An Interview with Batay Ouvriye
by David L. Wilson, World War 4 Report
It is now more than four months since a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti, leveling much of the Port-au-Prince area and killing nearly a quarter of a million people. Haiti has dropped out of the headlines—predictably—but the crisis hasn’t gone away. Earthquake survivors still have very limited access to food, employment, and medical care; most of the 1.7 million people left homeless by the earthquake (according to new figures from the United Nations) go on living in the hundreds of improvised encampments in and around the capital.
I had an email conversation in April with Paul Philomé, a spokesperson for the leftist group Batay Ouvriye (Workers’ Struggle), about grassroots organizing in Port-au-Prince since the earthquake. Batay Ouvriye is best known outside Haiti for its unionization efforts over the past two decades in the tariff-exempt apparel assembly plants—the sector that the “international community” is again promoting as an engine of economic development.
Raising the Level of Exploitation
I asked Philomé how the earthquake had affected his group’s members and the assembly plant workers generally. “We have been fortunate not to have lost active members” or their immediate families, he answered, but the damage to homes was significant. “Most of us continue to sleep outdoors, our houses being dangerous in the case of aftershocks.”
The situation for workers remains desperate. Factory owners “have raised the levels of exploitation,” Philomé wrote, “demanding factory workers…produce more for less.” For example, management has used piece rates and quotas to circumvent last summer’s increase in the minimum wage for assembly plants, which nominally went up from 70 gourdes (about $1.75) a day to 125 gourdes (about $3.10).
Many assembly workers were killed in the quake, which struck during working hours, a little before 5 PM. Some 500 employees died in just one plant, the Palm Apparel T-shirt factory in Carrefour, southwest of the capital.
I asked what Palm Apparel owner Alain Villard had done to compensate the victims’ families. Nothing, Philomé said. The Haitian Labor code “stipulates that all and every damage caused to workers, independently of all causes, [is] the responsibility of the owners,” but the courts “are bought off by business. We don’t expect much to be done at this level.”
There are serious obstacles to organizing for workers living in the spontaneous settlements. They are often scattered in different camps and constantly face the threat of displacement by the government or property owners. Conditions have worsened with the approach of the rainy season. “We have to pick ourselves up from the camps, often drenched wet from the rain, and drag ourselves to work,” Philomé wrote.
At the same time, Philomé said, the failure of the Haitian government and the international institutions to respond to peoples’ needs since the earthquake has “inevitably heightened the constant class antagonism.”
Long before the earthquake people faced “the revolting class inequalities pre-existing in Haiti and the related corruption, anti-popular governments, and widespread abysmal poverty.” Now they see “the Haitian government’s total absence during the first moment” and the “so-called humanitarian assistance taking so long to be distributed, as the NGO employees drive around high-profile, without the decency of realizing their excesses.”
The situation has “dictated positive responses,” according to Philomé. One example is “the spontaneous reaction to create organizing committees in the camps in order to better handle questions of food distribution, sanitation, security and other everyday issues.”
But “much must be done to transform these objective factors of rebellion into the subjective material needed to go beyond,” Philomé told me. “This is where a different, higher level of organization is required, combining militancy, organizing and deeper analyses.”
According to Philomé, some of the camp committees have suffered from opportunism on the part of their leaders, “in a country where already several previous governments fostered this betrayal of class solidarity. To counter this, we’ve chosen to move towards a new strategy, that of setting up worker committees in the camps (not just camp committees, that are too general and vague).” Batay Ouvriye holds that because of their experience organizing in the factories, the workers have developed a “better consciousness of the enemy” and can take this back with them to the organizing in the camps.
Batay Ouvriye has joined with some camp committees to mobilize for a number of protests, including a march on April 28 and participation in protests on May 10 and May 18 (Haiti’s Flag Day) against the government of President René Préval.
