The following interview is with Paul Philome, a member of Batay Ouvriye, which is organizing unions in Haiti. Batay Ouvriye, which means “worker’s fight” in Haitian Creole, has been active in five of the country’s nine departments, particularly in U.S. and other foreign-owned sweatshops.
Marty Goodman conducted the interview via email. Batay Ouvriye can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Socialist Action: Can you describe the conditions faced by workers in Haiti today?
Philome: The general weakness of the bourgeoisie, with regard to both imperialist and precapitalist forces in the country, makes it extremely ferocious toward the working class, seeing it as merely a means to extract the maximum profits. To do this the local bourgeoisie leans on the imperialists who, as bandleaders, manipulate and organize the forces of repression, still in the hands of the paramilitary Ton-tons Macoutes.
In order to have a social formation totally at its beck and call, imperialism, with the U.S. at its head, has worked to wipe out local production, principally agriculture and handicraft.
If we add to this the archaism of the rural pre-capitalist system and its ever more ferocious exploitation of the peasants, we find a shattered economy with millions of uprooted, destroyed workers and semi-proletarians who have little value in the work market.
The U.S. and Haitian rulers realize this when they declare openly that “Haiti’s comparative advantage is its ‘low-cost’ labor”!
Salaries are not much more than $1.20 a day, which extreme inflation, 300 percent in the last five years, has rendered progressively lower. The Haitian Labor code requires that salaries be raised each time the cost of living rises by 10 percent, a legal requirement the Aristide regimes have ignored.
This salary of misery permits the greedy elite to take full advantage of this system of domination. They refuse workers any form of the historical social gains long acquired by the working class internationally and established by national legislation yet constantly violated by the bosses. By denying sick leave, pensions, severance pay, and so on, the Haitian and foreign capitalists can expect to receive super-profits in Haiti.
When workers decide to organize to fight the exploiters and reclaim a few of their rights, repression falls upon them directly. Indeed, anti-union repression is very ferocious under the Aristide government. The least association with unions or any protests are followed by pure and simple firing.
The state always completely upholds the bosses. This is evident at the Ministry of Social Affairs and in the Justice Department. Because of their arrogance the bosses know they can exploit workers at will.
SA: What has been the response to Batay Ouvriye’s (BO) organizing efforts?
Philome: Batay Ouvriye’s work has passed to a new level. Given the limits of union organization and the unions’ difficulties in broadening their action, we have formed the Batay Ouvriye May First Union Federation (Entèsendikal Premye Me Batay Ouvriye, ESPM-BO), in order to organize the more advanced workers. This not only serves to coordinate the struggles, but also directly attacks the capitalist state. In Haiti, battles are openly political, even when they don’t bear that name.
At the same time, our organizing extends to the neighborhoods, seeking to convey a platform of struggle to the poorest sectors. In rural areas, with the exploited peasantry, various forms of mobilization have been undertaken, in alliance with urban and rural wage workers.
Finally, we seek out solidarity nationally and internationally. Various movements support us by protesting the multinational corporations directly within their countries.
SA: The U.S. led a United Nations military occupation in 1994, which reinstalled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Have conditions improved for workers under the occupation?
Philome: With the return of Aristide and the new occupation, a new framework has come to exist.
It is true that during the coup years, the situation was much harsher in one way. It forced workers at the time to adopt different organizational forms, generally clandestine. Mass mobilization was absolutely impossible and organizational tasks quite difficult.
However, things have become harder now precisely because an illusion has been created with all this talk of a “return to democracy.” Many workers believed that things were going to change and surfaced to claim their rights. Then, repression fell upon them like a guillotine and that is when workers came to realize that this “democracy” which was being talked about was for the bourgeoisie alone. For the working class, laborers, and masses in general, there was dictatorship.
SA: BO has been building international solidarity with workers at the Guacimal and the Madeline processing plants in Haiti. Workers there process orange extract for the luxury liqueur Remy Cointreau, earning, on average, an incredible $1.50 a day. Can you describe this important struggle?
Philome: With the development of the various Batay Ouvriye unions’ struggles in the north of the country, the Union of Guacimal St. Raphael came into existence as well. This plantation is one of oranges where, each season, the workers pick them from the trees, put them in crates, and then send them in trucks to Cap-Haitien.
The oranges are processed there (at the Guacimal factory, where a union has also been set up), and the oil extracted. This is sent to France, where the liqueur called Cointreau is produced.
In 1958, Cointreau bought 1100 acres of land from peasants in the north at a very low cost. In exchange, they promised peasants that they would always be the field workers and receive fair salaries and good working conditions. During the break between seasons, peasants were promised the use of irrigated lands. The owners promised a complete irrigation system, schools, health centers and roads.
Of course, none of all of these promises were ever kept! Worse, workers never had decent working conditions. Workers must pick oranges without ladders or any form of protection, carry crates by foot to trucks, fix the crates themselves, etc.
