It’s about time I publish this interview I conducted last year with Georges Sassine, President of The Association of Industries of Haiti and Executive Director of CTMO-HOPE. Under the US law of the same name, the HOPE commission is charged with maintaining labor standards in Haitian factories that receive tariff-exemptions and trade privileges for garments they export United States.
I found his blunt honesty to be refreshing. Sassine lays out his entire argument, projecting 12 years into the future, for how garment manufacturing can alleviate Haiti’s poverty in the long run. He’s a man on a mission.
He also responds to charges made last year by union activists that bosses were firing workers for organizing in Port-au-Prince’s textile factories. I quoted in him my report for Inter-Press News on the controversy. The Better Work Haiti labor monitoring program later backed up the allegations and the workers were ultimately reinstated.
I introduced myself as a journalist trying to learn more about the alleged worker firings, as we sat down at a table at the Hotel Montana:
Georges Sassine: The incidents were not about organizing anything. The incidents were: One of them was a guy who wanted to make something, and the other was someone distributing leaflets and they asked him to stop doing it and he started to yell.
What I find very strange is that at the same time this is happening inside the factories in Port-au-Prince, you guys in Washington, in Brazil, in London – everything is happening at the same time…
Me: No listen, listen…
Let me finish, because I’m very tired of all this. When I lobbied the US Congress to receive an advantage for Haiti, when we went from 180,000 workers to less than 9,000 workers, and then that gave us the HOPE legislation – three times HOPE, HOPE II, and HELP. Today we are about 28,000, we were 30,000 but we lost a few thousand because of contract changes and stuff. And this is all starting all over again. When I made sure! So that these kinds of activities do not restart, I am the one who asked the ILO – the US Congress to finance the ILO – to have Better Work in Haiti. Just so that these kinds of accusations do not start all over again. So I am very tired.
But I read the Better Work report – the last one – and it talks about a lot of different factories that are not in compliance.
No, but you have to see the last one as compared to the one last year. There’s a brand new one. And there is significant progress.
That’s why I came to talk to you, to hear this side…
I would rather have Better Work themselves talk. I remember three years ago, right here, I met some guy like you. Exactly same kind of situation. I’m talking to him and I have my cigar. So he writes, “Georges Sassine, a big fat capitalist in the swankiest hotel, overlooking the poverty and dire misery,” blah blah blah… I’m 62-years-old. I am very tired, ok?
I’m not into that kind of journalism.
But you see? You told me you want to find out about issues on labor relations. When, there is no issue! Four people were fired for different reasons. And I’ve asked Better Work to come and investigate, along with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. Please, come and investigate this because I know the true story.
I’d like to talk to the factory owners. I tried calling Mr. Baker and Mr. Apaid but I can’t get through –
You see I’m pissed? They are even more pissed than I am.
But the thing is, no one is going to use their point of view if they don’t express it. And if you’re not willing to talk to the press –
Look, at the end of the day, the objective is to close down the factories. That’s the objective. And you are being used as part of that policy.
There are allegations just that they are not being allowed to form a union. So you’re saying there is no problem for anybody in those factories to form a union and represent the workers.
No no. If we’re talking about these incidents, they have nothing to do with people trying to form a union.
Why was he distributing leaflets? Do you know?
Leaflets about the revolution of workers? And they asked him to go out for lunch, then you can distribute them, but you cannot stop people from working. This is a factory. It has to produce! And you have to be producing also, I’m paying you to produce, not to walk around the factory. You want to continue? Then I fire you.
What about all the non-compliance questions that were raised in the last report?
There will always be non-compliance. Keep in mind these are non-compliance reports. There will always be non-compliance. Where it is encouraging is that in the four core non-compliance issues, today there is only one factory that is non-compliant. It’s a small factory, about 60 people.
That’s going to come out in the new report? There’s only one factory out of all 28 that are non-compliant?
What are the four core issues? Child labor, forced labor, freedom of association, and discrimination. Then you have the OCHA standards, and before that you have the wage standards. Over time being paid according to the law, blah blah blah. So those are the second-tier and then there’s the third tier.
