Anti-union, pro-“race to the bottom”

2nd of 7 articles

Factory worker Evelyne Pierre-Pauli has never been in a union. A sewing machine operator at One World Apparel – run by two-time presidential candidate Charles H. Baker – she’s afraid to even talk about the subject.

“You have to create unions in secret because if you utter the word, you can get fired,” Pierre-Paul told Haiti Grassroots Watch. “The bosses say that if we form unions, we’ll destroy business.”

National law and international conventions guarantee Haitian workers the right to organize and to collective bargaining. As recently as 2010, however, the International Trade Union Confederation’s (ITUC) Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights noted that in Haiti “employers have enjoyed absolute freedom” to repress organizers, due to political turmoil and other factors.

Workers in a CODEVI factory in Ouanaminthe, sewing Hanes tee-shirts. Photo: HGW

“Those trying to organize workers in a union are constantly harassed or dismissed, generally in breach of the labor legislation. To prevent workers from joining unions, employers give bonuses to those who are not union members,” the ITUC survey reported.

More recently, Better Work, a United Nations International Labor Organization (ILO) agency charged by the ILO with assuring all Haitian textile factories taking advantage of HELP legislation [see Why is Haiti “attractive”? - Story #3] comply to international labor standards, said much the same thing. In its April 2011 report, Better Work noted numerous violations like the lack of written contracts, the lack of proper record-keeping on hours worked, forced overtime and too much overtime, failure to grant proper paid leave and failure to give proper lunch breaks. Better Work investigators also noted that there were no unions in any of the Port-au-Prince factories.

“Better Work Haiti notes very significant challenges related to the rights of workers to freely form, join, and participate in independent trade unions in this industry in Haiti,” the report said.

But while Better Work notes “significant challenges” regarding the right to organize, director Richard Lavallee admitted that his office can’t do much to assist that situation, aside from file reports and make recommendations.

“Better Work has a collaborative relationship” with the factories, he told HGW. “Coercitive power doesn’t come from Better Work.”

Incredibly, Lavallee told HGW that workers said didn’t understand the meaning of “union.”

“When we interviewed workers to ask if they had colleagues who were fired because of trying to organize, we heard responses like, ‘What is a union?’” he said.

Whether or not Lavallee really believes that is possible, one thing is certain: factory owners and supervisors know which workers speak with Better Work investigators. Information in a report that criticizes a factory or certain supervisor would be easy to source. It is highly probable worker’s exercise self-censorship.

That’s certainly what workers told HGW.

Ginette Jean-Baptisteii operates a sewing machine in Charles H. Baker’s One World Apparel. She was interviewed by HGW away from the workplace. She echoed what workers at Haiti’s factories have said for decades: talking about unions and organizing can lead to a pink slip.

“We can’t make our demands heard at all. You can’t talk about that even with each other because someone will tell on you and you’ll get fired,” she told HGW. [Earlier this fall, five union organizers were fired from Port-au-Prince factories, including one from One World. See Salaries in the New Haiti - Story #1]

Decades of Union-Crushing

In 2004, when the labor group Batay Ouvriye was helping organize at the Dominican-owned maquila park CODEVI, on the Haitian-Dominican border,  hundreds of workers were laid off. Batay and others claimed the lay-offs were a direct result of the organizing. But at the time Baker, then vice president of the Association of Haitian Industries (ADIH), did not hesitate to defend the Dominican employers.

"I'm very disturbed because as a Haitian, I'm trying to create jobs," he told Inter Press Service. "These people [Batay Ouvriye and its international supporters] are spreading lies on the Internet. This kind of thing kills our business here."

But they were not lies. And business was not “killed.”

Sewing "American" blue jeans – Levis – in Ouanaminte, Haiti. This
worker probably earns about US$5 a day
. Photo: HGW

Batay Ouvriye and the workers prevailed. Today, over 3,000 workers at CODEVI are unionized and all workers benefit from a collective bargaining agreement, although salary remains rock-bottom. Minimum wage for the approximately 6,500 workers is 868 gourdes (US$21.70) a week.

In the face of local organizing and international scrutiny and solidarity, Baker and other industrialists fight tooth-and-nail against raises, saying they pay as much as possible, and arguing that the foreign companies who out-source stitching jobs to Haiti would pick up and leave if workers were better paid.

Washington appears to agree. In 2009, with the backing of the US embassy, ADIH fought hard against an attempt by parliamentarians to raise minimum wage to 200 gourdes (US$5.00) a day. As reported in The Nation and in Haiti Liberté, “contractors for Fruit of the Loom, Hanes and Levi’s worked in close concert with the US Embassy when they aggressively moved to block a minimum wage increase” voted by Parliament.

USAID helped pay for a study that, not surprisingly, “found that an HTG 200 Haitian gourde minimum wage would make the sector economically unviable and consequently force factories to shut down,” according to what chargé d’affaires Thomas C. Tighe  wrote in a confidential cable to Washington.

