Violence broke out in the Port-au-Prince commune of Delmas in Haiti last week after thousands of garment workers clashed with security forces for the second time in less than a month as they demanded a higher minimum wage.
Local media reported that police fired tear gas in the Société Nationale des Parcs Industriels Free Trade Zone Thursday, resulting in the hospitalizations of four women, one of whom was pregnant and had trouble breathing. They also used batons to beat demonstrators, violently injuring at least one dozen women and two men.
A similar protest broke out at Caracol Industrial Park in Trou-du-Nord in late January.
A coalition of garment-industry trade unions, including Groupement des Travailleurs (euses) du Textile pour la Réexportation d’Assemblage, or GOSTTRA, has been urging Prime Minister Ariel Henry to raise the sector’s daily minimum wage from 500 gourdes ($4.92) to 1,500 gourdes ($14.76) in the face of rising inflation, which blew past 22 percent on an annual basis in 2020 and has continued to climb since. Haiti’s labor code mandates wage adjustments when the inflation rate exceeds 10 percent in a single year, yet the minimum wage hasn’t budged in three years.
The current minimum wage isn’t enough to cover the basic needs of most workers in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, said Reginald Lafontant, national coordinator of GOSTTRA. Many, he told Sourcing Journal through a translator, cannot pay rent without extra financial assistance and are forced to buy food on credit. Skipping meals has become “a norm” because “there’s no way workers can afford three meals per day.”
“Workers report that there has never been an instance where they have some money left after paying what they owed,” Lafontant said. “Instead, the money they receive is not even enough to pay what they owed. That situation leaves them in perpetual debt.” Life, he added, is a daily struggle and people are becoming increasingly desperate.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, workers were subsisting below the poverty line, Lafontant noted. Coupled with recent events—a presidential assassination and a devastating earthquake, among them—Haiti’s workers are battling impossible odds. With roughly one-third of the nation’s 57,000 garment workers either furloughed or laid off, many are caught in a state of limbo as they await long-promised government aid that has yet to materialize. Even employed, the average garment worker would need to toil for four days to afford one of the T-shirts he or she sews, he added.
Lauren Stewart, regional program director, Americas, at the Solidarity Center, called the protests a “significant moment,” particularly in the context of the “deep divisions that mar Haiti’s political landscape.”
“Haitian unions—a key segment of civil society—are united in their shared demand for a 1,500 gourde daily minimum wage, representing the first time that unions have coalesced around the same figure,” she told Sourcing Journal. “There is a growing consciousness among workers and their unions that the minimum wage must reflect the cost of living in order for workers to rise out of poverty, support themselves and their families, and remain in Haiti rather than seek a dignified livelihood elsewhere.”
According to a recent survey by the labor nonprofit, the minimum wage for a 48-hour week covers less than a quarter of what workers require to adequately provide for themselves and their families. Many of them end up spending more than half of their earnings just on transportation to and from work, plus a modest lunch to stay fueled.
Factory ownership in Haiti typically falls under one of three categories: North and South American, Asian (mostly South Koreans) and Haitian. “Foreigners” have expressed a greater willingness to pay a higher minimum wage, Lafontant said. “But the Haitian owners do not want that. Instead, they are lobbying before the government and doing everything possible to stop an eventual raise.”
This includes dismissing workers who fight against unfair labor practices, which Centri Group, a Better Work-affiliated manufacturer that supplies to Gildan Activewear, according to trade data, recently did to 60 of its employees, he added. (Better Work and Gildan did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)
IndustriALL Global Union, which counts GOSTTRA as an affiliate, has warned the Haitian government that multinational brands and retailers are under increasing pressure to ensure due diligence in their supply chains.
“Paying starvation wages and repressing workers who protest is severely damaging Haiti’s reputation as an acceptable country in which to do business, “a representative told Sourcing Journal. “We are urging the Prime Minister to engage in meaningful dialogue with the signatory unions with a view to adjusting the minimum wage. We are also calling on the government to take urgent steps to ensure national laws and international standards are upheld in the garment industry.”
A critical sector, garments account for 80 percent to 90 percent of Haiti’s exports, most of which is destined for the United States, where the country will receive apparel trade preferences under the Caribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act through at least 2030. In 2020, the United States imported $837 million in goods from Haiti, some 95 percent of which was apparel.
Lafontant said that the support of multinational brands and retailers would be “very significant” to the fight for better wages. Brands such as Gap, Gildan and Hanesbrands—all major buyers—could call on factory workers to be more equitable in their sharing of the wealth they help make. A 30 percent cut of profits, for instance, would make a life-changing difference.
“If they really push for an improvement in the sector, the government will have no other option than adjusting the wage,” he said.
The brands did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment, though the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), a trade group that represents many U.S. companies, said it and its members support a “thorough minimum wage review mechanism” that includes all stakeholders, so that any resulting minimum wage “reflects the reality on the ground and supports workers.” AAFA, president and CEO Steve Lamar, told Sourcing Journal, has advocated for similar mechanisms in other countries.