Worker’s salaries today are even lower than the minimum wage of $1.50 (U.S.) per day. Their wages were never adjusted to the rising cost of living in violation of the Haitian Labor Code. Guacimal workers never received the slightest gains most other workers take for granted, such as sick leave, severance pay, paid vacations, pensions, and medical care as required by law.
Cointreau orange cutters in Madeline, Cap-Haitien, work from dawn to nightfall during peak season, often over 12 hours a day, and have even been forbidden in the past from returning home until all arrivals had been finished. Because of the industry’s seasonal production cycle, employees work long, hard hours in one period, only to be laid off for long stretches later the same year. In response, plantation and factory workers set up their own union to demand their rights. But that was without counting on the reaction of the bosses-Haitian and foreign.
The case of the plantation workers is the most dramatic. Since the union was formed, the company has refused to meet with workers’ delegations and has refused to recognize the very existence of the union, despite its legal affidavit. All of which was to avoid satisfying even the slightest of the workers’ claims.
At this point we mobilized for a strike and made our demands. The bosses answered with unprecedented violence. Haitian management attacked the workers at their meeting, wounding them with machetes. And when they saw that the mobilization remained firmer than ever, they got the mayor of the town of St. Raphael who, under escort of the police and paramilitary thugs, illegally arrested four members of the union executive committee.
On the day of the trial, over 200 workers came from Guacimal, Cap Haitien, and St. Michel-a neighboring village also organized by Batay Ouvriye. The mobilization forced the authorities to release the workers despite the fact that the judge was bribed and ready to fine the workers and keep them in jail.
The bosses then declared that they would stop the peasants from working the land during the break between seasons. This decision meant the death of over 400 families. The workers decided to occupy the land and work it anyway which is where the situation is today-a stalemate.
Throughout, the union has maintained its mobilization. At one point a delegation of Cointreau workers tried to meet with President Aristide but were stopped by the Minister of Social Affairs, who remained loyal to the capitalist class she serves.
Meanwhile, the struggle was taken to the international arena. The most active solidarity groups are New York-based Batay Ouvriye Solidarity Network, Haiti Support Group in England, and Réseau Solidarité, Peuples Solidaires in France. Pressure has been put on management through letter-writing campaigns and pickets at Cointreau offices.
A Batay Ouvriye delegate met with a Cointreau authority in France, who said that Cointreau was open to recognizing the union and immediate negotiations but that the Haitian management continued to refuse any contact.
In January 2002, Cointreau management wrote to Batay Ouvriye informing it of their decision to cease purchasing from Guacimal S.A. They state in this letter that they are doing this after having communicated many times with that management to improve worker conditions, but that they have no control on what actually goes on with Guacimal. They also say they feel all the more comfortable with the decision that Guacimal has many other buyers for their oils, so that this won’t signify layoffs.
The unions, however, are dubious: they have pointed out that Cointreau was not only a major buyer from Guacimal but also a stockholder and that, as such, for instance, it was able in 2001 to force Guacimal to eliminate long-holding debts workers had been paying. They thus feel this is but another maneuver by Cointreau along with the Guacimal company, destined to fool international supporters of this struggle.
In spite of the convergence of forces of the national and international bourgeoisie, landlords, and the Lavalas authorities, the Guacimal workers-with support from progressives around the world-remain mobilized. They know that mobilization is the only weapon that will succeed against the exploiting classes. They continue this battle without rest.
SOME BACKGROUND ON HAITI
Haiti today remains one of the most unequal and impoverished nations. Life expectancy is just 53 and the average yearly income is $460. Merely 1% owns 44% of Haiti’s wealth and 60% of the best land.
In 1990 a charismatic priest, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a self-described socialist, won 67.5 percent of the vote for president. Aristide headed the populist but middle-class-led movement known as the “Lavalas,” which means “the torrential flood” in Haitian Creole.
However, Aristide’s radical image, promoted by the middle-class U.S. left, proved shallow. Beginning with his first term, Aristide was compromised with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), whose objectives in Haiti were derisively nicknamed the “American Plan.” The plan emphasizes an economy based on assembly industry and large-scale agribusiness.
The plan consigned Haiti to be “the Taiwan of the Caribbean,” as an U.S. official once put it.
Aristide was overthrown on Sept. 30, 1991, in a bloody military coup led by the U.S.-trained General Raoul Cedras, long on the CIA’s payroll. Despite his vast following, Aristide refused to organize a movement to resist the coup and, after pledging never to do so, summoned a U.S.-led United Nations intervention.
In exchange for reinstalling Aristide in 1994, the United States pressured the compliant president to accept an even deeper commitment to the World Bank/IMF agenda.
In November 2000 Aristide was elected president for yet a third term. Keeping the pressure on, Washington demanded a recount of the May 2000 parliamentary election, thus echoing the demands of the U.S.-backed “Democratic Convergence,” an amalgam of tiny anti-Aristide Haitian parties with little support.
Because of Washington’s intransigence, the U.S. is blocking some $500 million in promised aid, including $145.9 million in loans from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). The loans were to improve health care, schools, water systems and roads. According to Haiti Progres newspaper, the IDB is already charging interest on the blocked loans!
– MARTY GOODMAN