When Haiti’s minimum wage rose to 300 Gourds ($7 US) per day in October 2012, workers across the nation were relieved. The money was certainly not a living wage, but it was far better than the paltry 70 gourdes-per-day standard established in 2003. Despite intense resistance from the U.S. government and apparel companies like Hanes and Fruit of the Loom — who waged a long battle to stave off an increase passed by the Haitian Parliament in 2009 and keep the minimum wage at $3 day for the textile industry — the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere was set to take a step in the right direction for labor rights.
Or so it seemed. Months after the increase took effect, many Haitian factory owners are still refusing to pay their employees the new minimum wage (An actual living wage in Haiti would be much higher still — about $29 per day, according to an estimate by the Workers’ Rights Consortium). With a weak national government and an economy largely dependent on U.S. contracts and favorable trade arrangements, workers in the apparel industry — Haiti’s largest exporter — are struggling just to attain their legally-mandated wage.
According to a spokesperson for Batay Ouvriye (“Workers Fight”), an autonomous workers’ organization in Haiti, factory owners and managers have intensified their crackdown on labor activists in the months following implementation of the new wage law. Last month, a worker named Leo Vedel was allegedly beaten by his manager after helping to organize a protest demanding that Premium Apparel, a textile assembly plant in Port-au-Prince, obey the law and pay workers their due.
As In These Times reported in January, factory owners have attempted to evade paying Haitian workers the new, higher wage by simply increasing their hours. Protests broke out at the Premium Apparel plant last September over new production quotas that workers said were nearly impossible to meet.
A wave of retaliatory firings brought the situation to a head in early February. When Leo Vedel, who is involved in unionizing efforts in the plant, returned to work following the protest, he caught a manager named Gédéon spying on him and taking pictures. A shouting match ensued, and Batay Ouvriye tells In These Times that Vedel was grabbed by the neck, beaten and thrown out of the factory. He was fired then and there, in addition to being hospitalized and stuck with the bill.
Premium Apparel produces clothes for the Canadian activewear company Gildan, which posted record fourth-quarter earnings last November after shipping jobs to Central America and the Caribbean, according to the Globe and Mail.
Workers’ groups in both Haiti and the U.S. are demanding that Premium Apparel reinstate Vedel with back pay for the days of work he was forced to miss, compensate him for his medical expenses and fire the manager who beat him up.
The situation for labor is bleak in Haiti’s garment sector, which employs about 29,000 and enjoys substantial tax breaks and lowered export tariffs. With no nationally organized labor group to speak of, pressure on exploitative employers is coming from autonomous workers’ groups like Batay Ouvriye that have stepped up to fill the void. To date, only one union is operating under an actual collective bargaining agreement. In 2006, Batay Ouvriye helped workers SOCOWA workers’ union, which operates in Haiti’s Ouanaminthe “free trade zone,” win a contract.
In 2009, Batay was a part of a 10,000 person-strong occupation of a Port-au-Prince industrial park in support of the then-stalled minimum wage legislation. Since then, the group has established SOTA —which stands for Sendika Ouvriye Tekstil ak Abiman in Creole, or the “Textile and Garment Workers Union” in English — to represent workers across the 16 apparel assembly plants in Port-au-Prince, including Premium Apparel.
The support of North American workers and solidarity groups has been crucial in previous labor battles in Haiti. Since Vedel’s alleged beating, Premium Apparel workers have found support from groups like One Struggle, an activist collective in Southern Florida, and its recently launched side project for quickly spreading information to activists, the Rapid Response Network.
One Struggle member and cartoonist Stephanie McMillan says the group will try to make Gildan come down on Premium Apparel and its manager, Gédéon, through sustained public pressure — phone calls, leafleting, and social media campaigns.
More broadly, however, McMillan says the groups’ goal is to get factory workers’ their legal minimum wage, even if it is an “inadequate … sub-survival wage.”
Groups like Batay Ouvriye are still relatively weak, however. With 80% of Haiti’s population living below the poverty line, many are reluctant to engage in activities which could hurt their only chance of earning a wage, even if it is a meager one. But given that Haiti exports more than $500 million of apparel to the United States annual, there is hope that solidarity activists can flex their muscle.
With businesses still resistant to the new minimum wage and to the growth of unions in the country, confrontations between management and labor in Haiti are likely to only increase in the coming months. Whether or not Haiti’s fledgling labor movement has the strength and clout necessary to successfully challenge cases like Mr. Vedel’s remains to be seen.