Yannick Etienne is a member of Batay Ouvriye (Workers’ Fight), a militant trade union federation in Haiti. Yannick is on a speaking tour of Britain organised by No Sweat and the Haiti Support Group. Solidarity spoke to Yannick about the situation in Haiti today and about the work of Batay Ouvriye, particularly in the new Free Trade Zone that is being built at Ouanaminthe, on the border with the Dominican Republic
Haiti is in the midst of a long-term social, economic and political crisis. After ten years in power, Aristide [Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haitian president overthrown by a military coup in 1990 and restored in 1994 after promising to toe the US/IMF line] failed completely to fulfil any of his promises to his supporters, the peasants and the urban poor. His base was gone; he could not maintain order except by repression against the grassroots popular movements, against workers and students. He did not represent any alternative for working people in Haiti. His opponents in the private sector, in the Haitian bourgeoisie, organised in the “Group of 184”, grew more and more aggressive. When it became clear that Aristide could not maintain order, French and US intervention played a key role in replacing him.
What this means for the masses, for the Haitian people, is a situation of increasing difficulty, in which it is very hard to maintain even the basic rights that exist in Haiti. When armed squads are out in the street, firing at people randomly, it is difficult even to go out, let alone organise. It is not that repression has increased, but the general situation in society is deteriorating.
Solidarity: What is the origin of your organisation, Batay Ouvriye?
The first thing to say is that Batay Ouvriye is the continuation of the struggle waged by a group of militant workers at the beginning of the 90s to build an alternative to the bureaucratic unions that existed, the yellow unions. With the  coup, a number of us either died or went into exile. In 1995, we started again to rebuild the movement, by openly having meetings and deciding to develop an organisation called Batay Ouvriye, which means “Workers’ Fight”. We began in the industrial sectors, but branched out, and now we have branches in five of the nine departments of Haiti. We have 15 unions affiliated to our organisation.
We don’t have any full-timers; everyone is a voluntary activist. Many of our organisers are people who lost their jobs because of union activity and have chosen to devote at least part of their time to being a militant.
We not only organise workers in manufacturing, but also small shops, in hotels, sharecroppers and also peasants. Because of the nature of employment in Haiti, it is difficult to say how many members we have. You must understand that in Haiti workers are only a very small part of the population. A big majority are peasants; in the cities, at least 70% are unemployed or under-employed. The formal sector of the economy, where it is easier to organise workers, is very small and has shrunk since the early 90s. So unions have to reach out to other sections of the population. That is the context in which we operate.
We have tried to develop coordination between different unions on the ground, and our aim is to establish a base in all nine departments of Haiti, so we can build a popular democratic mass movement. We want to build a strong union sector, but also to make sure workers are leading the popular movement, to provide a real alternative for all working people in Haiti.
Solidarity: So what is the federation’s political perspective?
When we are building a movement, we know that workers need their own organisation, not just in the workplace but at the level of society too. There are questions of living conditions, of services and so on, and we have to deal with these issues too. Any social movement will have political goals. We are fighting for more democratic rights in Haiti, and for the rights that exist to actually be implemented! In the long term, we recognise the need for the capitalist social structure in Haiti to be completely uprooted, and of course that means political action, it means people looking for a political alternative and joining political parties and forming new ones. We hope that, as it grows stronger, the movement will be radicalised. But right now, we are concentrating on grassroots, workplace organising — but I guess the future will tell.
Solidarity: On this tour, you’ve been talking mainly about the struggle that’s taken place this year in Ouanaminthe. Could you tell us about that?
Yes, I was invited to talk about the situation in the free trade zone at Ouanaminthe, as part of the international campaign to put pressure on Levi and its contractor Grupo M, as well as the World Bank, because these are the three actors responsible for the labour conflict currently taking place there. The basic question is that of exploitation, of working conditions, pay and the right to form a union. The quota of production is very high; management has tried to raise it from 800 to 1,000 a day. They have not paid the wages promised to workers when they were hired. When workers began to organise [in SOKOWA, a union affiliated to Batay Ouvriye] at the start of this year, the management fired 33 of its activists. Grupo M has been forced to deal with the union, but the struggle is continuing. That’s why we need continued understanding and support from the international community, by which I mean the workers’ movement and international solidarity activists.
The other thing to explain is that this is the first free trade zone in Haiti, so there are wider issues. When Baby Doc [Jean-Claude Duvalier, dictator of Haiti from 1971 to 1986] fell, there was increased investment in Haiti, with a number of individual assembly plants being set up. But in this free trade zone, there will be maybe twenty plants in one small area. And this enormous enterprise is being set up in a rural area of Haiti, on land that was used to feed a lot of agricultural workers, that was taken over by Grupo M. This is a crime, considering that Haiti has very limited land for growing food. But the Haitian government puts the needs of World Bank above feeding its people. And of course there were kickbacks to officials from Grupo M, and we have heard that some peasants whose land was taken have still not received compensation.
There will also be environmental problems. The free trade zone is located on a plain, next to a river, and we have no idea what pollution will result from stonewashing and processes like that. There will be people moving into the area and putting massive pressure on the land too.
There is also a question of what I would call economic sovereignty. Even if it was willing, the Haitian government will not be able to implement its laws in the free trade zone. For instance, at one point Grupo M decided to provide workers with a tetanus jab; but it was not a tetanus jab, God knows what it was, because there were all kinds of health problems. One male worker even began to produce milk from his breast! When we asked the ministry of health, they said sorry, it’s not our business; the operator of the free trade zone is responsible for health inside the zone. We still don’t know what was in that injection. Capital has been given a licence to operate as its own state.
But also, Grupo M is a Dominican company [owned by capital from the neighbouring Dominican Republic] and the Dominican army has been used to deal with workers’ unrest. It has entered Haiti in order to police the Ouanaminthe free trade zone. Haiti’s army was demobilised in 1995, so it cannot effectively police the workers — though no doubt the new government will change that. So they use the Dominicans to maintain order. So there are all kinds of issues posed by the struggle, it is not just a workers’ struggle, but also a struggle for the people of Haiti to have all kinds of self-determination.
Solidarity: What would you say to the argument that, in a poor country like Haiti, your members should be grateful for their jobs?
Of course we are grateful to have jobs, we are pleased that there is inward investment coming to our very troubled country. But it is not just a question of being employed. How much do you earn, do you have dignity, are you developing as a human being? We are not against companies being in Haiti, we are against them failing to respect workers’ rights. Why should being a worker mean being exploited? After all, there were lots of “jobs” under French colonialism; literally thousands of slaves. We live in a country which fought for decades to escape from slavery, and we are never going to go back. Being a worker does not mean being a slave.
Solidarity: What can we do to support you?
We have had support from trade unions not only in Britain and the US, but from places like South Africa and Bangladesh, and we’ve had groups like Haiti Support and No Sweat supporting us, which is great. But we need to keep this support strong as the struggle with Grupo M is not over, the struggle in Haiti is not over. I would ask activists to keep informed about our struggles, to remember that there are people struggling in Haiti even when you don’t hear things about us in the news.
The sort of support we need is not charity for poor people, but solidarity in our struggle, which is a common struggle against the same enemy, a struggle against capitalism. We want to know what the British workers’ movement is doing, and not just how you can help us but how we can help you.