Defending Labor Rights in Haiti

Submitted by HaitiAnalysis on 14 May, 2007 - 7:55

By Ben Terrall -

New legislation in Washington D.C., under the acronym H.O.P.E. – short for “ the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement Act,” has the goal of promoting the garment industry in Haiti. But the legislation falls noticeably short in protecting labor rights or promoting long-term sustainable economic development that will benefit the poor as well as the rich.

The Washington Post editorialized about the bill: “After 15 years of political turmoil, violent unrest and economic mismanagement, this looks like a rare opportunity to consolidate tentative progress in Haiti. Congress shouldn't miss it.” But Tom Ricker, Latin America specialist with the Washington, DC based Quixote Center, disagreed: “Right now Congress has many opportunities to make a sustainable contribution to progress in Haiti, but the HOPE act is not one of them. The bill may create a few low-paying and precarious sweatshop jobs, but it will also reinforce a flawed model of development that has been failing Haitians for two decades.”

As Ricker elaborated, keeping Haiti competitive would mean sacrificing labor rights for jobs that have no guarantee of staying in the country: “A temporary expansion of tariff-free access for third country fabric does not solve the underlying problem. Indeed, by placing so much emphasis on apparel HOPE actually deepens economic insecurity in Haiti, instead of alleviating it.” While the high unemployment in Haiti has led to the destitution of many, Haitian labor organizers told this author that what they really need is a sustained period of peace and stability.

Ricker and others point to the need to revitalize Haiti’s rural economy while protecting and ensuring labor rights. According to Brian Concannon, Director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, “HOPE has some worker protection provisions, but they are toothless, and if past is prologue, they will do nothing to address the widespread exploitation of Haitian workers. It may be true that some workers make $4US per day, but more make closer to the minimum wage of $2. That minimum wage is far below the minimum wage of the late 1980's and early 1990's,when the country hosted many times more manufacturing jobs. It does not support even two people at the average level of subsistence in Haiti ($1US or below), which is itself brutal. Even $4 per day does not, after paying for a family's food, lodging and transportation to work, leave much left over to pay school fees and otherwise break the cycle of poverty.”

Concannon added, “All the HOPE proponents justify the Act by the benefits it provides Haitian workers; but I have yet to hear of any workers who were consulted about the bill, or who are themselves promoting it … Haiti's only real edge is the exploitability of its work force, which is not a foundation for long-term growth.”

Officials of the Confederation des Travailleurs Haïtiens (CTH) say that they were not consulted by the Préval government. Prior to the election of the Préval government, the interim government brought about a neoliberal economic framework, the Cadre de Coopération Intérimaire (CCI), in which workers and popular organizations were also not consulted. Thousands lost their jobs in the IMF backed austerity measures.

Dan Beeton, International Communications Coordinator for the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington D.C., argues, “HOPE is part of the same old ‘free trade’ model of development. What Haiti needs is a real development strategy that it can pursue unimpeded by the U.S. or anyone else, with a diversification of the economy and mechanisms to help ensure that more revenue stays in the country.”

But in that process, Concannon notes, “one of the most important things international supporters of human rights in Haiti need to stay focused on is supporting workers' rights.”

Haitian Trade Unionists

One Haitian labor group deserving of international solidarity is the CTH. In an earlier form, in 1959, the union was founded during the dictatorship of “Papa Doc” Duvalier and remains one of the most well known unions in Haiti.

While many unions in Haiti have become closely tied with foreign donor agencies, CTH has promoted a sovereign agenda, protesting against neoliberal policies of privatization. It has widely promoted labor rights for jobs across the rural and urban sectors. Organizing on a progressive and collective model its federations range from education, transportation, the ports, garment industry, artisan work and the informal sector. The Confederation is also involved in economic development programs, as well as literacy and health programs. It claims a total membership of 110,000 people.

A recent labor delegation to CTH offices in Port-au-Prince viewed hundreds of young people engaging in language courses. The Confederation, with two offices in Port-au-Prince, is present with offices in all of Haiti’s ten departments. CTH is a member of the regional CLAT (La Central Latinomericana de Trabajadores), CTC (Consejo de Trabajadores del Caribe), and the ITUC (International Trade Union Confederation).

In an interview during the interim period, CTH General Secretary Paul "Loulou" Chéry explained, "It is a crisis without precedent. Our population has not known a situation this grave since the founding of the country… The majority of the population has been plunged into misery, and exclusion. At the level of the workers, there is hopelessness, as there are practically no jobs. There is, maybe, 15% of the population who are truly employed […] At this point; the de facto government is conducting a witch-hunt. They are creating a situation of terror, a situation of fear, of systematic repression. This repression has resulted in the killing of thousands of people since the execution of the coup."

CTH organizers describe how labor conditions deteriorated rapidly following the 2004 coup d'état that overthrew President Aristide. Hundreds of their workers were persecuted, thrown in jail and thousands of public sector workers were fired from state jobs. Many workers within CTH's federations had their vehicles and places of work targeted by arsonists from the ex-military and anti-government opposition. Shortly after the coup, Chéry had a death squad enter his home and threaten him with death.

Prior to the coup they explain the embargo on international aid against the elected government also created economic decline, as it pushed away investors and harmed the ability of the government to carry through on its promises. But the elected Aristide government, they observe, even under these conditions backed a raise in minimum wage and various programs benefiting poor urban laborers. Today they maintain their independence from any political party but describe respect for democracy as a necessity. They describe how they refused to join the Group of 184 campaign, in which foreign donor backed labor groups cooperated in a wide destabilization campaign.

CTH workers want a functioning country, in which they can organize and improve their lives. Dan Beeton summed up why US citizens should support the ongoing organizing efforts of Haitian trade unionists:

"Throughout Haiti's history, the U.S. has usually been a bad neighbor, invading and occupying the country several times, propping up dictators, and at times blocking economic assistance to the country. A number of economically damaging policy prescriptions have originated in Washington as well, including privatization of state industries and the promotion of export processing zones that hamper the development of Haitian industry and generate little revenue…Considering the history of the U.S.' relationship with Haiti, Americans owe it to the Haitian people to support their right to organize independent trade unions and advocate for policies that will foster real and lasting economic development."

Ginette Apollon, head of the womens commission of the Confédération des travailleurs haitiens (CTH), Paul "Loulou" Chéry, General Secretary of the CTH, and Euvonie Georges-Auguste, a Haitian women's rights leader and activist will be touring Canada in May and June of 2007.

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