So you will see in the first, the most important one, only one factory. And then the lower you go in standards, the more factories are noncompliant. And this is normal. It will always be, because no one can ever reach 100%.
What for you is the target to reach in terms of the number of factories that are non-compliant?
For me, the target is that every six months, there are less and less non-compliance issues. And in the four core ones, there should always be 100% zero [non-compliance]. That is unacceptable. Then there is the second-tier.
Well, there were also things about wages not being paid, factories doing things like rounding down, occupational safety – that was a big one in the last report.
Yes, but there is progress.
Have you seen the new report already?
Yes, of course.
But you’re saying there is a clear improvement since the last one?
Yes, you have my word on that.
As a factory owner and a member of the industry association, are you all collectively working to address all of those –
Yes! Again, I am the one who came with Better Work. Only because it’s good for business that you have a certain standard. And the factories do work better when they have those standards. But it takes time for people to understand.
So again, you’re saying right now there’s no attempt by Mr. Apaid, or Mr. Baker, or people you know who own factories, to block unions from forming?
There is not one incident where someone came to them to ask to organize a committee or syndicate. No one has been approached like this. Two different issues. None of them have to do with this.
Distributing leaflets about Batay Ouvriye is not a demonstration of you trying to organize. If you do it while they’re having lunch, ok, and then you go see the owner and you say, “Ok, here are the three of us. We want to organize. How do we do this?”
This is, in my school of thought, how it’s done. Not trying to break down the factory. And then, suddenly, the whole international community is on my back telling me I’m against people organizing.
Have you heard from a lot of groups?
Brazil, London, all the altermondialiste [anti-globalization] people. NGOs, human rights, whatever… That we are violating…
So I’ll just give you an example of a worker who I spoke to. She wasn’t part of the demonstration that took place a couple of days ago, I didn’t even meet her through Batay Ouvriye or anything like that. I actually just met her son a long time ago in a camp and gave him some money for school. Anyway, she works in a factory. What she told me is that she’s going to secret meetings to organize a union, because she says if the bosses know that she’s trying to organize, she will be fired.
[Laughs.] That’s another myth. Why do they have to meet secretly? When unions are not illegal. This HOPE commission has three union leaders in it. I take them around.
So you don’t see any reason for a worker to be scared or worried about penalizing for trying to organize?
If they’re doing it, in the normal fashion like it’s supposed to be done. It’s not a seditious activity, is it?
Well, that’s what she told me. The other thing she said – her personal story – is that she’s not going to work in the factory any more. After two years, in January she’s going to start selling on the street again, because her family tells her that her health is getting worse, she feels she’s being overworked. Those are her words. She think she can make as much if not more in the street.
Fine, she is free to leave. You are as free to work in a factory as you are free you not to. The only thing is, as President of the Association and as the person responsible for the HOPE thing, I am making sure that all factories are compliant with all the standards – health issues and all that kind of stuff. As a matter of fact, we now have a clinic inside the industrial park which we did not have for thirty years.
But with occupational health and safety, insurance – those were some of the most serious issues [in the report].
But you have to understand that we have a failed state. So it’s very hard to spend huge amounts of money for services you do not receive. And just the fact that you do not receive the services makes you non-compliant. But you pay. So what do you do, as a factory owners?
I mean, that’s the thing right? Those are the standards…
Yeah but, you said insurance. The insurance is provided by the government. You pay the insurance, but there is no insurance. Then you come to inspect my factory and you say, there is no insurance. So what do I do? With the retirement fund, ONA, you’ve been paying. Personally, myself, I’ve stopped paying ONA and I leave the money with the workers. Because [the government] they’re going to steal the money anyway.
Now I know you don’t have a lot of time, so I want to just ask: the question of her quality of life as a worker, I think, is really what’s motivating her to want to stop working in the factory. So that’s one question. And the second one is the wages. I talked to Mr. Benoit, the Senator, recently. He was very blunt, he called them slave wages. I’m sure you get this question all the time, so I want to ask you: are these wages sufficient for people to live on?
