Haiti Sweatshop Workers Lead Rebellion Against Hunger and Misery!

Demonstrators march during a wage protest in which a local journalist was killed, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti February 23, 2022. REUTERS/Ralph Tedy Erol

By Marty Goodman

Beginning in early this year a union coalition in Haiti, initiated by the leftist union, Batay Ouvriye (Worker’s Fight), mobilized tens of thousands in protests to demand an increase in the minimum wage for garment workers in the assembly industry, up from $5 (USD) a day to $15 a day. The $5 a day minimum had been in place since 2019, despite an inflation rate of about 20% per year over the same period.

Said one protester, “We have earned the 1,500 gourdes [$15 US] we are demanding. It is not normal that the U.S. clothing retailers are earning millions while I am paid in cents. It makes no sense. We are giving our blood.”

Factory workers walked off the job and demonstrated Feb. 9 and Feb. 10 in front of SONAPI, Port-au-Prince’s principal industrial park, to call for higher wages. It was the second major labor strike in three weeks.

According to Ose Pierre of the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center in Haiti, a typical sweatshop worker rises very early and often has, “Lunch before work” (which) costs about 100 gourdes [$1 USD]. They also buy their “manje midi,” or noon meal (a plate of rice, beans and meat), for about 200 gourdes [$2 USD]. Transportation, depending on where they live, could cost 100 gourdes [$1 USD]. Four-fifths of their day’s earnings [are] wiped out by necessities.”

Sweatshop assembly workers, mostly women, make clothing for export to Walmart, Target, Zara, The Gap, Old Navy and some 60 other U.S. brands, extracting super-profits from starvation wages. There are about 57,000 assembly workers in Haiti, mostly in the capital of Port au Prince at the SONAPI industrial park, but also in the northern city of Caracol under a Korean owner, the site of militant protests earlier this year, and in Ouanaminthe on the Haitian side of the border with the Dominican Republic, operated by the Dominican firm “Grupo M,” which reaps untaxed super-profits in a “Free-trade zone.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton played a key role in persuading the Caracol assembly owner to leave El Salvador and Guatemala for even lower wages in Haiti.

At the 2012 opening ceremony in Caracol, Clinton heaped praise on Haiti’s mob-connected President Michel Martelly, on hand for the ceremony. Clinton had bullied the Haitian Electoral Council – even threatening to cut U.S. aid – to jump Martelly from third place in a contest for president in 2010 into a two-candidate runoff election that Martelly won.

Martelly proclaimed to the ribbon-cutting ceremony in Caracol, “Haiti is open for business!” 

Haiti cables circulated by Wikileaks reveal how closely the US Embassy monitored the widespread demonstrations in 2018 to raise the minimum wage and worried about its impact on U.S. corporations. UN occupation troops were called in to quell worker and student protesters, sparking further demands for an end to the US-led UN military occupation of Haiti.

Ouanaminthe sweatshop plants reap exorbitant profits in a tax-less “free-trade zone,” established by “socialist” former Haitian president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Police Repression

Continuing protests were met with police repression from the U.S. backed dictatorship of Haitian Prime Minister, Ariel Henry. On Feb. 23 Haitian photo journalist, Maximilien Lazare, was shot dead by cops who continued firing into the crowd as other demonstrators were tear gassed and clubbed.  “Masked police without any identification badges came in white cars with generic plates… and they shoot the peaceful workers, and three journalists,” said the AFl-CIO’s Pierre. In response, demonstrators burned tires, set up barricades and threw rocks at police.

The brutal Haitian cops have received plenty of support from U.S. imperialism. According to a current U.S. State Department website, the U.S., “provided $312 million in assistance between 2010-2020 alone to strengthen law enforcement and the capacity of the Haitian National Police to maintain peace and stability, and to respond effectively to civil unrest while respecting human rights.”

On February 21, in response to ongoing protests, the Superior Council of Wages (SCW), raised the minimum wage across several categories of workers by as much as 54%. Garment workers were now to receive 685 gourdes, just under $6.50 US a day, a 37% increase, less than half of what garment workers were demanding.

The SCW is required to raise the minimum wage each year when inflation exceeds 10% according to the Haitian Labor Code, but it usually doesn’t. Adjusted for inflation, the value of the gourde is today worth less than half of what was the minimum wage in 1980 under the U.S. backed dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier.

The brutal minimum wage for assembly workers was 500 gourdes per day since 2019, even though prices have increased by about 20% per year since then. The SCW recommended initially an even smaller raise in line with recommendations from assembly industry bloodsuckers but Prime Minister Henry raised it slightly.

