Haiti: support grows for minimum wage increase

Two major North American garment companies, Montreal-based Gildan Activewear Inc. and Fruit of the Loom, which is headquartered in Bowling Green, Kentucky, have announced that they will now require their Haitian suppliers to pay piece-rate workers at least the 300 gourde daily minimum wage (about US$7.22 at the time of the announcement) that went into effect by law in October 2012. The increase will cover 90% of the workers; the rest are trainees who are paid at a lower rate. Scott Nova, a spokesperson for the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) labor monitoring group, told the Toronto Star that the companies will also be meeting with unions to discuss back pay. According to Nova, another major apparel company, North Carolina-based Hanesbrands Inc., has refused to make a commitment to honor the minimum wage.

The move by Gildan and Fruit of the Loom follows the release of a WRC report on Oct. 16 confirming earlier reports that none of the Haitian assembly plants were honoring the 300 gourde minimum wage; instead they were paying based on the old 200 gourde minimum. Adding to the pressure, on Nov. 14 the Washington, DC-based African-American foreign policy group TransAfrica released an open letter calling on North American manufacturers and retailers to remedy “systematic wage theft” by requiring their suppliers to pay at least the current minimum wage. More than 70 civil, human and worker rights organizations from Canada, France, Haiti and the US signed on to the letter.

At the legal minimum, Haitian apparel workers would be making $0.87 an hour; only Bangladesh and Cambodia pay apparel workers less. (TransAfrica letter, Nov. 14; Toronto Star, Nov. 18)

Meanwhile, in Haiti labor advocates have been organizing around plans for a new minimum wage. After many delays, on Aug. 29 President Michel Martelly (“Sweet Micky”) named the nine members of the country’s tripartite Higher Council on Wages (CSS), which is composed of government, management and labor representatives. The CSS is expected to recommend a new minimum wage on Nov. 29.

Some 250 workers attended a Nov. 17 forum on the issue at the Le Plaza hotel, facing Port-au-Prince’s central park, the Champ de Mars. Fignolé St. Cyr, one of the three labor representatives on the CSS and a spokesperson for the Autonomous Confederation of Haitian Workers (CATH), described the difficulties the labor members face on the council, with government and management largely opposing any wage increase. Haitian economist Camille Chalmers of the Haitian Platform Advocating an Alternative Development (PAPDA), said the minimum wage should be set at 70 gourdes an hour (US$1.69), or 560 gourdes for an eight-hour day (US$13.49), based on the cost of living. Chalmers called for an hourly wage to replace the daily wage, to prevent management from abusing overtime; he also advocated cafeterias at the plants, with the meals coming from local producers as a way of supporting Haiti’s agricultural sector. (Haïti Libre, Haiti, Aug. 30; Batay Ouvriye report, Nov. 17). More than 90 artists and writers, including four Pulitzer prize-winning cartoonists, have signed on to an open letter supporting workers’ demands for a living wage of at least 500 gourdes a day. (Open letter, Nov. 18)

In other news, protests continued against President Martelly’s government. Thousands joined an opposition march in Port-au-Prince on Nov. 18, the anniversary of the 1803 Battle of Vertières, in which Haitian fighters decisively defeated an invasion mounted by French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. The march followed much the same route as a Nov. 7 protest—from Bel Air in Port-au-Prince to Pétionville, a generally well-to-do suburb, and then back to the Champ de Mars. As on Nov. 7, Martelly supporters attacked the protesters with rocks and some gunfire, while police dispersed the demonstration with tear gas. As many as three people were reportedly hit by bullets and taken to the capital’s main hospital. (AlterPresse, Haiti, Nov. 18, Nov. 18USA Today, Nov. 18, from AP)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, November 24