Saturday, November 21, 2009

Haiti: Minimum Wage, Maximum Outrage...

Tha Artivist Says:

ART: "The Charcoal or the Grenade" by R2C2H2/ 2004
Copyright © 2004
"THE CHARCOAL OR THE GRENADE"is the title of the above art that R2C2H2 created for this edition. He writes, "It's my take or satire on 'The Ballot or The Bullet'. One of Haiti's major products or 'cash crops' is charcoal (shown being held in the right hand of the figure) which is collected from the rotten trees on the mountainside due to their inability to grow vegetables because of extensive erosion caused by a lack of trees in the lowlands to keep the fertile soil in place. A lot of their best trees were bought and cut down by the French for millions of dollars in the 19th century. However, no one thought about replanting the trees that were taken and so by the start of World War One, the damage was done.

"The hand grenade in the other hand symbolizes the violence that seems to have been a vital part of Haiti's legacy since and before its inception and will tragically continue to play a part in its present and future...The handcuffs symbolize how these symptoms of the problem are linked because of lack of a profitable economy and stable government. Violence will continue to play a major part in the lives of all Haitians and will continue to affect the rest of the world for the worse."
- R2C2H2

Minimum Wage, Maximum Outrage
by Claude Adams, Oct. 9, 2009

Twenty-five years ago, Haiti produced almost all of the world’s
baseballs. Women would stand in the factories all day, hand-stitching
the cowhide, 108 stitches per ball. It cost about nine cents to produce
a baseball, and one woman could stitch three dozen per day.

Few if any of the stitchers ever saw a baseball game, which is alien to
Haiti. Even if they wanted to they could never afford a ticket. They
earned $3.10 a day. It wasn’t much, but what do you expect in a tropical
dictatorship? Haiti at the time was run by a ruthless kleptocrat called
Baby Doc Duvalier.

Times have changed. Haiti is a full-fledged democracy today, and
Haitians don’t make baseballs anymore. They make T-shirts. The
sweatshops are a little cooler and cleaner; the work is more mechanized,
and the assembly lines are a lot more productive. But one thing remains
the same as it was in the bad old days of Duvalier: the men and women on
the line still earn about $3 a day or less—barely enough to buy a bottle
of milk and a loaf of bread in the supermarket.

Considering inflation, the garment workers are actually worse off than
they were 25 years ago. Today, breakfast, lunch and public transport
consume most of what the average T-shirt maker earns in a day. During a
recent visit to Haiti, I met a woman who’s been on the assembly line for
four years. Her name is Paulette Dorval, and she works 10 hours a day,
six days a week. She has four children, but she’s had to send three of
them away to live with her mother. Every two weeks, she gets a pay
envelope with 840 Haitian gourdes—that’s 22 dollars and 63 cents
Canadian. That’s 18 cents an hour. On the day I met her, Paulette said
she wasn’t having any dinner. She’d spent the last few pennies on the
bus ride home from work.

Koreans own the factory she works in, but nationality has nothing to do
with the exploitation of garment workers in Haiti. The French owner of a
t-shirt factory in Port au Prince threatened to shut his factory down,
and lay off hundreds of workers, if the minimum wage was raised to $5 a
day. He meant it. And an executive of a Montreal company, Gildan
Activewear, that buys a lot of its leisure wear in Haiti justified the
country’s pay rates by saying you have to look at the question of
Haiti’s minimum wage in an “holistic” way. That’s the word she used.

Gildan says everything costs more in Haiti: electricity, transportation,
fuel, building expenses. There’s also the cost of insecurity and rampant
corruption. The argument is that if manufacturers had to pay their
workers a better wage, a living wage, say $5 a day, they simply couldn’t
compete. In other words, it comes down to a choice between
profitability, and Paulette Dorval eating dinner every day. There is no
middle ground.