In response to the cynical raise, the 1er Mai-Batay Ouvriye (May 1-Workers Struggle) organized a mobilization on Feb. 23 to categorically reject the raise as an insult and renewed their demand for a daily wage of 1500 gourdes and an improvement in working conditions.

It should be understood that Batay Ouvriye itself has focused on achieving a “Living Wage” of at least 2700 gourdes per day. The lower 1500 gourdes demand was a compromise reached in discussion with several other unions to form a united front to raise the minimum wage.

Mass mobilizations to raise the minimum salary of assembly workers have now slowed but are likely to resume, although no firm plans have been announced.

Said protester Andre Saintil, “They probably think we can’t resist, that we’ll get tired of protesting, but this is going to be an ongoing fight.”

Crisis of Capitalism and Imperialism in Haiti

Only some 30% of Haitians have full time jobs. 60% of the population lives on less than $2 a day. The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization recently reported that some 4.5 million people across Haiti require urgent assistance due to a severe lack of food. 3.3 million people lack access to safe water. In 2021, Haiti ranked 104 out of the 107 countries on the Global Hunger Index. In April 2008 were so-called “Clorox” food riots, named after hunger so painful that it felt like bleach in your stomach.

Haiti’s is a super-exploited neo-colony of U.S. imperialism, its ruling kleptocracy are puppets of U.S. anti-communist policy, voting with the U.S. against Cuba and Venezuela in the OAS and UN.

Ever since Haiti’s armed slave-revolution proclaimed independence from France in 1804, Washington has feared its example and had it in its cross-hairs. It did not recognize the Black republic until 1862. The U.S. militarily occupied Haiti from 1915-1934, under Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, reversing key gains of its revolution.

More occupations followed with US-led UN occupations in 1994 and 2004 in the aftermath of murderous CIA backed coups. Obama essentially reoccupied Haiti in the wake of the catastrophic 2010 earthquake.

This year the Biden backed Haitian dictator has virtually suspended parliament, fired judges and is now implicated in the brutal July 7, 2021 assassination of his predecessor President Jouvenel Moise.

In addition to the minimum wage mobilizations, Haitians mobilized in huge numbers a few years ago over the theft of over $4 billion in “PetroCaribe” funds granted by the Venezuelan government as an aid package earmarked for the benefit of the poor. Not one Haitian politician was indited for the crime whose actors include top politicians and former presidents.

In 2021 and again in 2022, Haitians mobilized in huge numbers to force former President Jovenel Moise and current Prime Minister Henry to step down on Feb. 7th according to the Haitian Constitution. Despite Haiti’s rejection of both U.S. puppets, the Biden administration remained steadfast in its support of Henry, ignoring even opportunist bourgeois “opposition” forces in “The Montana Accord.”

Over the last year, massive demonstrations have protested the ever present “insecurity” of gang violence that Haitian activists say are linked to politicians Former President Jouvenel Moise used armed gangs and police to crack down on the protesters, which included the infamous massacre of 57 people in Port-au-Prince’s La Seline neighborhood in 2019.

Brandishing automatic weapons, they’re all-pervasive violence has terrorized and disrupted vital commerce and buses on main highways. Even emergency aid to earthquake victims in southern Haiti last August, which claimed some 2,000 lives, was disrupted by gangs. Kidnapping for ransom – often resulting in death – is an all-pervasive phenomenon. According to the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, there were over 600 kidnappings in the first nine months of 2021 compared to 231 in 2020. Reported kidnappings, which frequently includes rape, soared by 180% and homicides by 17% in the past year, according to a report by the United Nations Security Council.

For decades, a racist double-standard immigration policy under both Democrats and Republicans, have favored white, anti-communist immigrants from Cuba and eastern Europe over Haiti’s Black refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. after fleeing U.S. backed dictators.

During campaign 2020, Biden promised to end Trump’s racist immigration policies and ‘humanize’ U.S. immigration procedures. Nevertheless, Biden has deported over 21,000 Haitians since February 2021, more than both Barack Obama, nicknamed “The Great Deporter” by immigrant rights advocates, and the racist criminal Donald Trump, who called Haiti, “a shithole country.”

Biden’s racist deportations hinge on a Trump-era expulsion policy under cover of the COVID crisis, the notorious “Title 42,” which his administration has defended against legal challenges in court, despite its blatant violations of established U.S. and international immigration and human rights law.

Haiti is ready ripe for revolution. The pursuit of parliamentary reform in Haiti is hopeless. Solidarity from within the U.S. working class is essential in freeing Haiti from the clutches of racism and imperialism. Victory in the fight against exploitation in Haiti! Long live the Haitian revolution!

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