Haiti: students protest for minimum wage

On June 3 students from the State University of Haiti (UEH) began a series of militant demonstrations to protest the failure of President René Préval to promulgate a measure raising the minimum wage from 70 gourdes ($1.74) a day to 200 gourdes ($4.97)—the first increase since 2003. Although Parliament finished the process of approving the measure on May 4, it will not become law until it is approved by the president and published in the official gazette, Le Moniteur. Students from various UEH faculties have been protesting over academic issues at different times since February.

From June 3 through June 5 hundreds of students blocked streets in downtown Port-au-Prince, hurled rocks and set vehicles on fire. The protesters targeted the area near the National Palace, the president’s official residence, along with the offices of the Foundation for Knowledge and Liberty (FOKAL), an educational group linked to US financier George Soros which Prime Minister Michele Pierre-Louis headed before she was named prime minister in 2008. Rock-throwing students shut the foundation down in incidents on June 3 and June 4.

According to witnesses, Haitian police agents and elements from the Brazilian-led United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) repressed the demonstrations brutally, indiscriminately launching tear gas grenades and firing warning shots in the air. Ludger Laguerre, a student in the UEH Department of Social Work, was hit in the head by a police bullet on June 4; he was taken to the UEH hospital, but his injuries were not considered dangerous. On June 5 the police hit a 10-year-old boy in his right shoulder as they fired warning shots, and Radio Métropole reported that a man was shot in the leg when an off-duty police agent fired at a crowd after being pelted with stones.

Tear gas filled the downtown area during the protests. Three students from a primary school were hospitalized after breathing the fumes on June 4, and two women fainted. Security forces reportedly fired tear gas into the UEH hospital when some of Laguerre’s friends went there to inquire about his condition. According to one witness, the hospital wards were filled with the fumes and parents were forced to run out of the building carrying sick and injured children. The National Human Rights Defense Network (RNDDH) described this as a “barbaric intervention by the forces of order.” (Alterpresse, June 4, 5; Haiti Support Group News Briefs, June 4, 6 from AP; HSG press release, June 9; Radio France Internationale, June 10)

On June 5 several media employees were injured by people that Haiti’s Alterpresse news website described as “demonstrators appearing to be students.” An employee of the Télé Haïti TV station required eight stitches on his head after his vehicle was hit by a stream of rocks. A photojournalist from the daily Le Nouvelliste was struck in the arm by a rock. (Alterpresse, June 5)

On June 8 the government released eight of 24 people arrested during the protest on June 4, but this did little to placate the demonstrators, who smashed windshields outside the Port-au-Prince civil tribunal building. According to the UEH’s attorney, Aviol Fleurant, the remaining 16 prisoners included three high school students, two mechanics who had been in their garage at the time of the protest, and three passersby. (Alterpresse, June 9; Agence Haïtienne de Presse, June 8)

By June 9 students from other schools had joined the UEH protesters. Several thousand people marched through the Champ de Mars plaza, near the National Palace, and along Christophe Avenue, despite the efforts of the security forces to stop them. The protesters paralyzed the entire center of the city with flaming barricades and showers of rocks, and many businesses shut down. Again the police responded with tear gas. Local residents, medical personnel and school authorities expressed anger at the police. “To obey the political authorities, they’re even ready to poison the babies,” a nurse from the UEH hospital complained, referring to the tear gas. (AHP, June 9; Radio Métropole, June 10)

The protests are the latest in a series of embarrassments for the Préval government. The president has now promised to send Parliament a statement by June 17 explaining his position on the minimum wage increase. Four days later, on June 21, polls will open for runoff elections for a third of the Senate; the first round, on April 19, was marked by violence and massive abstention.

Employers have been campaigning heavily against the wage increase, arguing that the current exceptionally low wages attract assembly plants to the country. The Haiti Industries Association (ADIH) claims half of the 25,000 workers in Haiti’s apparel industry would lose their jobs if the new minimum wage went into effect. Supporters of the wage increase counter this by pointing to the Compagnie de Developpement Industriel S.A. (Codevi) plant in the Haitian town of Ouanaminthe near the border with the Dominican Republic; the workers there get 350 gourdes a day, the result of a labor organizing drive in 2004-2005. Supporters insist that even with the increase Haitian workers would still be competitive with the 200,000 workers in similar industries in the Dominican Republic, where the assembly sector has a minimum wage of about $5.50 a day. (Alterpresse, June 9; RFI, June 10; Adital, June 12)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, June 14

See our last posts on Haiti.