The United States embassy in Haiti worked closely with factory owners contracted by Levi's, Hanes, and Fruit of the Loom to aggressively block a paltry minimum wage rise for Haitian assembly zone workers.
The moves to block a wage rise for the lowest paid in the western hemisphere were revealed by secret US State Department cables obtained by Haiti Liberte and The Nation magazine.
The factory owners refused to pay $0.62 an hour, or $5 per eight-hour day, as mandated by a measure unanimously passed by Haiti’s parliament in June 2009.
The cables, provided by WikiLeaks, show that behind the scenes, factory owners were vigorously backed by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the US embassy.
Before the rise, the minimum daily wage was $1.75 a day.
The factory owners told parliament they were willing to give workers a mere nine cent per hour pay rise — to $0.31 an hour — to make T-shirts, bras and underwear for US clothing giants such as Dockers and Nautica.
To resolve the impasse, the State Department urged then-Haitian president Rene Preval to intervene.
US ambassador Janet Sanderson said in a June 10, 2009 cable to Washington: “A more visible and active engagement by Preval may be critical to resolving the issue of the minimum wage and its protest ‘spin-off’ — or risk the political environment spiraling out of control.”
Two months later, Preval negotiated a deal with parliament to create a two-tiered minimum wage rise — one for the textile industry at $3.13 a day and another for all other industrial and commercial sectors at $5 a day.
The US embassy was still not pleased. Deputy chief of mission David Lindwall said the $5 a day minimum wage “did not take economic reality into account”, but was a populist measure aimed at appealing to “the unemployed and underpaid masses”.
Haitian supporters of the minimum wage rise said that it was needed to keep pace with inflation and alleviate the rising cost of living.
Haiti is the poorest country in the hemisphere. The World Food Program estimates that about 3.3 million people in Haiti, a third of the population, are food insecure.
Haiti was rocked by the “clorox” food riots of April 2008, named after hunger so painful that it felt like bleach in your stomach.
A 2008 Worker Rights Consortium study found a working-class family with one working member and two dependents needed a daily wage of at least $13.75 to meet normal living expenses.
US opposition to the minimum wage rise was revealed in 1918 cables provided by WikiLeaks.
In response to a request for a statement, the US embassy’s information officer Jon Piechowski told Haiti Liberte: “As a matter of policy, the Department of State does not comment on documents that purport to contain classified information and strongly condemns any illegal disclosure of such information.
“In Haiti, approximately 80% of the population is unemployed and 78% earns less than $1 a day — the US government is working with the Government of Haiti and international partners to help create jobs, support economic growth, promote foreign direct investment that meets [International Labor Orgainsation] labor standards in the apparel industry, and invest in agriculture and beyond.”
For a 20-month period between early February 2008 and October 2009, US embassy officials closely monitored and reported on the minimum wage issue. The cables show that the embassy fully understood how popular the measure was in Haiti.
The cables said that the new minimum wage even had support from most of the Haitian business community “based on reports that wages in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua (competitors in the garment industry) will increase also”.
But the proposal faced fierce opposition from Haiti's tiny assembly zone elite, which Washington had long been supporting with direct financial aid and free trade deals.
In 2006, the US Congress passed the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement (HOPE) bill. This gave Haitian assembly zone manufacturers preferential trade incentives.
Two years later, Congress passed an even more generous bill called HOPE II. USAID provided technical assistance and training programs to factories to help them expand and take advantage of the new law.
US embassy cables claimed these efforts were threatened by parliamentary demands for a wage hike to keep pace with soaring inflation and high food prices.
A June 17, 2009, confidential cable from charge d’affairs Thomas C Tighe to Washington said: “Textile industry representatives, led by the Association of Haitian Industry (ADIH), objected to the immediate ($3.25) per day wage increase in the assembly sector, saying it would devastate the industry and negatively impact the benefits of … HOPE II.”
Ironically, Tighe’s confidential cable one week earlier, said the ADIH study had found that “overall, the average salary for workers in the [garment assembly] sector is $4.33” — only 67 cents a day less than the proposed minimum wage.
Nonetheless, the study urged opposing any rise in the minimum wage because “the current salary structure promotes productivity and serves as a competitive wage in the region”.
Tighe noted, however, that the “minimum salary for workers in the Free Trade Zone on the [Haiti-Dominican Republic] border is approximately $6.00”, a dollar more than the $5 demanded.
Still, the ADIH report concluded somehow that the minimum daily being demanded would cause “the loss of 10,000 workers”, more than one third of Haiti's 27,000 garment workers at that time.
Tighe said the ADIH and USAID “funded studies on the impact of near tripling of the minimum wage on the textile sector found that [the proposed] minimum wage would make the sector economically unviable and consequently force factories to shut down”.
Bolstered by the USAID study, factory owners lobbied heavily against the rise, the cables said.
The cables reveal how closely the US embassy monitored widespread pro-wage rise protests and openly worried about the political impact of the minimum wage battle.
United Nations troops were called in to quell student protests, sparking further demands for the end of the UN military occupation of Haiti.
On August 10, 2009, garment workers, students and other activists protested at the Industrial Park near Port-au-Prince airport. The police arrested two students, Guerchang Bastia and Patrick Joseph, on the charge of inciting the workers.
Demanding their immediate release, protesters marched to the Delmas 33 police station, where the police fired tear-gas and the throng replied with rock-throwing.
In the course of the demonstration, the windshield of Tighe's vehicle was smashed, and he took refuge in the police station.
Due to the fierce protests of workers and students, sweatshop owners and Washington won only a partial victory in the minimum wage battle, delaying the $5 a day minimum for one year and keeping the assembly sector's minimum wage a notch below all other sectors.
In October 2010, assembly workers' minimum wage rose to $5 a day, while in all other sectors it went to $6.25.
The Haitian Platform for Development Alternatives said in June 2009: “Every time the minimum wage has been discussed, [the assembly industry bourgeoisie in] ADIH has cried wolf to scare the government against its passage: that raising the minimum wage would mean the certain and immediate closure of industry in Haiti and the cause of a sudden loss of jobs.
“In every case, it was a lie.”
[Abridged from www.haiti-liberte.com .]