Amy Bracken, Haitian Times Staff
Paulaine Saint-Fleur, a 24-year-old living in the impoverished neighborhood of Drouillard, received 55 gourdes a day when she started working as a supervisor at Sohaco textile assembly plant four years ago. Now she makes 110 gourdes ($2.60 today) a day, but the wage increase has had little impact. “Now the cost of living is so much higher,” she said, “that 110 gourdes is basically the same as 55 gourdes was.”
Which is not enough to live on. “I survive off of it because I have no choice,” she said. “There are no other jobs. If I had a baby it would be impossible.” She said she is fortunate that she has no children, she makes more than most people at the factory, she lives in her mother’s house, she lives close to the factory, and she has an uncle who helps out with expenses.
Still, Saint-Fleur estimates that she spends 95 gourdes per day on transportation and food for herself. Providing any assistance to her parents and three siblings, who are all unemployed and whom she lives with, or simply paying for any necessity (clothes, toothpaste, medical care, anything) means her daily expenses exceed her daily income.
Last April, the Haitian government raised the national minimum wage from 36 gourdes a day ($2.40 when it was passed in 1994) to 70 gourdes per day (about $1.70 today). But even this paltry sum, lower than the cost of living for the frugal, is often overlooked even by the government itself.
A statement issued by the National Palace Press Office portrays President Jean-Bertrand Aristide as a champion of a higher minimum wage. “At the same time that President Aristide was campaigning for increased wages, he was ousted through a coup d’etat” in 1991, the statement said, then “he was committed to raising the minimum wage to 72 gourdes” in 1994, “but after lengthy dialogue with the labor unions, domestic and foreign employers,” etc., “the bill that finally went before Parliament raised the wage to 36 gourdes a day,” from 15. The explanation continued…The president wanted to raise it to 72 gourdes this year, but was pressured to settle at 70 gourdes.
But other accounts portray a government reluctant, even unwilling, to pay its own employees the very wage that it put into law, not to mention enforce its own laws in private workplaces.
“Aristide made a speech about raising the minimum wage, and the crowd of people was happy,” said Fitzgerald Brandt, CEO of Olitex boxer short manufacturer, a company of about 400 employees. “And the companies stepped forward and raised their minimum wages before the law was changed,” Brandt said, referring to the assembly companies in the Association of Haitian Industries. “And it seems the law still hasn’t been changed.”
“We all took for granted that we would pay more than the old minimum wage,” said Brandt. “But government workers are still making the old minimum wage. Ask people cleaning the streets how much they make.”
Brandt said that international monitors frequently come to his factory to check working conditions and make sure people are being paid the local minimum wage, but no one comes from the Haitian government.
Resner Allard, a 50-year-old sanitation worker supervisor, oversees the work of 650 government employees, most of whom clean the streets. This generally involves inhaling dust all day and picking up dead dogs – even dead humans sometimes, he said. Many are paid 600 gourdes per month for working eight-hour days, six days a week, which comes out to less than 25 gourdes a day — less than half of the current minimum wage.
What’s more, said Allard, who himself makes 750 gourdes per month, or less than 28 gourdes per day, sanitation workers often go several months without being paid. The employees went 27 months without pay, he said. Now a committee has been put in place to make sure that doesn’t happen again, and workers are being paid monthly, but they still have not received back-pay.
“It’s very hard to live on 600 gourdes a month,” said Allard, “but they must. When they’re sick, they look to people they know for help. Sometimes people die because they cannot pay for food or health care.”
Sanitation workers occasionally demonstrate in the streets to demand the government respect the minimum wage, said Allard. And they will do so again if another month goes by without the workers getting any back-pay.
In much of the private sector as well, the minimum wage is rarely observed, according to Yannick Etienne, director of the labor rights organization Batay Ouvriye. “Workers in hotels and bakeries and dry cleaners make less than minimum wage,” she said, “and most workers are not aware that they should make minimum wage, and the business doesn’t care.”
“The minimum wage is like a Port-au-Prince thing, and not for small entrepreneurs,” she said. “Go to the owner of a dry cleaner. They’ll say, ‘What are you talking about? Over my dead body. I’d rather close than pay that.’ And in the countryside, oh forget it.”
And most people are in the dark about the new minimum wage law. “Even the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor was not aware that the law had passed” when she told them in April.
But even 70 gourdes is an outrage, Etienne said. Most people can’t live off of 70 gourdes a day, so factory workers put in extra hours to complete quotas in order to receive maybe 125 or 150 gourdes for one day. Even if you make 130 gourdes a day, if you have four children, you spend at least 250 gourdes per day on transportation and food alone, Etienne said. “So you keep skipping meals or you are always in debt.”
Why can’t companies pay more in Haiti? Etienne asked. “Look at what they’re paying in the Dominican Republic.”
Even Marie-Claude Baillard, the president of the Association of Haitian Industries, acknowledges that the current minimum wage is too low, “in a sense, in terms of the cost of living.” But “at the level of the enterprises, there is ferocious competition and the salaries must be competitive,” she added.
“It’s not the most desirable situation,” she said, but insisted that the salaries must be kept low in order to create more jobs in Haiti.
Brandt agrees that the real goal should be to create jobs. “I thought [the minimum wage raise] was long overdue,” he said, “but the biggest issue is creating jobs.
Indeed, a full 70 percent of Haitians are unemployed, making it that much easier to set a low minimum wage – and to ignore it altogether.
* the current exchange rate is approximately 42 gourdes for one US dollar.