Haiti: maquila workers march for wage hike

The Chamber of Deputies of Haiti’s Parliament voted 55-6 late on the evening of Aug. 4 to increase the country’s minimum wage from 70 gourdes ($1.74) a day to 150 gourdes ($3.73). Three deputies abstained, and about 20 walked out before the vote, apparently protesting what they considered irregularities in the secret balloting.

Parliament passed an increase to 200 gourdes ($4.97) on May 5, but President René Préval refused to promulgate the new law, which affects about 250,000 workers out of a population of some 9 million. University students held militant demonstrations in the streets of Port-au-Prince through much of June to demand that the president act on the law. Préval claimed an increase to 200 gourdes would hurt the tax-exempt plants that assemble products chiefly for export—known in Spanish-speaking countries as maquiladoras—and would lead to the loss of thousands of industrial jobs.

The hike to 200 gourdes seems to have strong support among the assembly workers themselves. The factory complex managed by the National Industrial Parks Corporation (Sonapi) on Port-au-Prince’s northern outskirts was shut down on Aug. 4 and Aug. 5 in an unprecedented wildcat strike as workers marched from the plants to demonstrate for the 200 gourde minimum.

According to Sonapi director general Jean Kesner Delmas, “outsiders” began distributing leaflets in the industrial park the afternoon of Aug. 3 calling on workers to walk out the next day, when Parliament was expected to vote on the measure. Thousands of workers gathered at the industrial park early on Aug. 4 and then left for a march to the Parliament building, which was guarded by a large number of police agents. According to the Associated Press wire service, there were about 2,000 protesters and police agents fired tear gas to disperse them. AP also reported that some protesters threw rocks at the agents and ripped down flags of United Nations member countries near the building; the nearly 9,000 soldiers and police of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) have frequently been used to put down protests since the mission was deployed in June 2004.

The Aug 4 demonstration ended before the Chamber of Deputies session started, but thousands of workers came back on Aug. 5 for a new protest after they learned that legislators had voted for a smaller increase. Sonapi factory owners decided to close their plants that day for “planning,” they said, but they insisted normal production would resume on Aug. 6. (AP, Aug. 4; AlterPresse, Haiti, Aug. 5, 6; Radio Kiskeya, Haiti, Aug. 5)

Violence broke out between protesters and Nepalese soldiers from the MINUSTAH force on Aug. 5 in Lascahobas, in the Plateau Central department near the Dominican border. Residents protesting a two-month electrical outage had erected some 13 barricades from branches, tree trunks, rock and junked cars, according to MINUSTAH, and threw rocks at the soldiers when they tried to remove the barriers. Residents said the soldiers fired into the crowd, wounding several and killing a man and a little girl. Port-au-Prince’s Radio Métropole reported that National Police officer Senat Emmanuel said seven people were wounded and two of them had died. Other officials denied that there were any deaths. MINUSTAH spokesperson Lt. Col. Fernando Pereira said people inside the crowd had fired on the soldiers, who responded by firing in the air. (AP, Aug. 6; AlterPresse, Aug. 6; Radio Métropole, Aug. 7)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Aug. 9

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