Haiti: cables show US role in 2009 wage struggle

Leaked US diplomatic cables show that “[t]he US embassy in Haiti worked closely with factory owners contracted by Levi’s, Hanes, and Fruit of the Loom to aggressively block a paltry minimum wage increase for Haitian assembly zone workers” in 2009, according to an article in the New York and Haiti-based weekly newspaper Haïti Liberté. The article, published jointly with the US weekly magazine The Nation, is based on some of the 1,918 previously unpublished cables concerning Haiti that the WikiLeaks group has released to Haïti Liberté.

In 2009 the Haitian Parliament attempted to raise the daily minimum wage from about $1.75 to about $5. Many of the owners of assembly plants, which produce largely for North American apparel retailers, pressured then-president René Préval (1996-2001 and 2006-2011) to oppose the increase. Despite militant demonstrations by students and factory workers, Préval eventually won approval for a two-tier system with a minimum wage of about $3 a day for assembly plant employees but $5 a day for other workers. (However, the minimum wage for assembly workers was increased to about $5 a day in October 2010, while in all other sectors it rose to $6.25, according to Haïti Liberté.)

Although the US stayed behind the scenes, the cables show then-US ambassador Janet Sanderson calling for a “more visible and active engagement by Préval” and warning about the risk of “the political environment spiraling out of control.” The $5 a day minimum “did not take economic reality into account,” according to Deputy Chief of Mission David E. Lindwall. Charge d’Affaires Thomas C. Tighe cited studies supposedly showing that a $5 minimum wage “would make the [assembly] sector economically unviable and consequently force factories to shut down.”

Tighe apparently was also monitoring demonstrations by supporters of the wage increase. On Aug. 10 he was at a protest by Port-au-Prince factory workers during which his car was attacked. (At the time, an embassy spokesperson called Tighe’s presence at the protest coincidental and said he was not a target of the protesters. (HL, May 25-30)

The cables also show the US government’s concern about the Haitian electoral council’s decision to exclude the Lavalas Family (FL) party of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide (1991-1996, 2001-2004) from legislative elections originally scheduled for February 2010. (The vote was delayed by the January 2010 earthquake and was held in November.) The new US ambassador, Kenneth Merten, warned in December 2009 that FL would look “like a martyr and Haitians will believe (correctly) that Préval is manipulating the election.” Other diplomats expressed similar reservations at a Dec. 1, 2009 meeting of European Union and United Nations representatives with ambassadors from Brazil, Canada, Spain and the US. But the diplomats agreed to provide funds for the vote because “the international community has too much invested in Haiti’s democracy to walk away from the upcoming elections, despite its [sic] imperfections,” according to a US cable. (HL, May 25-30)

The cables also show a little-reported relationship between the US embassy and at least some FL politicians. A confidential Feb. 7, 2008 cable, for instance, is devoted to a discussion Ambassador Sanderson had with Rudy Hériveaux, an FL senator representing the West department, which includes Port-au-Prince. Hériveaux “told the ambassador he supports President Preval and his efforts for the political stabilization of Haiti, wants to attract foreign investment… [and] will try to keep planned Lavalas anti-government protests within bounds,” according to the cable. Sanderson noted that the senator’s views are “not widely shared by party grassroots.”

US diplomats also seemed to be on friendly terms with Saurel (sometimes spelled “Sorel”) François, the FL legislative deputy representing eastern Port-au-Prince. A confidential June 5, 2009 cable about student demonstrations for the new minimum wage includes François’ opinion that “the student protesters were apparently being ‘pushed’ by an outside force. He said the protesters’ ever-changing demands concealed a more radical agenda, and he had heard that the students planned to go ‘very far’ to push their demands.” François voted against raising the minimum wage, according to a confidential June 10, 2009 cable.

After FL was forced off the ballot, Hériveaux switched to the Together We Are Strong party and François ran on the ticket of Préval’s Unity party. Neither won reelection. (Radio Kiskeya, Haiti, Nov. 30, 2009; Radio Métropole, Haiti, June 7, 2010)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, June 12.

See our last post on Haiti and the WikiLeaks scandals.