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HAITI: Export Workers Await Overdue Wage Increase

Silvestre Fils Dorcilus and Elizabeth Eames Roebling

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Aug 19 2009 (IPS) - Following the recommendation of President Rene Preval, the lower house of the Haitian Parliament voted Tuesday to raise the minimum wage in the assembly sector from 1.29 dollars (70 gourde) to only 3.20 dollars (125 gourde) per day, rather than the 5.12 dollars (200 gourde) which had been demanded and passed.

This exemption must now be approved by the Haitian Senate. Preval, bowing to pressure from business owners, had refused to sign a bill which called for an across the board increase in the minimum wage to 200 gourde a day.

He returned the bill to Parliament on Jun. 17, recommending instead that the minimum wage for an eight-hour day be fixed at 125 gourde. The "assembly sector" is defined as those industries whose products are dedicated to re-exportation.

The close vote of 38 for to 36 against, held by secret ballot as permitted in the Constitution, opens the way to a resolution of the disturbances that have rocked the Haitian capital since April.

Industry leaders had threatened that if they were forced to pay the minimum wage of 200 gourde a day, as proposed, many of the more than 300,000 workers might lose their jobs.

Reginald Boulos, president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said that management was opposed to the way in which the minimum wage was being fixed for the assembly workers since production is calculated by the piece. He was quoted in the national paper as saying that "with the implementation of this law, the worker will automatically become unproductive."

Another industry leader, Richard Coles, was more direct, saying that if the wage increase were passed, he would close his five factories, putting 3,000 people out of work.

Fernando Capellan, representative of the Dominican company Groupo M, which runs the CODEVI plant in Ounaminthe on the Dominican border, indicated that if forced to pay 200 gourde a day, his company would cut 2,800 jobs.

According to the U.N. Development Programme, the unemployment rate in Haiti now stands at 50 percent. Fifty-six percent of the population lives below the internationally recognised level of extreme poverty of one dollar a day and six out of 10 people live on less than two dollars a day.

Workers at the SONAPI industrial park have been staging wildcat strikes and work stoppages since the beginning of August.

More than half of the 23,000 workers there are women between the ages of 18 and 35. They have held marches along the road from the industrial park, which is near the airport, to the Parliament building, carrying banners and chanting: "Up with the 200 gourde! Down with the 150!" and "The bosses, the president, the leaders, must see our sorry state!"

One of the protesting women, Esperencia, explained a bit about her work life.

"We workers work every day except Sunday, from 6:30 in the morning to 4:00 in the afternoon. Sometimes, it is later than that, if there is an order to finish. And sometimes it is without any rest," she told IPS.

Esperencia was joined by Dieulla, who has worked with her at an assembly factory since 2006.

Both women preferred that only their first names be used.

"We must rise at 5:00 AM to be at work at that time," Dieulla said. "This wage of 70 gourde has been the same since 2003. It is a pittance. With 70 gourde we cannot even meet our own needs, let alone those of our children. The bosses offer no advantages to the workers. Many of the workers are only paid as day workers, from week to week."

On Aug. 10 and 11, the workers were joined by others, notably striking university students, and violence erupted at the SONAPI Park. The crowd burnt tires, threw rocks and burnt and damaged vehicles, including one belonging to an official at the U.S. Embassy.

Both the National Police and the U.N. force in the country, MINUSTAH, were called in to maintain order. More than a dozen protesters were taken in for police questioning.

After Aug. 11, all the businesses at SONAPI closed their doors. The Association des Industries D'Haiti (ADIH) announced that it thought that security, despite the presence of the National Police and MINUSTAH, was inadequate to protect the workers.

According to Haitian law, the minimum wage is to be periodically adjusted for inflation.

Eddy Labossiere, a university professor and president of the Association of Haitian Economists, indicated that the inflation rate in Haiti in some years has been at 20 percent and has even gone as high as 40 percent since the minimum wage was set at 70 gourde.

Labossiere acknowledged the charges that raising the minimum wage would raise costs, but said," I think that a 15 percent profit is reasonable and that the adoption of the 200 gourde set out in the new law would only be justice for the workers."

Jean Kesner Delmas, director of the National Society of Industrial Parks, said that he is aware of the poor working conditions in the factories and hopes that that a decision will be reached so that work can resume.

"I am for an effective raise in the minimum wage in the assembly industry. It is inconceivable and impossible that a Haitian worker can live with 70 gourde today given the high cost of living in Haiti," he said.

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