No, of course. Let me tell you something. The factories are the only ones in the country paying 200 gourdes minimum a day. It was 150, but starting now, it’s 200. In two years, it’s going to be 250. That took effect this month. You go visit any bakery, any dry-cleaning – no one is making 200 gourdes a day. But it’s those 28 factories who are the big guilty ones. Why?
But the question for Mr. Benoit – it’s not that they’re guilty, necessarily, it’s where do you set the bar? And he told me he plans to introduce another –
I told him, he should put it at 1000 gourdes, no problem. And then, we have no factories. People will be better off, people will be making 1000 HTG a day, by law. But by fact, nothing. So, no problem.
What’s the level then? Is 200 the maximum then? If he raises it again, which he says he’s going to do, is that going to force the entire sector to shut down?
He cannot raise it again, because the law he passed is already raising it sequentially. So I don’t understand, raising it to what?
Let’s not forget, this industry, if you look at history, you’ll see the minimum wage is always around $3. When it was around Connecticut, sweatshop New York City, when there was no OCHA, when it went down to the South and then overseas – if you follow the wages, you will see it’s never above $5 a day.
So, you put it over $5 a day here, no problem – it leaves! It goes to Bangladesh, where they pay 63 cents a day, but nobody bothers the Bangladeshis about those issues. Why, I don’t know.
So you see them staying where they are, not really being raised at all in the next couple years?
That’s what the law says, it’s not me. The law says it goes all the way to 300 gourdes.
At what date?
And after that?
After that, we have to look. When I started this business, when you were not born, it was six and a half gourdes a day. In those days, that amount was $1.50 a day. But in those days, you could eat with a quarter, a big meal. So it’s a question of the value of money.
I keep telling Steven – well, Steven is a politician and he did all of that, and he became Senator on that. But if you look, really, at the issues like you said, the person making 200 HTG a day can not live with it. Why? Is it the factory’s fault?
You would say it’s basically the fault of the global economy –
No! The country itself does not provide anything. Where the person has to take 50% of his income to pay for school, and about 30% to eat. So let’s address the real issues – the real issue is not how much the person is making. The real issue is how much is that money worth! Again, when I was paying 6.5 gourdes they were better off than they are now that they’re making 200 gourdes. Why?
Ok, that’s a good argument. But in the meantime, what do you say to workers right now who are making 200 and they can’t pay what they need to pay? You’re saying, it’s tough luck.
What can you say? You cannot pay more because it’s not your gourdes. If I was Wal-Mart and I’m making my own garments, yes! Because I’d turn it onto the customer. But here, I can’t. Especially now, the last 10-12 years.
The thing has completely changed. It’s simple. I used to make t-shirts for three dollars a dozen. You know how much Hanes pays now for a dozen? $1.45. For the same t-shirts, a dozen. So tell me, what do I do? Me personally, I close down my factory. In 2006, I closed down my factory I said that’s it, I can no longer survive. That’s what’s going to happen. That’s life.
But you still believe that these factories are the model for development for Haiti to provide jobs?
No no, I believe these factories give you time to develop other things. And the HOPE legislation gives me the opportunity to hire – for instance, you go to the Dominican Republic, they’re making Men’s Warehouse, Tommy Hilfiger, they’re making suits. So they can pay more. But the t-shirts are a different thing. It’s not the same cost structure, it’s not the same salary structure.
Now we have the Koreans coming up in the North. They’re going to be manufacturing their own fabric. So it gives them the latitude, on the garment assembly side, to do more.
But when today you’re just a CMT operator, you’re totally dependent on what the other guy is giving you. So if he pays you just 50 cents, what do you do?
Were you under a lot of pressure in 2009 from the people giving you orders to make sure the wages were not increased?
No no. They say, make this for me and I’ll pay you two dollars a dozen.
Right, but at that time Benoit was trying to raise the wages. Were all the people giving you orders saying if it’s raised –
Yes yes, no, no – it’s fine. They raise it, that’s your problem. I’m not going to pay you more. So what do you want to do?
But the compromise that was reached?