Paradoxes of International Solidarity
I asked about Batay Ouvriye’s assessment of international assistance after the quake. Aid from progressive South American countries like Ecuador and Brazil, while welcome, has had the paradoxical effect of hurting organizing efforts in the camps, Philomé said. In contrast to the United States, South American governments showed enough respect for Haitian sovereignty to channel aid through the Haitian government from the start.
But this, along with visits by South American presidents, has helped the Préval government’s public standing, “to the point that in the past few weeks, despite its loss of legitimacy, it was able to access the camps, weakening the autonomous organization and strengthening a new ‘institutionalized’ opportunistic wing that has even come to throwing rocks at opponents and countering the popular movement openly.”
“For the Haitian workers, the rise of left governments in Latin America, while absolutely positive in itself, needs to be correctly oriented,” Philomé wrote, “with regard to each social formation as well as to international solidarity.”
Batay Ouvriye itself has received strong support from Brazilian unionists and activists since the earthquake, with more than $90,000 coming through the leftist Conlutas (Coordenação Nacional de Lutas, or National Organization of Struggles) solidarity movement. Much of this was from thousands of General Motors workers in Sao Paulo state, who voted in February to approve a one-time donation of 1% of their pay to Batay Ouvriye and other grassroots organizations in Haiti.
Solidarity From the North?
In 2005 there was considerable controversy in the North American left over Batay Ouvriye’s acceptance of at least $90,000 from the Solidarity Center, money which ultimately came from the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Supporters of former Haitian president Jean Bertrand Aristide implied that this was a payoff for Batay Ouvriye’s longtime opposition to Aristide and his Fanmi Lavalas (Lavalas Family) party.
Batay Ouvriye subsequently broke off relations with the Solidarity Center, but the controversy continues to weaken the group’s support in Canada and the United States. In March, for example, the Young Democratic Socialists chapter at Indiana University decided not to send funds to Batay Ouvriye on the grounds that it “reportedly called for the overthrow of former Haitian president Jean Bertrand Aristide and then had financial support from a US-funded pro-democracy program.”
Philomé noted that the Solidarity Center has a “relationship with most other Haitian unions,” including pro-Lavalas federations like the Conféderation des Travailleurs Haïtiens (CTH). (The Solidarity Center seems to have very friendly relations with the CTH, and Narco News reported in March that the CTH is “now receiving major funding from the Solidarity Center.”
What should North American unionists and other progressives be doing to support Haitian organizing?
People here could help by “assisting the battle such as the one we waged for the minimum wage,” Philomé said, referring to last summer’s fight to raise the minimum wage to $5 a day. He said Haitian workers need support now in organizing at a “free trade zone” near the Dominican border at Ouanaminthe and in exposing US maneuvers—like the Haiti Economic Lift Program (HELP) Act—to build sweatshops in Haiti under the guise of “humanitarian assistance.”
“This support should be principally based on political relations but also financial,” Philomé wrote, citing the Encuentro Latinoamericano y Caribeño de Trabajadores (ELAC, the Encounter of Latin American and Caribbean Workers) as an example of international union solidarity.
“But for us the deeper relations that should exist are those of common struggle in which those of the dominated countries should be one with those of dominating countries,” Philomé added. Mobilization against capitalism in the dominant countries is crucial, “and that’s where not only all the unions should focus [but also] all progressives.”
David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers (Monthly Review Press, 2007) and co-editor of Weekly News Update on the Americas.
From our Daily Report:
Haiti: government suspends forced evictions
World War 4 Report, April 27, 2010
Haiti: capital residents protest and organize
World War 4 Report, Feb. 16, 2010
IGNORING THE GRASSROOTS IN LATIN AMERICA
Powerful Popular Movements Invisible to Mainstream—and “Progressive”—Media
by David L. Wilson, World War 4 Report
World War 4 Report, May 2010
“REBUILDING HAITI”: THE SWEATSHOP HOAX
by David Wilson, MRZine
World War 4 Report, April 2010
Special to World War 4 Report, June 1, 2010
Reprinting permissible with attribution