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LABOUR-HAITI: Workers Fight for Rights in Free Trade Zone

Jane Regan

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Jul 27 2004 (IPS) - When some 300 workers lost their jobs at factories in northeast Haiti last month, the two sides in the struggle pitting a clothing maker against a young union only dug in deeper.

The stakes are much higher than just one more boss versus dissatisfied and low-paid workers. More and more textile plants in North America are closing their doors and shifting production to low-cost factories in the South that labour activists call “sweatshops”, and Haiti’s minimum wage is the hemisphere’s lowest. A union’s fight for higher wages calls into question the “race to the bottom.”

As accusations of union-busting fly, labour bodies like the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) are protesting; Levi Strauss – which closed its last U.S. plant last fall and whose jeans are sewn at one Haitian factory – is taking heat; a 12-million-dollar World Bank loan is on the line; and Haiti’s own factory owners and interim government are scrambling to calm the situation as they strive to attract international investors.

On Jun. 11, Dominican Republic clothing giant Grupo M dismissed almost one-third of the 800 or so workers at its two Haiti factories in the CODEVI (Industrial Development Company) Free Trade Zone (FTZ), located outside of Ouanaminthe on the Haitian-Dominican border.

Grupo M, the largest employer in the Dominican Republic, where it has 13,000 workers in 24 plants, built the zone and the first two of a dozen projected factories there with a 12 million-dollar loan from the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC).

Although international mobilising forced the IFC to include language in the loan about respect for workers’ rights, CODEVI has been the site of labour strife almost since it opened.

Among those left jobless last month – the company says they were laid off, the union says they were fired – were seven of eight members of the executive committee of the recently founded in-house union. SOKOWA (Union of CODEVI Ouanaminthe Workers) said its members and other workers were fired because of their organising efforts. The massive move came after a one-day strike that was almost universally respected by workers.

“We want decent salaries, better working conditions and collective bargaining,” organiser Georges Augustin told IPS. Augustin, a former solderer, works for Batay Ouvriye (Worker’s Struggle), the labour group that helped organise SOKOWA earlier this year.

It is not the first time SOKOWA members lost their jobs. Last time around, on Mar. 1, only a few weeks after the union registered with the government, 34 employees were summarily fired. A month of international mobilising and a push from Levi got them their jobs back and elicited promises that negotiations would take place.

But as months went by, tenuous relations turned sour. After several failed sessions and what SOKOWA says were scare tactics by management, workers decided to hold a one-day strike Jun. 7. When they showed up the next day, they were locked out. Three days later, the lay-offs were announced.

“The company refuses to negotiate,” Augustin said during an interview at Batay’s Cap-Haitien office, a tiny hole-in-the-wall in a slum surrounded by fetid open sewers. “Instead, they harass and beat people and are threatening to close down completely unless workers join a ‘yellow union’ management is setting up.”

Grupo M denies the allegations and said it has officially recognised SOKOWA. At the same time, however, it blames Batay and the union for the lay-offs.

“Excessive labour activism by radical groups” has meant that Grupo M’s plants are not operating “with the necessary efficiency,” company spokesman Gonzalo Parra told IPS in an e-mail interview Jul. 26. “Batay Ouvriye has gone so far as to make all kinds of threats against workers to make them quit or work reluctantly, affecting our production pace.”

On Jun. 11, the company moved five production lines back to one of its Santiago plants, about two hours away in the Dominican Republic.

The strike and lay-offs have had their effects. Shortly after, Sara Lee – maker of Hanes, Wonderbra and other clothing lines – cancelled its contract with Grupo M’s Haiti facility, saying it wants labour-management issues resolved.

Levi Strauss has not yet pulled its contract but “is concerned,” Jeff Beckman, the firm’s director of worldwide communications, told IPS.

Beckman said productivity at the plant has dropped in recent months and added that Levi “is encouraging Grupo M management to engage in mediation with SOKOWA representatives.” In the meantime, Levi has reduced its orders of jeans from the Haitian plant.

Grupo M said it respects Haitian labour laws, paying workers at least minimum wage – 12 dollars (432 gourdes) for a six-day, 48-hour week. The average is 20 dollars, Parra said, and will rise as productivity increases.

But SOKOWA and local rights groups say workers regularly work a 55-hour week with no overtime pay, and that most employees earn 12 and not 20 dollars. Workers in Grupo M’s Dominican plants make on average 30 dollars a week.

Even if a Haitian worker is paid 20 dollars a week (3.30 dollars per day), or one-third more than the country’s minimum wage, that amount is only 30 cents more per day than the three dollars a day minimum wage set by dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier two decades ago.