There is no compromise.
Wasn’t there a compromise? Preval came back with a proposal to phase in the increase –
Yes, it was phased in. But we thought the gourde would be left floating, then we would be able to support that increase. But now we can’t, because it’s still at 41 gourdes. Fortunately, what is happening because of the HOPE legislation, you have higher value garments being made. But that requires a different level of operator also.
Can you explain that again? The question of the proposal that Preval came back with, that was enacted into law to phase in the wages – you’re saying that actually hurt the industry in a significant way and it wasn’t a compromise between the two sides?
I cannot say if it hurt the industry in a significant way, since it was counterbalanced by the HOPE advantages. Right now, I cannot answer. Those who were here, they just took the shock, and continued. Luckily for them, those who are making those t-shirts, they are so efficient.
Today we are making 700,000 dozen t-shirts a week. Three factories. The people are working eyes closed. And they making over 350-400 gourdes a day. That’s a different story, that’s only because they are super efficient.
But I agree that a person should be able to live on the salary they earn.
Right now that’s not the case.
You are here, you see it. Can you live with 200 gourdes a day? 200 gourdes a day is not the factory’s fault – that 200 gourdes cannot buy everything for them.
Will this industry ever be able to pay a living wage?
Well, if you look at it historically, it has never done that. What it does, it permits the people to be a little better. Especially those who have nothing. But the most important thing is it’s supposed give the powers that be some time. It gives you about ten years to develop other kinds of industries. You look at the Dominican Republic today – they sew a lot less than they used to, because they have moved on to other things. Tourism, electronics, that kind of stuff.
New York. You don’t have people sewing any more in New York, right? That’s the reality. But what it does is it gives you time. First of all, you create a salaried mass. You create income for the country itself, because you have 300,000 people working, making 300 gourdes a day. That’s a lot of money turning inside the economy so it makes things better, and it give you as government time to develop other things.
So you’re saying ideally in ten years or something, the industry will be scaled down and people will be working better jobs?
Or it integrates. You cannot just be sewing. That’s why the Koreans are starting with making fabric. That’s integration. You design, you wash, you have a real textile industry. But the end of the line is just sewing – that part of it, if it’s only that, you cannot survive on that. That only gives you time to develop. But if you’re just targeting this, you’re foolish. I’m the last one to propose something like this.
Next question: do you see that happening? Is the government, the international community developing the rest of the economy and Haiti such that this is going to work?
The new industrial park we are putting in the North is addressing that. It’s facilitating the integration in the industry. Short of planting cotton, which we cannot do, we can do everything else in the value chain. Sewing, what’s happening here [in Port-au-Prince], is the last step.
And this is the one being squeezed all the time. And unfortunately this is the one where you have the most unskilled workers. And the most fragile persons, and the poorest people – that’s where they are, at the bottom, at the end of the line. And they are the ones being squeezed.
I’m just trying to understand. At some point you envision this industry expanding and being able to take on other aspects of the value chain such that maybe then, people could receive living wages?
People who are sewing are not just sewing. They are part of a bigger picture. And therefore they can be paid more, because they would not longer just be sewers. This is my dream. But unfortunately, we were almost there – we had a coup d’etat in 1992. So now I’m back to square one. We have to restart and that’s what I’m doing. And I know, I have a maximum of twelve years ahead of me to do this. And if I don’t have a different type of worker in 12 years, I have failed. Haiti has failed.
What do you say to the argument that Alex Dupuy and others have made, that just trying to expand this industry and support it – that’s a misplacement of resources. That the international community would do better to focus on agriculture, other aspects of the Haitian economy. And that this is really kind of a sideshow, it’s not going to amount to anything, and in the meantime it’s making people work on sub-par wages. What would you say to that?
I have two answers. One is that this industry is the fastest way to create jobs. That are permanent, semi-permanent, that gives a fixed salary. Second answer: All other types of economic activity take a lot more capital and a lot more time. Let’s take the next one. Agriculture. What do you want to plant? Corn? Can you plant corn in Haiti to sustain? Can you compete with Michigan farmers? Ok, let’s take mangos. Mangos are being developed. It takes five years for a mango tree to start giving you mangos. So what do you in the meantime?
