Haitian Workers’ Organiser makes European Connections

Haitian Workers’ Organiser makes European Connections
Yannick Etienne’s European visit was organised by the Haiti Support Group (UK) in conjunction with Vlaams Haiti Overleg (Belgium) and the Clean Clothes Campaign (Netherlands)
A representative of a Haitian workers’ organisation has completed a two week trip to Europe to make contact with garment workers’ unions and campaigning groups.

Actress Julie Christie, taking part in a Haiti Support Group-organised ‘picket’ of the Disney store in London. Photo by Andrew Wiard.

Yannick Etienne is a coordinator of Batay Ouvriye (Workers’ Struggle), an organisation that has risen to prominence through its involvement with the international campaign to pressure the Walt Disney Company to improve the lot of workers employed by its sub-contractors in Haiti.

Garment and other assembly operations are carried out in some 45 factories in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, 14 of them producing t-shirts, pyjamas and children’s outfits for the entertainment giant, Walt Disney. Over 20,000 workers, the vast majority of them women, work in the assembly sector where they receive the lowest wages in the entire Central American and Caribbean region, approximately US$ 2 a day.

The two-fold purpose of Etienne’s visit was to make links with workers’ organisations engaged in the fight against exploitative bosses, and to present the Haitian workers’ side of the story to groups campaigning to raise consumer awareness of sweatshop conditions in the developing world.

First stop on her journey was the port city of Liverpool in north-west England where she met with the Women of the Waterfront, a support group for the 500 dock workers sacked over 18 months ago after refusing to accept the introduction of casual labour. The dock workers’ struggle to win back their jobs has become a cause celebre in the British labour movement.

“I felt an immediate rapport with these women,” Etienne said. “Even though Liverpool and Port-au-Prince are so different, we are going through the same kind of experience. It’s not just the workers that are directly affected who must fight for their rights. It must involve their families and communities too.”

While in Liverpool, Etienne also visited a textile factory, and met workers and union representatives from the largest British general union, the GMB. Etienne was impressed by the high standard of working conditions relative to those experienced by Haitian garment workers.

“The union is strong, and it shows on the factory floor. They have space to work, there are proper health and safety procedures, and they’ve got a canteen, something Haitian workers are asking for.”

“The union reps had some knowledge of Haiti because the GMB took part in a protest outside the Liverpool Disney store earlier this year. The women working there wanted to know more because they buy Disney products for their children,” Etienne said.

Etienne heard a different story when she met textile workers of Turkish and Turkish-Kurdish origin in the east end of London. They had recently organised themselves to form a branch of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU). Branch secretary, Tekin Katel, explained that he and his fellow workers faced many of the same problems as their Haitian counterparts.

“Our work conditions are poor, the pay is only 140 pounds sterling ($220) a week if we meet the quota, and the bosses are always trying to get away without paying us. Only a few months ago we had to organise an occupation of a factory after the boss claimed bankruptcy and disappeared without paying wages for work done.”

After hearing a presentation by Etienne describing the difficulties experienced by the Haitian garment workers when they try to organise unions – intimidation, threats and dismissals, the branch vowed to support Batay Ouvriye in whatever way it could. As well as pledging to respond to solidarity appeals put out by Batay Ouvriye, and organising the publication of an article about Haiti in the Turkish-language daily newspaper, Emek (Labour), the workers also had a ‘whip-round’ to contribute to Batay Ouvriye’s costs.

For Etienne this kind of international solidarity is an essential component of her organisation’s work.

“The problems faced by Haitian workers are much the same as those experienced by workers all over the world because the capitalist system is based on exploitation. Workers’ organisations from different countries can only get stronger by co-operating with each other.”

On numerous occasions during her trip, Etienne was asked whether she worried that Batay Ouvriye’s attempts to build unions would result in job losses in the event of foreign companies pulling out of Haiti. She replied that this was a risk, but what else could Haitian workers do.

“We can’t let them get away with murder – because murder is what it is for workers whose pay is so low that over half the daily wage is spent on transport, food and drink just in order to carry out the work. These women are going deeper and deeper into debt. They and their children are suffering.”

“The bosses always threaten workers that the contractors will relocate to another country if there is ‘trouble’ with unions. The way for us to counter this is to link up with similar workers’ organisations in those other countries.”

After meeting with the British development aid agency, Christian Aid, Etienne said she hoped that Batay Ouvriye would be invited to participate in a regional conference of women maquila (free trade zone) workers in Central America that the agency will convene later this year.

At a meeting with Des Farrell, the national secretary of the GMB Clothing and Textile Section, Etienne made it clear that, far from wanting companies such as Disney and Nike to cancel their contracts in Haiti, the garment workers would like more work from these sources.

“That is why we are not asking for a boycott by European consumers. We want Disney and the factory owners to recognise workers’ organisations, to negotiate with them in response to their demands, and to send more orders”, she said.

The importance of workers organising themselves to defend their rights was stressed by Etienne when she met the co-ordinators of the European Clean Clothes Campaign in Brussels and Amsterdam. The Campaign aims to mobilise consumer pressure to persuade clothing retailers and their suppliers to insist on improvements in working conditions in Third World sweatshops.

Etienne told meetings of Belgian and Dutch campaigners that consumer pressure in the North needs to be complimented by stronger workers’ organisations in countries that supply these markets. In the case of Haiti she remarked that neither the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) nor the union federations had much to do with the workers in the assembly sector.

“The NGOs, many of them supported by international agencies, work with peasants and the informal sector, but not with the factory workers.”

As for the Haitian unions, such as CTH, FOS and CATH, that also receive financial support from abroad, Etienne described them as organisations that are “tét san kó” (Kreyól for ‘heads without bodies)

“They have money and offices, but we have never seen them do anything in the assembly sector.”

Etienne encouraged the Clean Clothes Campaign to examine the issue of independent monitoring of factory conditions, and underlined the need for genuine representative workers’ organisations to be involved. Another idea discussed was international provision of information and technical assistance for the Haitian Ministry of Social Affairs. This is the ministry that is mandated to deal with labour issues.

“Even if the Ministry had the political will to monitor the factories and implement the Labour Code, which they don’t, the personnel there don’t have the expertise or knowledge to do it properly”, she said.

She acknowledged that such interventions by the Haitian state were not on the agenda of either the international financial institutions nor of the Lavalas government. That is why, she said, Batay Ouvriye is not just an organisation of workers, but a popular organisation of workers, their families, people from their neighbourhoods, the unemployed, street vendors and peasants.

“Batay Ouvriye is part of the democratic, popular movement in Haiti.”

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