Op-Ed: Haiti’s Garment Workers Join the Worldwide Fight Against Sweatshop Abuses

Labor organizers from Port-au-Prince to Ouanaminthe are sewing your underwear and agitating for international solidarity.

Members of Batay Ouvriye protest the occupation of Haiti by blocking the entrance to the MINUSTAH (U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti) base

Members of Batay Ouvriye protest the occupation of Haiti by blocking the entrance to the MINUSTAH (U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti) base. (Photo: Sarah Cruz)

The garment industry is a global web of nightmares, where suppliers compete to offer their products at the lowest possible cost to stores like Walmart, The Gap and JCPenney. The cutthroat competition can mean starvation wages and unsafe conditions for the people working in sweatshops, the people who stitch, press and fold the T-shirts, pants and dresses that wind up on the shelves of U.S. stores.

This past October, several members of One Struggle (an anti-imperialist collective with chapters in South Florida and New York) traveled to Haiti to meet with workers who produce clothing for familiar brands, including Cherokee and Hanes.

Haitian garment workers receive the industry’s lowest wages in the hemisphere: 200 gourdes, or less than $5, per day. According to a 2008 Worker Rights Consortium study, a family of one working member and two dependents needed at least 550 Haitian gourdes, or $12.50, per day to meet minimal living expenses.

MORE: 21 Million People Around the World Work in Forced Labor; One Day to Fix It Is Not Enough

On October 1, Haiti’s parliament raised the minimum wage from 200 to 300 gourdes (about $7.25 a day). Manufacturers vehemently oppose the pay boost, and are responding by making the lives and conditions of workers even more miserable.

We met with about 40 members of two autonomous unions organized through Batay Ouvriye (Workers Struggle): SOTA (Union of Textile and Apparel Workers, in Port-au-Prince) and SOKOWA (Union of Workers at Codevi Free Trade Zone, in Ouanaminthe).

A gaurd stands outside a factory within the PIM industrial park, which is protected by a U.N. outpost. (Photo: Sarah Cruz)

The Haitian organizers spoke of the need for international solidarity. (Names have been changed to protect the identities of union organizers.):

  • Annaise said that when the minimum wage was raised from 200 to 300 gourdes for an eight-hour shift, the owner of her factory raised the hourly production quotas to levels impossible to fulfill. When workers refused, he fired many of them. “We need your help to ask for those people to go back to work. They cannot take a lot of time. All those people they fired, we must ask them to get those people back to work.”
  • Manuel sews pants and T-shirts. He explained that their wages, minus transportation costs, do not even allow factory families to send their kids to school. He spoke of expanded quotas that take 11 hours to fill, and of not having enough time to eat. “Today we are happy that we have foreigners that are able to listen to us and hear us, so they can give us their support. We labor hard, and we don’t get paid. They will fire people without warning. We want a solution. We want the internationals to raise the issue to the people here so they listen to us.”
  • Jacques arrived at the meeting late because the factory didn’t let him go on time. “They give us the time to enter to work. They don’t give us time to get out. They used to give us a lunchtime at 11. We used to go pick up food outside. They don’t give us that anymore. They give us food inside. That cannot help us. It doesn’t even taste good. We actually have to close our nose, but we eat it. Because they don’t want us to get out. It’s like a jail from six to five.” He testified about having no access to health care or education, of being paid less than the minimum wage. He told of mass firings and the use of scab labor when workers complained. “They even threatened me that I could go out and never come back. I have a wife and kids. I would like to know how far this thing will go. I’m asking for solidarity and to look after everybody here. Even though the money’s not enough, the job represents everything to us.”
  • Larivoire spoke of a boss who kicks workers out when they are sick. “They let us know, because we are a trade union inside, one day they will put us on the floor. The fight that we are doing is very dangerous. With the support, with your support, we will be victorious. I believe in your support. When you go back, you take all those problems to help the workers, to help find a solution.”
  • Gille told of being fired for organizing (and winning) a struggle inside a garment factory to raise the wages from 36 to 250 gourdes a day. He said, “When he fired me, he did me a favor. He gave me enough time to organize. … We built a trade union. (Because of) the struggle the trade union waged, now the workers are getting paid 400 gourdes a day. This is our organization. All the workers that are here today, we must count on our own strength. … Whatever we are saying, all the workers that just spoke, we ask for the workers in the United States to support us. … We must have an international working class that must fight to crush that exploitative system. That’s why we are here.”
  • Destine requests, “I’m asking you to hear what we are saying, so that we can have a chain of solidarity in order to support our struggle.”

After our trip, One Struggle launched a Rapid Response Network as a way for people in the U.S. and elsewhere to offer prompt solidarity to workers’ struggles, and to alert groups and individuals of situations that could benefit from immediate attention (such as inadequate wages, illegal firings and other forms of repression).

The efforts of workers to obtain decent wages and working conditions, plus the right to organize, are constantly met with severe punishment. We must not passively accept the presence of products on store shelves without understanding—and actively opposing—the harsh conditions of exploitation and repression under which they were produced.

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