So you’re saying this kind of a quick fix.
This is the quick fix! But again, you have to be very careful to develop mangos. Otherwise, we crash. All I’m doing is absorbing people who are doing nothing, generating nothing. At least they have enough money to eat, because it gives them enough money to eat. Even if they cannot have a decent house, at least they can eat and they have healthcare in the factories where they work.
And the government now, has to not lean on that for its revenue. Because that’s another thing also. You cannot tax those people. But they are doing that.
Right now the government is taxing workers too much?
Yes, yes. You should let them be. Let them go home with 200 gourdes, the full 200 gourdes, don’t take anything from them. In the meantime, talk to to the international community, try to develop mangos, coffee – those are your strong points. And tourism. But tourism is a third tier – it takes a long time, much more capital.
Things like national production – that phrase has been thrown around.
What does that mean in the global scheme of things? We plant rice, we plant corn, we have everything. But how many people can eat Haitian rice from the production? So you cannot compete with the guy from Arkansas.
Haiti can’t feed itself, effectively?
No, Haiti cannot. The Haiti I was born in, yes, with 4 million people. Today it has ten million. So again, I keep telling Steven, don’t keep looking at the factory wages as something by itself in space. It’s not true, it’s connected to a bunch of other things. And a bunch of other things affect it!
So the issue is not – today you want to see that people are fired because they’re trying to organize. I say flatly, that’s not true. But it’s not for me to say it. Nor for you. Better Work and the Ministry of Social Affairs. They are doing an investigation, let them say what the real story is. And we will go by that.
But the wages being paid right now? Something that Steven said is that it’s not actually meeting the minimum wage.
Keep in mind these are daily wage earners. If you don’t come to work one day, you don’t earn anything. At the end of the week, your salary is less than the others. So someone like you comes in and you look at it and say, “Ah, he’s not making 200 gourdes a day.” That’s not how to look at it. You have to look at it per day.
And there’s not mandatory overtime? I’m just checking on this.
Let me tell you, if a factory does not work overtime, the Haitian workers don’t stay. They go somewhere else, because they say that’s a bad factory. So they usually work ten hours a day. Those making the t-shirts for instance, they work ten hours a day, but they get paid for it. But they get paid twice – by the production they make, plus the overtime.
And they tell you that the two hours overtime is theirs, the others is their wives. So there’s a question of cultural thing in it also, that unfortunately the ILO standards do not take into consideration.
So again, you don’t see any problem with the ILO standards? You don’t think need to be adjusted or changed to accommodate these questions?
Not adjusted. The reports need to consider some cultural aspects. I agree, in factories, you have sexual harassment at the supervisor level. But culturally in Haiti – you see in my factory, I kept telling all the women that you have to give anything from your body, for anything, you let me know. But culturally, they will never let me know.
And you have at the supervisory level, where a guy has 40 workers under him, he will ask for rights of what we call [unintelligible]. Ok? And most of the women will provide. Because they don’t understand.
So that’s another thing – education. That’s another thing I expect from ILO. Because when I tell my workers you are here, not because you’re pretty, not because you have a nice ass, you’re here because you know how to do something. That’s why you are here – nothing else!
But when I say it, it’s different than if someone outside says it. So it’s cultural again. And that takes time. Because the supervisor, also, it’s his culture to require sexual favors.
Now, you’re saying that is a problem in a lot of factories?
Yes, yes sometimes it is. But it’s very very hard to discover.
I mean, this is a counter-point. This industry has existed in Haiti for a number of years. It crashed with the first coup and then there was a restart. But you don’t think someone could look at that and say, by now these questions of culture, sexual harassment, the conditions in the factories should be much better than they are?
They are much better than they were. The sexual thing, maximum, is about 20% more than it what it used to be. Because the people are now more aware. Today with television, there is a more democratic system.
