Haiti: teachers strike as labor unrest grows

Haitian public school teachers started an open-ended strike on Jan. 22 around demands for higher salaries, payment of back pay, access to public credit programs and a regularization of job categories. After Jan. 22-23 talks with the national education minister, Vanneur Pierre, and others, a coalition of teachers' unions—including the National Confederation of Educators of Haiti (CNEH) and the National Federation of Education and Culture Workers (FENATEC)—agreed to suspend the strike and resume classes on Jan. 27 in exchange for raises ranging from 29% to 57%, depending on the job category, to go into effect in April. Negotiations will continue on other issues.

One union, the National Union of Haitian Teachers (UNNOH), rejected the agreement, which UNNOH coordinator Josué Mérilien denounced as a "plot." The union is calling for a base pay of 50,000 gourdes (about US$ 1,210) a month. Some teachers stayed off the job in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 27 and 28, and students from the capital's Toussaint Louverture and Daniel Fignolé high schools took to the streets. In Carrefour, on the southwest outskirts of Port-au-Prince, students from the Henri Christophe high school began a march on Jan. 27 to the National Education and Professional Training Ministry (MENFP) in the center of Port-au-Prince. Hundreds of students and teachers joined the march; one Toussaint Louverture student, Jean Wisler Joseph, was arrested on a vandalism charge. Demonstrations continued on Jan. 28, with unidentified people hurling rocks at school buildings; some car windshields were smashed. There were also demonstrations in Petit-Goâve (West department) and Gonaïves (Artibonite department), where police responded with tear gas to rock-throwing students on Jan. 29. (Haïti Libre, Jan. 25; AlterPresse, Jan. 27, Jan. 28, Jan. 29)

Acting Port-au-Prince government commissioner Kherson Darius Charles, the chief prosecutor for the capital, brought charges against UNNOH coordindator Mérilien on Jan. 29 for "disturbances of public security, rock throwing and association with wrongdoers." A hearing was set for Jan. 30 but ended abruptly because of a dispute between Charles and the union leader's legal team. Mérilien left the courtroom and headed to the nearby Superior Teachers' College (ENS), part of the State University of Haiti (UEH). Teachers and students joined Mérilien as he walked, turning the event into a solidarity demonstration. (AlterPresse, Jan. 30)

In related news, tensions over the minimum wage for the country's 30,000 garment assembly workers continue. On Jan. 20 managers from the One World Apparel S.A. garment assembly plant in the north of Port-au-Prince failed to attend a scheduled meeting at the local office of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor (MAST) to discuss the firing of six workers on Jan. 8. The fired workers are all on the executive committee of the Textile and Garment Workers Union (SOTA), a member union in the Collective of Textile Union Organizations (KOSIT), the labor alliance that led militant protests by apparel workers on Dec. 10 and 11 to demand a daily minimum wage of 500 gourdes (about US$12.10). Management claims the six unionists were responsible for acts of vandalism at the plant on Dec. 11.

MAST officials rescheduled the meeting for Jan. 29, apparently without taking any action against the One World Apparel managers for their failure to appear. Jude Pierre, one of the fired workers, said MAST officials seemed to be in complicity with the owners, while the Patriotic Democratic Popular Movement (MPDP), a coalition of 30 groups, called on the ministry to stop being "an instrument of the bosses." (MPDP statement, Jan. 20; AlterPresse, Jan. 27)

The capital's garment assembly companies have now fired at least 35 workers for their participation in the protests, KOSIT spokespeople said at a Jan. 28 press conference. The plant owners say they have a video showing vandalism by the protesters, but the unionists dismissed this as a "set-up" to justify repression of union activities. Meanwhile, there have been no negotiations on the minimum wage for piece-rate workers—the majority of employees in the assembly sector—and the government has yet to act on the recommendation of the tripartite Higher Council on Wages (CSS) that the minimum wage be set at 225 gourdes (about US$5.47) a day. KOSIT is demanding that the CSS renegotiate the recommendation. KOSIT spokespeople also announced that the Autonomous Confederation of Haitian Workers (CATH) has been expelled from the alliance because of what the unionists called the "treason" of CATH spokesperson Fignolé St. Cyr, who is one of the three labor representatives on the CSS. He reportedly backed the council's 225 gourde recommendation. (KOSIT press release, Jan. 28)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, February 2.