The ruling classes in Haiti aren’t happy about the fact that they have
to pay beggars’ wages to keep the factories open. I put the question to
Rene Preval, Haiti’s president, and he told me that his government has
no control over how much Haitians should be paid. He said major
corporations like The Gap and Levi’s make those decisions. They
determine the contracts. The people who market t-shirts and sweatshirts
in North America are notoriously sensitive to price fluctuations . . .
Preval said that when the Dominican Republic raised its minimum wage for
garment workers to $5 a day, it lost 110,000 jobs. In one year. That
kind of setback would be a catastrophe for Haiti, which has had enough
grief in recent years due to horrible weather, kidnappings, corruption,
and a weak near-bankrupt government. As a result, Preval recently vetoed
a law that would have paid garment workers 200 gourdes a day ($5.32 CDN.)

Indeed, the so-called friends of Haiti, like Bill Clinton, and the
secretary-general of the United Nations, are on record as saying that
what Haiti needs is MORE sweatshop jobs—tens of thousands more—to lift
the economic base because, after all, two or three dollars a day is
better than nothing.

I’m not an economist, but having spent some time with Paulette Dorval, I
wonder if that’s true. I mean, what has her job given her? She’s hungry,
she can’t afford to care for her family, she can’t send her children to
school, her job affords her little or no dignity, and she has almost no
chance for promotion because she has little self-confidence or
managerial skills. She can’t join a union. There is none. Nor does she
get any employee benefits. Paulette is trapped in an economic model that
hasn’t changed in a quarter century.

If we stopped buying those t-shirts, if Paulette lost her ill-paying
job, she would have to fall back on Haiti’s so-called “informal” or
street economy. That’s no solution either. But there’s a third option:
using some of those hundreds of millions in foreign aid that Haiti gets
to create much-needed jobs in agriculture, in tourism, or in more modern
manufacturing that pays a decent wage. That might be the start of a new
economic model, one in which Paulette could find an income, dignity, and
the means to raise a family. Sadly, that’s not likely to happen anytime

I interviewed the director-general of Haiti’s biggest industrial park,
Jean Kesner Delmas, and I asked him if he wasn’t a bit ashamed as a
Haitian citizen that 20,000 of his countrymen and women were earning
less than a living wage. Squirming in his seat, Delmas finally admitted
that it was a disgrace. He said, yes, maybe they were being exploited,
and that the bosses should understand that a happy worker is a better
worker. But then he stopped, and reflected on his words, and begged me
not to use any quotes that would get him in trouble with his superiors.

Like the Gildan executive, Delmas asked me to take the wider view, the
holistic view. But Paulette Dorval cannot think “holistically” about her
situation because her needs are all narrow and immediate and short-term:
food, medicine, a new dress, getting her family back together.

And there is no escape for people like her. If you’re a member of
Haiti’s small middle class, with an education, there’s always the chance
of emigration and finding a job in the US or Canada, and becoming part
of Haiti’s Brain Drain. That’s precisely what four out every five
Haitian university graduates do. They achieve, and they leave. But
Paulette has no delusions about even making it to the middle-class. The
best she can hope for is to hold on to her wretched job and maybe, at
some point, to benefit in some small way from the hundreds of millions
of dollars in foreign aid that flow into Haiti from the US, Canada and

And that, finally, is the enigma of Haiti. It’s an economic basket case
that absorbs vast amounts of foreign aid, the object of all our best
intentions, and yet nothing substantial ever changes.

I’ve been visiting Haiti regularly since the late 1980s, and the one
recurring theme is “stasis.” The poor remain poor. The roads are always
bad. There are never enough schools, or hospital beds. The jails are
always overcrowded. And every heavy rainfall brings a flood.
Environmentally, Haiti is fast becoming a wasteland. It exists under
virtual trusteeship—policed by 10,000 United Nations peacekeeping
troops, kept on life support by 10,000 non-government organizations
(NGOs) who comprise, far and away, Haiti’s biggest industry. And then
there are a dozen or so bourgeois families who drive late-model SUVs,
run the factories, and effectively keep Haiti’s economy in a medieval
time warp.

All that human activity, all those dollars, and the best idea for the
future involves creating more $3-a-day sewing-machine jobs! Paulette
Dorval, and Haitians like her, deserve bigger dreams than that.

Claude Adams is a veteran freelance journalist and videographer who has
reported extensively from Haiti and other developing countries.

Forwarded by Ezili's Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network

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