We started this in the 60s. It was a hard dictatorship. Ok? And you cannot even talk. Myself, I was arrested for organizing unions [chuckle], myself. Under Papa Doc, I was arrested, ok? Things have changed. I’m sure there are some supervisors who are doing things. But it’s very hard to discover this. Very hard. Because the women will not talk, to them it’s almost normal also.
I know about this. I mean, I was in Port Salut, I broke the story about the boy who was allegedly raped. But you know, even there, there was that culture. Everyone said it was more than that – there was transactional sex happening between the soldiers and the girls, but when I went to talk to the people to actually find evidence, nobody wants to talk and expose it or say anything. So I know what you’re talking about.
You know what bothers me is the focus that we are putting on this. When the focus should be much broader. It should be a lot broader than this. We are the only ones that have to obey international standards. Everybody else does what they want.
I think they say that because you’re getting special treatment from the US government. And from the international community, for this industry, and that’s why there’s increased scrutiny, right?
No, we have always been under scrutiny.
But do you feel like that scrutiny hurts more than it helps?
No no. I am personally the one who believes that the more socially responsible a factory is, the better it functions. Because I’ve lived through it myself in my own factory.
It’s better for me. In other words, I make more money when they behave as adults than as children. It’s not because I’m altruistic, or because I’m good. It’s because I’m a capitalist, I believe in making money. But making money, you make a lot more when he works more for himself than for you. So that’s how you make money. That’s the belief.
The other factory owners – do they share those beliefs and support for the ILO standards?
When I came with this, do you think I had it easy with them? With my peers? [Laughs.] It’s only because it’s me and I’m respected. Now they are starting to see where it is good. Especially now with this issue, where I tell them, let the Ministry of Social Affairs and ILO come and do their investigation. Before, we had to fight ourselves. Now we don’t. On the contrary, I welcome this.
But initially, there was a lot of resistance, you’re saying?
You have to know the whole story of unionism of Haiti, whereby in the beginning the unions and labor movement was used for political ends. But before that it was used for monetary ends. Where a guy would be a so-called union representative in your factory and something happens – there’s a revolution in your factory, it closes down, and he represents everyone so he gets paid for everyone and he runs away with the money.
So to the workers themselves, union means one thing: factory closes. And the guy takes my money.
Is that what you see happening now?
No no. There is no push to have unionization inside factories. There is no push, that I know of.
The woman that I talked to, for example. You think she’s just…
She’s being used also. Because I don’t know – why does it have to be a secret? I go to the factories with one of the guy’s on my commission – Paul Loulou. Another thing also: We had a guy here from the States named Anthony Jones from the AFL-CIO. The other problem with the unions is they are Secretary General for life.
What do you understand to be Batay Ouvriye’s objective right now?
Batay Ouvriye – I know them since the 1980s. Their only objective is to close down factories. You cannot be calling yourself revolutionary workers union. What is that?
What about CODEVI [factory in Ouanamithe in which Batay Ouvriye eventually succeeded in a campaign to unionize workers]?
They formed it and it became a real union because it was created by the people inside. And when they tried to have them do political things, they refused. And Yannick Etienne tried to form another union. Because they would not follow her instructions. They are defending their own rights within the factory, not outside the factory. And Batay Ouvriye did not like that.
I am sorry I was so aggressive in the beginning. But I’m so tired of this. It’s the hypocrisy of it that gets to me. Here is a country with 85% of employment. The factories provide better than anyone else. They have to follow all kinds of rules. Yet they are the ones being admonished.
And again, for the woman who’s going to go back to selling on the street, you have no idea why she would do that?
Well, don’t forget. It is hard work. And it’s based on production. So if you cannot, you will not succeed. If you don’t have the strength to work hard, then it’s not good for you. But there are guys making 500 or 600 Haitian dollars a day.
But it’s not something you can do for twenty years. It’s for young people who have strength. Because it is hard work. It’s very hard work. You sit there. Most factories are hot. It’s noisy. And you do the same thing over and over, the same gestures. I couldn’t do it.
But people have to do it because they don’t have any other choice, basically.
Exactly. But let’s work hard to give them another choice. That’s my argument.