Assembly plants are no quick fix after the quake

Assembly plants are no quick fix after the quake
September 13, 2011 Christian Wisskirchen

HSG from Port-au-Prince, 12-09-2011

Recently, Antèn Ouvriye (Workers Antenna) organized a conference in Port-au-Prince on the application of the minimum wage law and Haitian Labour Law. Some fifty people – coming from some 20 grassroots organizations – adopted a resolution calling for respect and protection of workers rights.

Antèn Ouvriye was founded just after Baby Doc left Haïti in 1986, to respond to the growing need of support for workers in the assembly industry. It provided training in organizational strength as well as medical and legal assistance. “We wanted to organize the workers outside of the factories to enable them to bring the struggle inside” explained of the representatives. Antèn Ouvriye was also able to bring education to the children of the workers and employees in a way that didn’t exist in Haitian state schools. The parents association for instance was an important innovation involving parents directly in the school education of their children.

Very few of the workers knew Haitian labor law and this led to a great number of labor law infractions going unchallenged. Antèn Ouvriye translated part of the law from French to Creole to make it more accessible. Still, 25 years after its creation, the rights of the workers and the Haitian laws are continue to be violated.
In 2009, parliament and senate voted the raise of the minimum wage from 70 Gourdes (+/- 1,75USD) to 200 Gourdes (+/- 5 USD). It hadn’t been raised since 2001, despite the legal obligation of the Haitian government to raise it when living costs increased by more than 10%. However, former president Préval opposed the law when faced with opposition from the association of industrialists, who claimed it would make the industry uncompetitive. Months of protests followed, but in the end the ADIH/Préval counter-proposal prevailed: 125 Gourdes for the assembly sector, 200 Gourdes for the other sectors.

Batay Ouvriye (“Workers’ Struggle”) representative Yannick Etienne, who spoke at the Antèn Ouvriye conference, explained that since the minimum wage was raised, working conditions in the plants have become much tougher than they used to be. Strict controls on arrival and departure times are now carried out and security agents are dressed in military-like uniforms and fully armed. At the newly opened plant for a sub-contractor of Timberland the toilets now close at 3 pm, while the shift only stops at 4.30pm.

For neo-liberal development experts, such as prominent Oxford economics professor Paul Collier, (who after only one brief visit to Haiti, managed to get his recommendations to the UN Secretary General – “From Natural Catastrophe to Economic Prosperity[1]” – adopted as blueprint for Haiti’s development) jobs in Haiti are to be created mainly through investment in free trade zones for the assembly plant sector.

Yet, according to a recent report[2] from Better Works, 61% of the 28 assessed factories are non-compliant with the minimum wages. Daily production targets are set so high that only a small portion of experienced workers can reach them within the official 8 hour working day, which in itself is a breach of the new law on the minimum wage. None of the 28 factories are compliant with existing laws on employment contracts, worker protection, welfare facilities, health services and first aid, regular hours or overtime, to name just a few.
Experiences from the past indicate that the proposed assembly factories can be closed as easily as they have opened. At its peak in the 1980’s 100.000 people were employed in these industries and it was thought that Haiti would become the “Taiwan of the Caribbean”. However, having attracted many times that number to the slums of Port-au-Prince in the vain hope to land one of these abysmally paid jobs, only some 28.000 people worked in the sector when the earthquake hit, leading some economists to question that model of development. The market for the garment industry is extremely sensitive to international economic crises and local social unrest.
This did not deter the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission from approving a new industrial park in the North-East of Haiti.  According to the proposal some 18.000 people could be employed in the first phase of the project, rising to 65.000 at the project’s completion. Let’s see. Meanwhile, however, local farmers, although welcoming a job-creating initiative in the region with highest unemployment rates in Haiti, wondered why they were chased of their most fertile lands despite a nearby arid piece of land having been identified earlier by local communities as very suitable for such an initiative. This is more than neglecting agriculture, it is destroying it.

[1] http://www.haitispecialenvoy.org/download/Report_Center/From_Natural_Catastrophe_to_Economic_Security.pdf

[2] http://www.betterwork.org/EN/Publications/Documents/Better Work Haiti 2nd Biannual Report Under the HOPE II Legislation.pdf

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