Haitian workers battle starvation wage

By MARTY GOODMAN

It seems like a nightmare. Haiti’s 30,000 assembly workers, working mostly in textiles, will actually face a wage cut as part of a new $5.23 a day minimum wage (225 Haitian gourdes), which goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2014. That’s far short of the $11.63 a day (500 Haitian gourdes) demanded by unions.

Feeding the profit frenzy in textiles is international capitalism. U.S. corporations such as Walmart, Levi’s, the Gap, Hanes, and others reap super-profits at the price of Haitian misery. Haitian bosses answered recent protests with the need to “keep Haiti competitive.”

Haitian president Michel Martelly, elected in 2011 under intense U.S. manipulation, has shamelessly declared, “Haiti is Open for Business.” The notoriously corrupt president has a daily spending account of $20,000, with massive financial perks for family members in shadowy government projects. In contrast, workers and the unemployed (some 80% countrywide) widely complain of having the “Clorox hunger” to describe the pain of starvation in their stomachs.

On Nov. 29, the Supreme Council on Wages (CSS), composed of business, labor, and government representatives, voted to approve a 12% increase in the official minimum for most workers, from $4.65 to $5.23 a day (225 gourdes) or from 58 cents to 65 cents an hour. Eight of the nine members of the CSS, including all three union representatives, approved the 225-gourde wage.

“We think it is a shame that the CSS union representatives agreed to the miserable wage of 225 gourdes. At a meeting the night before, we requested that they refuse to sign any agreement that was less than 300 gourdes,” said Yannick Etienne of the leftist Batay Ouvriye (Workers Struggle), a sweatshop-organizing group that is part of the KOSIT coalition of textile unions.

However, for assembly workers, mostly women, the official wage was about 87 cents an hour or $7 a day. Pay will now be legally reduced to the $5.23 a day rate.

Doubly enraging sweatshop workers is the fact that bosses have ignored the higher legal rate since it was passed by parliament in 2009. In an October 2013 report, the UN connected International Labor Organization found that all 23 factories surveyed were “non-compliant” with the law. In addition, according to an Oct 2013 report from the Washington-based Workers Rights Consortium, Haitian workers were regularly cheated out of overtime pay.

“If I hear there is going to be a demonstration, I’ll be there,” one woman told International Press Service. “I cannot make it with this pocket change. The bosses know that. They are just cruel.”

In the lead-up to the Nov. 29 CSS decision, 5000 marched near a “free trade zone” in Ouanaminthe on Nov. 7, chanting “500 gourdes!” near the Dominican border. Hundreds marched in the capital.

On Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day, three days of strikes and mass protests began in Port-au-Prince, the capital. Hundreds, maybe thousands according to some, of garment workers walked off their jobs in Port-au-Prince. Strikers and supporters marched on the Parliament Building, chanting, “Down with the CSS.” The marchers, largely young women, called for a daily minimum wage of 500 gourdes.

Said one sympathetic parliamentarian, Fritz Gérald Bourjolly, “These days a person can’t eat and drink on 225 gourdes.” On Dec. 11, protesters headed to the comparatively wealthy Port-au-Prince suburb of Pétionville, where the CSS was said to be holding a meeting. Riot police blocked their way, and the marchers eventually returned to the large Sonapi Industrial Park.

On Dec. 12 factory owners responded to the wildcat strikes by closing their plants. The factories reopened on Dec. 13, but some activists were suspended or fired. The actions were the largest demonstrations by assembly workers since August 2009, when workers mobilized in the thousands for passage of a new minimum wage. Protesters were met with gunfire from the U.S./UN occupation force known as MINUSTAH.

A 2011 study by the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center found that a factory worker living in the capital and supporting two children would need to earn about 29 dollars per day (1152 gourdes), six days a week, to support his or her family.

According to documents released by Wikileaks to The Nation and Haiti Liberté magazines, U.S. corporations were lobbying heavily to lower the Haitian minimum wage in 2008. Moreover, key players of the sweatshop economic development strategy are Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Since the strike, an ominous call to action went out from a Haitian business website called “Economic Forum of the Private Sector.” It said, “This situation, created by armchair revolutionaries and manipulative politicians, gives the advantage to our foreign competitors, who will win back the orders that cannot be fulfilled by factories in the metropolitan region. The Haitian Nation and State must not tolerate these troublemakers!”

In related news, four years after the Jan. 2010 earthquake, which killed over 200,000 Haitians, 300,000 still languish in hellish unsanitary and dangerous conditions in tent cities around the capital. After a major cholera outbreak, which killed 8000 in late 2010, Haiti had over 1100 cholera cases a week in 2013. Cholera is a water-born disease preventable by clean potable water.

Yet, according to CNN, only 37% of the $4.6 billion pledged for Haiti in post-earthquake relief has been dispersed.

In few places on earth are the cruelty and anarchy of capitalism and U.S. imperialism as apparent as it is in Haiti. The solidarity of U.S. and international labor is vital.

It has been apparent for many years that the “Fanmi Lavalas” (the Lavalas Party) of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has proven incapable of solving the crisis or to even move the struggle forward. Advancing beyond middle-class populist leadership is essential. Haitian workers need to organize their own working-class party armed with class-struggle politics for a revolutionary break with occupation and misery.

Photo: Protesters say that the new wage would not be enough to feed their families. Tony Savino / Socialist Action