The US embassy urged “[a] more visible and active engagement by [then-President René] Préval.” Two months later, the president apparently convinced the Parliament to set a two-tiered minimum wage system. The minimum for non-assembly industry sectors is 200 gourdes, but for assembly industries, it is less: 125 gourdes a day until October 2011, and now 150 gourdes a day.

Justifying the “race to the bottom”

According to Baker, and to HGW research [as noted in Salaries in the “new” Haiti - Story #1], workers often earn more than 150 gourdes. But the wage remains the lowest in the hemisphere – and lower than it was thirty years ago – in a country where the state mostly does not provide nor even subsidize basic needs like housing, electricity, water, education and healthcare.

Industrialists justify the low wages.

“When you have a country where 80 percent of the people don’t work, anything is good!” according to Baker.

Jean-Alix Hecdivert, director of the Free Trade Zone Office, agreed, telling HGW: “A worker can eat. Even if he can’t satisfy his hunger, he can eat."

Up at CODEVI industrial park, Director Miguel Angel Torres echoed both men.

“I do think the salary is really low, but Haiti has 70 percent unemployment! If you don’t work, you don’t  have anything. If you get 868, at least you can survive… It’s better than nothing,” he said.

Professor Camille Chalmers in front of the SONAPI industrial park,
Photo: HGW

Haitian economist Camille Chalmers has spent years thinking and writing about the devastating effects of neoliberal economic policies on Haiti. For Charlmers, sweatshop wages for exported textiles, produced by local and foreign capitalists, are not “better than nothing.”

“It’s a big error to bet on the slave-wage labor, on breaking the backs of workers who are paid nothing while [foreign] companies get rich. It’s not only an error, it’s a crime,” Chalmers said.

The economist admitted that assembly industries do create jobs but – referring to the capital’s main industrial park “boom” years in the 1980s – he said that “while SONAPI [Société National des Parcs Industriels] might have created 60,000 jobs, it also attracted two million unemployed people.”

Just like in Mexico, with the maquila boom, tens of thousands of landless peasants flowed into Haiti’s capital in search of jobs. [See Stepping Stone or Dead End? - Story #5

Assembly factories “don’t resolve the unemployment problem, they don’t resolve the production problem,” Chalmers added. “They work with imported materials, they’re enclaves. They don’t have much effect on the economy.”

Haiti’s not the first place to have “enclaves.” International corporations based in North America, Europe and parts of Asia have been off-shoring as much labor as possible for decades in order to save on labor costs. And as wages rise in one country the companies pick up and move on to someplace with lower wages. The concept of “race to the bottom” is by now well understood.

CODEVI’s Torres understands the “race” well.

Dominican factory owners started to move across the border because “in the 2000s, we realized it was too expensive in the Dominican Republic. The clients couldn’t pay the labor costs.”

In a report for Georgetown University, Professor John M. Kline noted that rising labor costs on the eastern half of Hispaniola, and the 2005 expiration of “Multi-Fibre Agreement,” led to the loss of over 82,000 jobs in the Dominican Republic. Between 2004 and 2008, “nearly two-thirds of the sector’s total employment,” he wrote.

In one of the CODEVI factories - the sign reads: "Welcome - you are
entering a quality business where we satisfy all the demands of our
Photo: HGW

Ignorant or mendacious, the cheerleaders for Haitian sweatshop labor fail to mention the fate of those 82,000 Dominican workers. In fact, the Dominican economy, supported by remittances, ranks in the top 25 countries with the most skewed income distribution and has high structural unemployment. 

But that doesn’t seem to matter to former President Bill Clinton. Speaking to the September 20 session of the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York City, he pushed Haiti to get to the front of the pack.

“I predict to you - if they [Haitians] do it right - they will move to the top in the region and then they will spark this race all over the Caribbean,” he told investors.

Factory owner Baker admits he is part of the race. 

“Yes, it’s a race to the bottom… if you count on it!” Baker said. 

Baker claims that low-wage, low-skilled assembly industries are temporary, a “stepping stone,” and that they will be a big part of the Haitian economy for only about “ten or 15 years.”

“I count on it only as a stepping stone... It’s a step. We’re going up the stairs and it’s one of the steps,” he said. 

Dozens of countries – and indeed, Haiti, on and off for the past thirty years – have already tread those same “race to the bottom” steps.

Has the gamble paid off?

See Stepping Stone or Dead End? - Story 5 

Also, low wages aren’t the only thing Haiti offers foreign investors.

See What makes Haiti attractive? - Story 3

Return to the Introduction and the video


i. and ii. The names of many workers has been changed to protect their identities because, despite the fact that the Haitian constitution recognizes the right of free speech, and the right for workers to organize, most workplaces are pervaded by fear due to the strong anti-union sentiment. All interviews took place in the spring and summer of 2011.