Haiti: more strikes hit maquilas

A series of wildcat strikes that shut down an industrial park on Port-au-Prince’s northern outskirts for at least two days in early August continued into the week of Aug. 10 as thousands of Haitian workers, students and activists demonstrated for a law to increase the country’s minimum wage from 70 gourdes ($1.74) a day to 200 gourdes ($4.97). President René Préval has blocked the 200 gourde increase, arguing it would hurt the country’s maquiladora sector—the tax-exempt plants that assemble products chiefly for export—and cause the loss of thousands of jobs.

Early on the morning of Aug. 10 assembly plant workers at the industrial park managed by the National Industrial Parks Company (Sonapi) near the Port-au-Prince airport started their fourth major demonstration since Aug. 3. In an apparent effort to defuse the protest, a security agent arrested two activists—Patrick Joseph, a member of a community organization in Duvivier, near the capital’s Cité Soleil neighborhood, and Guerchang Bastia, a third-year sociology student at the State University of Haiti (UEH). UEH students and grassroots activists have been holding militant demonstrations in favor of the 200 gourde minimum wage since June; Joseph, reached by cell phone after his arrest, told the Haiti Press Network internet service that he and Bastia were targeted because they were the most active at the demonstration in the Sonapi complex.

The police took Bastia and Joseph to the Delmas 33 police station in northeast Port-au-Prince. Thousands of assembly workers responded to the arrests by marching out of the industrial park to Delmas 33, creating a traffic jam and hurling rocks at the police station. Police dispersed the crowd by firing tear gas and shooting in the air. Protesters then gathered in groups along the road, blocking it with garbage cans and throwing rocks at some cars. A vehicle operated by the police riot squad was damaged, along with a car carrying the US embassy’s chargé d’affaires, Thomas Tighe. A spokesperson for the embassy said Tighe’s presence was coincidental and he was not a target of the protesters. The crowd also threw rocks at vehicles of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), a force of more than 8,000 soldiers and police agents that has occupied the country since 2004.

Meanwhile, university students protested at Christophe Avenue in the center of the city, setting fire to two vehicles, one of which belonged to the Port-au-Prince court system. “If the students aren’t freed,” one student said, referring to Bastia and Joseph, “it won’t just be the assembly plants that are closed down but all the country’s institutions.” (Radio Métropole, Haiti, Aug. 10, 11; Haiti Press Network, Aug. 10; AlterPresse, Aug. 10; Radio Kiskeya, Haiti, Aug. 10)

Protesters took to the streets again on Aug. 11, marching from the industrial park to the National Palace in the center of Port-au-Prince and then to Christophe Avenue. The police reportedly dispersed this demonstration with tear gas and arrested five protesters, although witnesses said the marchers themselves had stopped two people who tried to throw stones at the police. Local media reported that the Aug. 11 demonstration was smaller than the previous protests, with just hundreds of people. However, the Port-au-Prince assembly sector continued to be closed down on Aug. 11 and 12—this time by factory owners, who said they would use the two days to make security arrangements. (Radio Métropole, Aug. 11; HPN, Aug. 11; AlterPresse, Aug. 11)

Management said the Sonapi industrial park resumed normal operations on Aug. 13, but reporters waiting outside the complex couldn’t determine how many workers were present; there were reports that many workers left at the beginning of the afternoon because the bosses decided to close early. There were armed police agents and at least three riot police vehicles just outside the complex. A heavy police presence at the industrial park on Aug. 17 apparently stopped an effort to start a new demonstration at the beginning of the next workweek. (AlterPresse, Aug. 13, 17)

Bastia and Joseph were finally released from custody on Aug. 18, although three activists arrested on Aug. 12—Edouard Edwidge, Alfred Valsaint and Hérode César—were still being held. Also on Aug. 18, the Chamber of Deputies of Haiti’s Parliament voted 38-36 by secret ballot, with three abstentions, to raise the minimum wage to 125 gourdes, which apparently would be increased later to 150 gourdes ($3.73), far below the 200 gourdes demanded by the protesters. The legislation still requires approval by the Senate and President Préval. (AlterPresse, Aug. 18; InterPress Service, Aug. 19)

Although the minimum wage protests have received little attention outside Haiti, there were at least two small demonstrations in the US on Aug. 19 in support of the 200 gourde minimum. A number of Haitians and Haitian Americans rallied outside the Haitian consulate in Miami, and more than a dozen Haitian Americans and other labor and fair trade activists picketed the consulate in New York City. (HPN, Aug. 20; Grassroots Haiti Solidarity Committee announcement, Aug. 10; NYC
eyewitness report, Aug. 19)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Aug. 25

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