Haiti’s current minimum wage of 70 gourdes per day (two dollars) was established in 1995 by then President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, but was contested by Haitian unions and human rights groups. Neither two dollars nor three dollars is enough to live on, SOKOWA notes.

“A plate of food outside the plant costs 25 gourdes (almost one dollar). If you eat twice, that’s most of your salary,” Augustin said.

SOKOWA wants higher wages now, and also wants what it says is intimidation of union organisers to end.

The CODEVI conflict once again raises questions about FTZs and whom they benefit. With 43 million workers in the centres worldwide, the model is not going away any time soon and has been embraced by unlikely leaders.

Former President Aristide, once known as a “radical fire-brand,” was a strong promoter. He promised to open 14 FTZs by 2006.

“Haiti has an extraordinary potential to transform herself into a pole of attraction,” he said in his inaugural speech Feb. 7, 2001.

Despite strong opposition to the CODEVI project, Aristide pushed the initiative and bussed in his own supporters for the groundbreaking with Dominican President Hippolito Mejia 26 months ago.

The Haitian government has investigated the Grupo M conflict and should have trained labour inspectors in the region by Aug. 15, said an official from the ministry of social affairs. No wrongdoing has been found yet, he added.

“We don’t want to move too quickly; we want to promote dialogue,” Jean-Yves Georges, general director of the ministry, told IPS.

As far as the lay-offs, “a boss has the right to fire people,” he said. If the union thinks the lay-offs were a union-busting move, it can file legal complaints and let a judge decide, Georges added.

Haitian factory owners, while head-on competitors with Grupo M, side with the company, according to Charles Henri Baker, vice president of the Association of Haitian Industrialists (ADIH). He blames the lay-offs on the union organising.

“I’m very disturbed because as a Haitian, I’m trying to create jobs,” he told IPS. “These people (Batay Ouvriye and its international supporters) are spreading lies on the Internet. This kind of thing kills our business here.”

Baker runs PB Apparel and was also a main leader of the opposition movement against Aristide. When he was arrested and jailed for a few weeks late last year he lost all his contracts.

The entrepreneur is hoping to get back in business soon. He predicts that if the U.S. Congress approves the pending Haitian Economic Recovery Opportunity (HERO) Act, which will eliminate duties and tariffs on Haitian-sewed clothing, the number of jobs in the assembly sector could rise from the present 30,000 to over 200,000.

That benefit will come on top of other advantages Haiti has due to its impoverished state. In fact, saving labour costs is perhaps just one reason Grupo M shifted stitching operations to its neighbour’s soil.

With 52 free trade zones and 200,000 workers producing 4.7 billion dollars worth of textiles (2002 figures), the Dominican Republic has reached the limit of its U.S. textile import quota. But if the final stitch is sewed in Haiti, a Dominican company can send clothes to the United States with a “Made in Haiti” tag, thus taking advantage of that country’s largely unused quota.

Baker feels strongly that Haiti should take advantage of what it can, including its low wages.

“Our job as Haitians is to create jobs, even if it’s at 70 gourdes (about two dollars) a day,” he said. “That is, by far, more than workers make farming.”

The businessman was a promoter of the “social contract” put forward by the Group of 184 coalition during the anti-Aristide mobilisation last year. The contract calls for universal education, a “fight against poverty,” environmental protection and other measures, but it does not call for an increase in the minimum wage.

IFC Officer Mark Constantine told IPS he blames both the bosses and the union for the impasse at CODEVI. In his 20 years at IFC, he said, he has never seen a more complex case.

Grupo M is in a “learning curve” as far as working with and respecting unions is concerned, Constantine noted, but while some of the union’s claims are exaggerated, “there is a kernel of truth in all of them.”

The IFC plans to send a professional labour arbitrator to Haiti within the next two weeks to help SOKOWA and Grupo M negotiate a contract and working conditions acceptable to all parties, he said.

“We don’t have a lot of time,” Constantine added, saying Grupo M is losing money in Haiti. With a 12-million-dollar debt staring it in the face, the company might give up and go home. Worse, it might declare bankruptcy, he said.

“We are going to try like hell to save this project. The interim government is trying to gain some traction. To have this fail would send a horrible message.”

In the meantime, labour activists remain mobilized. A large coalition of British unions and the “No Sweat” campaign are planning a protest Thursday at Levi’s London store.

Back in Cap-Haitien and Ouanaminthe, Batay Ouvriye and SOKOWA are not backing down. They know that by continuing to demand that the union’s members and other workers are rehired, and by struggling for higher wages and better conditions, they are taking the risk that the factory will close down altogether.

“We were opposed to the FTZ, but now that it is here, we are fighting for the workers’ rights,” Augustin said. “When you are trying to make people do what’s right, you have to go all the way.”

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