Haiti: maquila workers take to the streets —again

Haitian garment workers walked off their jobs in Port-au-Prince on the morning of Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day, starting off three days of strikes and marches for a higher minimum wage. The protests were in response to the Nov. 29 recommendation by the newly formed Higher Council on Wages (CSS) setting a minimum wage of 225 gourdes (US$5.44) a day for the country’s 24 apparel factories—tax-exempt plants, known in Latin America as maquiladoras, which assemble products for export to North America. With hundreds of participants—or thousands, according to some sources—the actions were the largest demonstrations by assembly workers since August 2009.

On each of the three days the workers set off from the Metropolitan Industrial Park (PIM) near the Toussaint Louverture International Airport in the north of the capital; the majority of Haiti’s assembly plants are in or near the complex, which is generally referred to as “Sonapi,” from the initials of the semi-public authority that manages the assembly sector, the National Industrial Parks Company. On Dec. 10 the workers marched on the Parliament building in downtown Port-au-Prince. Waving tree branches and chanting “Down with the CSS,” the marchers, largely young women, called for a daily minimum wage of 500 gourdes (US$12.08). At Parliament legislative deputies Arnel Bélisaire and Fritz Gérald Bourjolly talked with a group of unionists. “We’re going to meet with the people concerned and with the bosses to find a negotiated solution to this problem,” Bourjolly promised. “These days a person can’t eat and drink on 225 gourdes.” 

On Dec. 11 the protesters headed towards the Oasis Hotel in the comparatively wealthy suburb of Pétionville, where the CSS was said to be holding a meeting. Riot police blocked their way, and the marchers eventually returned to Sonapi. On Dec. 12 factory owners responded to the wildcat strikes by closing their plants. The Haiti Industries Association (ADIH), which represents the owners, cited “reasons of safety of employees,” claiming the demonstrations were caused by “individuals [who] entered violently within the confines of several plants to sow panic…and force workers to leave their workstations.” Finding the plants closed, workers again marched to Parliament, chanting: “500 gourdes, like it or not.” (Radio Kiskeya, Haiti, video, Dec. 10); AlterPresse, Haiti, Dec. 10, Dec. 11Dec. 12Haïti Libre, Dec. 12)

The workers’ demands received positive responses from some government officials. On Dec. 12 Jean Tholbert Alexis, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, announced the formation of a seven-member commission to study the situation. During the course of the week representatives from the Collective of Textile Union Organizations (KOSIT), an alliance formed by four union federations, met with the minister of social affairs and labor. One of the representatives, Yannick Etienne of the leftist Batay Ouvriye (“Worker’s Struggle”), reported that “steps are under way for a consensus among the different parties on this situation. There are possibilities of meetings with the [CSS], the bosses and some unions.” She added that “the question of the wages for the workers has to be renegotiated, because they don’t accept the 225 gourdes.”

The factories reopened on Dec. 13, but according to Batay Ouvriye “the main officials of the factory [union] committees weren’t allowed to enter, sometimes with a letter indicating a suspension or a penalty, when it wasn’t an outright dismissal.” (AlterPresse, Dec. 13; Batay Ouvriye News, Dec. 13)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, December 15.