It may have been impossible to predict exactly how devastating the earthquake in Haiti would be, but the tragedy behind the disaster was centuries in the making.
Haiti’s history tracks the centuries-long struggle for labor justice in the face of global capitalism. Ever since the country won independence through a slave revolt, it has been condemned to crippling debt, political marginalization, and racist vilification by Western powers.
The era of chattel slavery yielded to new forms of colonial dominion. The U.S. occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934, according to a 2004 article by Greg Guma, paved the way for exploitation and political strife:
Haiti’s constitution was later revised to remove a prohibition against land ownership by foreigners. US investors would henceforth be able to purchase fertile areas and go into business with plantations producing sugar cane, cacao, banana, cotton, tobacco, and sisal. This legal reform made possible the full consolidation of the Haitian oligarchy during the succeeding decades, and set the stage for a Black nationalist revolt, manipulated by the devious and brutal doctor-turned president-for-life, Francois Duvalier.
Still, threads of Haiti’s revolutionary spirit survived in the form of a militant labor movement in the 1950s and early 1960s. A report by the AFL-CIO’s International Labor Solidarity center explains:
Workers won the right to assemble and organize, limits to the workday, a minimum wage, paid holidays and maternity leave, insurance for accidents at work, conciliation in labor disputes, and severance pay. The government hired labor inspectors and, in contrast to earlier days, applied many of the new laws. The reforms fell in place even as the conservative government worked to constrain, or in many cases co-opt, the labor movement through open repression and more subtly through establishment of its own “yellow” unions.
But in subsequent years, market-friendly trade policies and state oppression withered the labor movement and condemned Haiti’s working class to poverty. As Haiti opened to international trade, reported the labor group Batay Ouvriye in a 2008 article:
in order to establish the free trade zones as the new type of “development”, in the context of the competition with other dependent countries of the region, it was necessary to “liberate” the Haitian labor force even more. On the one hand, they exterminated the native black pigs (this occurred under Jean-Claude Duvalier), a vital source of livelihood for the small peasants, then they destroy the sugar cane culture (under the CNG – National Governing Council), they even succeeded in eradicating the rice production (since the Bazin government), while the rest of the agricultural production was steadily deteriorating, causing a real migratory hemorrhage and a systematic pauperization that created a vast pool of available cheap labor.
There was a post-Duvalier burst of labor activism in the 1980s (which spurred the development of the AFL-CIO affiliated Federation of Union Workers (Féderation des Ouvriers Syndiqués or FOS) and the more radical Autonomous Federation of Haitian Workers/Federation of Latin American Workers (Centrale Autonome des Travailleurs Haïtiens/Centrale Latino-Américaine des Travailleurs)). And Jean-Bertrand Aristide came to power in 1990 on a pro-labor platform. But those inroads were eclipsed by continual power struggles and the onslaught of trade liberalization schemes.
The geopolitical maneuvering around the reinstatement of Aristide in the mid-1990s opened the door to a frontal assault from the World Bank and IMF, in which Haiti mortgaged its workforce to a cycle of ever-deepening debt. Soon the country was facing agricultural implosion, environmental degradation, and predatory industrialization.
A National Labor Committee investigation revealed widespread suppression of workers’ rights and Dickensian sweatshop conditions, fueled by multinational companies that flouted labor standards. In February 1997, a report by the Economic Justice Delegation and Labor Rights of the Washington Office on Haiti concluded:
1. that factory employment is not expanding;
2. that even if it did, it could provide jobs for only about 2% of the work force;
3. that conditions in the sweatshops stitching up garments for sale in K Mart, Wall Mart, Disney Stores, etc. are extremely exploitative. Haiti’s Labor Code is seldom adhered to and the Labor Court is ineffective. The minimum wage — which in any case is not enough to live on — is sometimes not paid. Daily piecework quotas are unrealistic and frequently raised if they are met. Workers who do not make the quota are first reprimanded and then fired. Sexual harassment is frequent. Workers who attempt to organize are fired.
The earthquake is just one of a series of blows the country has suffered in rapid succession: Haiti has been starved by the global food crisis and battered by a savage storm season in 2008. Meanwhile, advocates for Haitian workers have clashed with authorities over minimum wage reform, pro-market liberalization schemes, and privatization of government services.
The widespread scourge of child slavery in Haiti today illustrates how a tragic history has come full circle. In a country born from a slave revolt, youth are still chained to a system of human bondage.
Haiti’s labor politics have been contentious. After the 2004 ouster of Aristede (he is currently trying to return to Haiti), commentator Jeb Sprague accused mainstream labor organizations, namely the ICFTU and the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, of being in bed with the U.S. government and refusing to stand up for Haitian labor activists after the coup. (Those allegations sparked a bitter reaction from the labor group Batay Ouvriye.)
But Haiti’s greatest labor challenge may lie on other shores: years of economic and political chaos have driven mass migration, leaving the country heavily dependent on wages that Haitian workers abroad send home. Haiti’s economic refugees have been involved in myriad labor struggles in the region, including the oppressive toil of migrant farmworkers in the South and the Dominican Republic; domestic workers’ struggles for basic rights; and the battle over immigration reform.
In light of the disaster, the U.S. has halted deportations of undocumented Haitian immigrants, but advocacy groups continue to press for formal immigration relief through the granting of Temporary Protected Status.
Still, it seems that even a catastrophe of this magnitude will fail to shake the status quo in Washington. Activists fear the destruction will usher in even more U.S.-backed domination under the guise of humanitarian aid, economic “partnership,” and “stabilization” at the expense of democracy.
The media images of bodies in the streets, flattened buildings, and starving survivors are just a snapshot of the man-made calamity at the crux of the global economy. In the coming months, the country may eventually dig itself from the rubble of the immediate disaster, but Haitians will remain pinned under the legacy of neocolonialism. The only force that could collapse that edifice might be a grassroots movement, led by labor and civil society groups throughout the diaspora. From the geographic epicenter of the earthquake, Haiti’s suffering reverberates as a call to action across the hemisphere.
UPDATE: USA Today reported this afternoon that Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano would grant Temporary Protected Status to Haitian immigrants residing illegally in the United States as of January 12, 2010. A small breakthrough, and, in the context of the scope of the catastrophe, perhaps the least the White House could do for the diaspora at this point.
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.