Sweatshop Workers Force Agreement in Haiti

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by Marty Goodman  /  April 2005 issue of Socialist Action

 

An unprecedented agreement has sweatshop organizers and workers in Haiti cautiously optimistic that a milestone has been reached. The deal was struck with the owners of two factories operated by the Grupo M (GM) company in Haiti’s notorious “Free Trade Zone” (FTZ), which employs about 1200 workers. The organization Batay Ouvriye (“Workers’ Fight” in Kreyol) says the accord signed on Feb. 5, following a year-long struggle, upholds the right of the SOCOWA union to organize freely within the FTZ.

 

The deal also secured the reinstatement of 150 workers and five union organizers fired last June for participating in a strike. The factories, one of which makes jeans for Levi-Strauss and the other T-shirts for Sara-Lee, said shrinking orders from U.S. companies were responsible—claims proven to be lies.  The fired workers are now back on the job.  The protocol, which is not a contract, requires negotiating a contract with SOCOWA by June [SOCOWA

means “The Ouanaminthe Codevi Labor Union.”

 

Ouanaminthe is the border region of Haiti next to the Dominican Republic where the FTZ is located. The CODEVI company, owned by Grupo M, runs the FTZ.] Batay Ouvriye (BO) warns that enforcing the agreement with Grupo M, a Dominican Republic-based company with a history of violence, will be the hardest part. BO is urging its members to stay mobilized. BO sees the

agreement as having national impact on ongoing BO campaigns in several cities, and particularly in Port au Prince assembly plants. BO also organizes

agricultural workers and peasants.

 

When the FTZ opened in 2003, workers were told they would make about US$35 a week. Workers received four months’ “training,” during which they earned about $8.60 a week, below the minimum wage. GM soon

increased the quota from 1000 jeans a day per line to 1500-2000 per day, but workers say they don’t receive their bonuses for exceeding the quota. Typically, the workday is 11 hours or longer, often six days a week.

Workers receive a base salary of about $12.34 per week, about 1/3 of what bosses promised!

 

GM employs Dominican Republic (DR) army soldiers in uniform, who police the factory and beat workers for union activities. Before an announced strike last June, workers were beaten, including pregnant women.  But the workers were not intimidated; all 1200 walked off the job!

 

GM supervision also subjects women workers to sexual abuse. In 2004, they received a series of unknown vaccinations, as did the Haitian men. Four pregnant women who received injections lost their babies. But Dominican bosses were not vaccinated.

 

The Dominican GM bosses reflect the long history of racism in their country. In 1937, 35,000 Haitians in the DR were slaughtered in just one day. Today,

Haitian sugar-cane cutters in the DR work under conditions described as “modern day slavery.”

 

The FTZ was subsidized by a $20 million World Bank loan to GM as part of a deal signed by former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, once a

self-described socialist. Aristide promoted the FTZ as a job-creating bonanza, not brutal exploitation. The 200-acre FTZ site displaced farmers, who protested losing their fertile land.

 

As background, Aristide returned to power in 1994 after a U.S.-led UN intervention had displaced a CIA-backed military junta. In return, he pledged to

follow a World Bank plan, which included foreign assembly sweatshops, privatizing public utilities, cutting social services, and lowering tariffs on U.S.

goods.

 

The U.S. firm Levi-Strauss says it adheres to “social responsibility guidelines” that “respect workers’ rights to join organizations of their choice.” The World Bank has similar guidelines on funding. Union and human rights advocates, however, have presented GM’s record to Levi-Strauss and World Bank

representatives—to no avail.

 

The struggle at GM took place under another U.S.-led UN occupation, which accompanied Aristide’s exile in February 2004 as CIA-linked Haitian ex-army and paramilitary thugs encircled Port au Prince.

 

The UN occupation was supported by both major U.S. parties, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Aristide begged for the intervention, just as he had in 1994. During the presidential campaign the

Democratic Party leadership downplayed Bush’s criminal Haiti policies with racist arrogance.

 

Currently, the UN occupation is led by Brazilian troops. Brazilian Workers Party President “Lula” da Silva betrayed the international working class by

violating Haiti’s sovereignty. Socialists say, “U.S., UN, and Brazilian troops: Out of Haiti now!”

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