Haiti: fired unionists push for reinstatement

Haitian activists have started an international campaign to force Port-au-Prince apparel assembly plants to rehire six union members who were dismissed in the last week of September, allegedly for their union activities. As part of the campaign, Yannick Etienne, an organizer with the Haitian leftist group Batay Ouvriye (“Workers’ Struggle”), was in Montreal on Nov. 14 meeting with local labor rights activists and with media to put pressure on Gildan Activewear Inc., a Montreal-based apparel firm that has garments stitched at one of the Haitian plants.

The fired workers are members of the Textile and Garment Workers Union (SOTA), which was officially launched in September to organize in Haiti’s mostly non-union garment assembly sector; the plants produce for export, largely to North America, and benefit from tax exemptions. Four of the SOTA members worked at Genesis S.A., a plant in the National Industrial Parks Company (Sonapi) facility near the Port-au-Prince airport; the factory, which is owned by the wealthy Apaid family, produces almost exclusively for Gildan. A fifth unionist worked at another Sonapi plant, One World Apparel, which is owned by former presidential candidate Charles Henri Baker and stitches garments for Hanesbrands Inc., based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Etienne told the Montreal Gazette that Batay Ouvriye and SOTA are pushing Gildan “to demand explanations from its Haitian factories.” Gildan senior vice-president of public and affairs Peter Iliopoulos says the company is investigating the Genesis firings and SOTA’s accusation “is something that we take very seriously.” Hanesbrands spokesperson Matt Hill said the One World Apparel firing is “under investigation” as well, and the US company will take “appropriate action.” Better Work Haiti, a labor standards program partnered with the International Labor Organization (ILO), is also said to be investigating the firings. Despite the promises, “we are still waiting,” Etienne said. (Montreal Gazette, Nov. 14)

Georges Sassine, who heads the Haitian factory owners’ association, denies SOTA’s charges. “These incidents, they have nothing to do with people trying to form a union,” he told Inter Press Service (IPS) in October. “Now suddenly, the whole international community is on my back telling me I’m against people organizing.” According to Sassine, the problem is Batay Ouvriye, which he believes is trying to shut down factories completely, not organize a union. One World Apparel’s Baker also claims not to oppose labor organizing but says it has to be done “in the right way.”

Despite the owners’ assertion that they allow organizing, only one of the 23 assembly plants in Haiti has a union, according to Richard Lavallée, Better Work Haiti’s director. The one union plant, in Ouanaminthe in Northeast department at the Dominican border, was organized by Batay Ouvriye (see Update #829).

Former US president Bill Clinton (1993-2001), now the UN special envoy to Haiti, regularly promotes the creation of assembly plants as a way to develop Haiti’s economy. Last year IPS asked Clinton asked how this would be different from the growth of the assembly plant sector in the 1980s, which seemed to do nothing to improve Haiti’s economic situation. The 1980s manufacturing boom “couldn’t be sustained because nothing ever happened inside Haiti,” Clinton answered. “So this time what we’re trying to do is build the capacity of Haitians to govern themselves…. It’s a very different thing now. This is a piece of a much broader strategy.” (IPS, Oct. 27)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Nov. 20.

See our last post on Haiti.