PORT-AU-PRINCE (IPS) – Workers in Haiti’s apparel manufacturing sector charge that factory owners are repressing attempts to organise workers in the capital, after the dismissals of six of seven leading members of a new union within just two weeks of its formation.
The new union, Sendika Ouvriye Takstil ak Abiman (SOTA), is recognised by the Haitian government and supported by the Haitian union federation Batay Ouvriye, which organised the only other textile workers’ union in the country on the border with the Dominican Republic in 2006.
Judeline Pierre, a rail-thin 44-year-old mother who works at the Sonapi Industrial Park near Port-au-Prince’s airport, said she has been secretly attending union meetings organised by Batay Ouvriye for months.
In her bag, she carries a wrinkled, folded-up flyer calling for better conditions in the factories. She said she had to hide her involvement in the union, “because as soon as you start to assert your rights, they fire you. They’ve fired many operators for that.”
Textile factories in Port-au-Prince employ about 29,000 people, in a country of nine million with an estimated unemployment rate of 80 percent, according to the U.S. Embassy. The minimum wage is about five dollars per day, though some workers earn more by exceeding production quotas.
A handful of contractors run the factories, assembling and exporting duty-free garments for U.S. companies like Hanes and The Gap under the terms of a preferential U.S.-Haiti trade deal known as the HOPE programme.
Two Haitian factory owners, Charles Baker, whose factory fired one of the union-connected workers, and George Sassine, the head of the owners’ industry association and executive director of the HOPE programme, told IPS they were not opposed to unions in principle and that recent worker firings are justified.
“These incidents, they have nothing to do with people trying to form a union,” Sassine told IPS. “Now suddenly, the whole international community is on my back telling me I’m against people organising.”
Sassine said he believes Batay Ouvriye aims to completely shut down factories, rather than merely organise workers.
Haitian textile workers start sewing at early hours in Charles Baker’s One World Apparel factory.
Stepping out of his air-conditioned office onto a buzzing, 1,640- worker-strong factory floor, Baker gestured around, “If they want to unionise, they can unionise. But they need to do it in the right way.” He said he fired a man handing out flyers during work hours and interrupting production.
Between the workers and the factory owners is Better Work Haiti, a nine-person team funded by the U.S. Department of Labour charged with monitoring labour conditions in Haiti’s textile factories. The group will issue a fact-finding report on the alleged firings of SOTA members next month.
Better Work Haiti’s third biannual report on compliance with International Labour Organisation standards was released two weeks ago. It found violations of some occupational health and safety and minimum wage regulations in over 80 percent of the factories, but in the four “core” labour standards, compliance rates are near perfect.
Richard Lavallée, Better Work Haiti’s director, said the factory owners “are fully engaged in the programme” and praised the steady improvements in compliance with core standards over the last two years.
The fourth core standard is the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. The latest report identifies just two instances of non-compliance, including a 12-day-long strike in May which resulted in the firings of 140 workers.
But the low non-compliance rate is potentially misleading. “Although no non-compliance findings are cited in the current report under Union Operations,” the report notes, there are “very significant challenges related to the rights of workers to freely form, join and participate in independent trade unions”.
“If you look at the reports, in Haiti there is only one unionised factory (in Ouanaminthe) out of 23 operating factories. In the factories in Port-au-Prince, there are no unions. We don’t have any evidence,” Lavallée said.
He explained that if a factory owner fires a person for trying to organise workers, it won’t be noted in the employee records reviewed by his team. Continue reading