
In the face of local organizing
and international scrutiny and solidarity, Baker and other
industrialists fight tooth-and-nail against raises, saying they
pay as much as possible, and arguing that the foreign companies
who out-source stitching jobs to Haiti would pick up and leave
if workers were better paid.
Washington appears to agree. In
2009, with the backing of the US embassy, ADIH fought hard
against an attempt by parliamentarians to raise the minimum wage
to 200 gourdes (US$5) a day. As reported in Haiti Liberté
and The Nation, "contractors for Fruit of the Loom,
Hanes and Levi's worked in close concert with the US Embassy
when they aggressively moved to block a minimum wage increase"
voted by Parliament.
The U.S. State Department’s
Agency for International Development (USAID) helped pay for a
study that, not surprisingly, "found that an HTG 200 Haitian
gourde minimum wage would make the sector economically unviable
and consequently force factories to shut down," according to
what chargé d'affaires Thomas C. Tighe wrote in a confidential
cable to Washington. The US embassy urged "[a] more visible
and active engagement by [then-President René] Préval." Two
months later, the president apparently convinced the Parliament
to set a two-tiered minimum wage that allowed assembly
industries to pay less than 200 gourdes – 125 gourdes a day
until October 2011, and now 150 gourdes a day.
Justifying the "race to the bottom"
According to Baker, and to HGW research,
workers often earn more than 150 gourdes. But the wage remains
the lowest in the hemisphere – and lower than it was 30 years
ago – in a country where the state mostly does not provide nor
even subsidize basic needs like housing, electricity, water,
education and healthcare.
Industrialists justify the low
wages. "When you have a country where 80% of the people
don't, anything is good!" according to Baker.
The director of the Free Trade
Zone Office [Direction des Zones Franches], agreed. "A worker
can eat,” Jean-Alix Hecdivert told HGW. “Even if he can't
satisfy his hunger, he can eat."
At CODEVI, Director Miguel
Angel Torres echoed Baker. "I do think the salary is really
low, but Haiti has 70% unemployment!” he said. “If you
don't work, you don't have anything. If you get 868, at least
you can survive… It's better than nothing."
Haitian economist Camille
Chalmers has spent years thinking and writing about the
devastating effects of neoliberal economic policies on Haiti.
For Chalmers, sweatshop wages for exported textiles, produced by
local and foreign capitalists, are not "better than nothing."
"It's a big error to bet on
the slave-wage labor, on breaking the backs of workers who are
paid nothing while [foreign] companies get rich,” Chalmers
said. “It's not only an error, it's a crime."
The economist admitted that
assembly industries do create jobs but – referring to the
capital's main industrial park "boom" years in the 1980s – he
said that "while SONAPI [Société National des Parcs
Industriels] might have created 60,000 jobs, it also attracted
two million unemployed people."
Just like in Mexico, with the maquila boom, tens of thousands of landless peasants flowed into
Haiti's capital in search of jobs.
Assembly factories "don't
resolve the unemployment problem, they don't resolve the
production problem," Chalmers added. "They work with
imported materials, they're enclaves. They don't have much
effect on the economy."
Haiti's not the first place to
have "enclaves." International corporations based in
North America, Europe and parts of Asia have been off-shoring as
much labor as possible for decades in order to save on labor
costs. And as wages rise in one country, the companies pick up
and move on to someplace with lower wages. The concept of "race
to the bottom" is by now well understood.
CODEVI's Torres understands the
"race" well. Dominican factory owners started to move
across the border because "in the 2000s, we realized it was
too expensive in the Dominican Republic,” he said. “The
clients couldn't pay the labor costs."
In a report for Georgetown
University, Professor John M. Kline noted that rising labor
costs on the eastern half of Hispaniola, and the 2005 expiration
of "Multi-Fibre Agreement," led to the loss of over
82,000 jobs in the Dominican Republic between 2004 and 2008, "nearly
two-thirds of the sector's total employment," he wrote.
Ignorant or mendacious, the
cheerleaders for Haitian sweatshop labor fail to mention the
fate of those 82,000 Dominican workers. In fact, the Dominican
economy, supported by remittances, ranks in the top 25 countries
with the most skewed income distribution and has high structural
But that doesn't seem to matter
to former President Bill Clinton. Speaking to the September 20
session of the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York
City, he pushed Haiti to get to the front of the pack. "I
predict to you - if they [Haitians] do it right - they will move
to the top in the region and then they will spark this race all
over the Caribbean," he told investors.
Factory owner Baker admits he
is part of the race. "Yes, it's a race to the bottom… if you
count on it!" Baker said.
Baker claims that low-wage,
low-skilled assembly industries are temporary, a "stepping
stone," and that they will be a big part of the Haitian
economy for only about "ten or 15 years."
"I count on it only as a
stepping stone,” he said. “We're going up the stairs and
it's one of the steps."
Dozens of countries – and
indeed, Haiti, on and off for the past 30 years – have already
tread those same "race to the bottom" steps.
Why is Haiti “attractive” and what’s planned for Haiti?)
Haiti Grassroots Watch is a partnership of AlterPresse, the
Society of the Animation of Social Communication (SAKS), the
Network of Women Community Radio Broadcasters (REFRAKA) and
community radio stations from the Association of Haitian
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