Haiti: sweatshops raise wages on May 1 —for one day

About 100 Haitian unionists and activists observed International Workers Day on May 1 with a march in Port-au-Prince to demand better wages and conditions for the country’s assembly workers, who mainly produce apparel for sale in North America. Groups organizing the march included the Textile and Garment Workers Union (SOTA), the leftist workers’ organization Batay Ouvriye (“Workers’ Struggle”), the Women’s Network of the Bureau of International Lawyers (BAI) and the Mobilization Collective for Compensation for Cholera Victims (Komodevik). SOTA and Batay Ouvriye have been working since the fall to organize assembly plant workers in the capital.

The march started at the National Industrial Parks Company (Sonapi), a “free trade zone” (FTZ) for assembly plants near the airport in the north of Port-au-Prince; the protesters then proceeded to the Parliament downtown; the day’s slogan was “Work yes, slavery no.” Despite the small size of the demonstration, plant managers took measures to keep assembly workers from joining the march. The managers threatened the workers with firing if they left the plants, and paid them 500 gourdes (about $11.80) for staying on the job during the day. (In August 2009 thousands of Sonapi workers walked off the job to join marches for a daily minimum wage of 200 gourdes (about $2.95).)

Guy Numa, a member of the Popular Democratic Movement (MODEP), which helped organize the march, noted that in 2009 the factory owners said they couldn’t afford an increased minimum wage. “These bosses, who did everything they could to block the vote on the 200 gourde minimum wage [back then], are proving on this May Day that they can pay as much as 500 gourdes,” he said. (AlterPresse, Haiti, April 30; AlterPresse, May 2)

On May 3 Commerce and Industry Minister Wilson Laleau was working to interest Chinese, Dominican and US investors in a massive FTZ being built in the Northeast department, theCaracol Industrial Park (PIC). The authorities say the plants at the new park will eventually create 65,000 jobs.

At a press conference that day Laleau admitted that there were problems with the project, which is being promoted by the US government and international agencies, but added that “the positive impacts should largely compensate for the negative impacts.” He was asked about plans for housing, since exaggerated promises of assembly plant jobs in the 1970s and 1980s had led job seekers to move into the Cité Soleil commune near the factories in the north of Port-au-Prince; the result was a huge, overcrowded neighborhood with substandard housing and virtually no public services. Laleau answered that the housing situation was being studied and the results would be released in June. “[I]t is out of the question that what happened around the Port-au-Prince industrial park should be reproduced at Caracol,” he promised. (AlterPresse, May 4)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, May 6.

See our last posts on Haiti and this year’s May Day.