Violence escalated in the streets of Port-au-Prince in Haiti Wednesday as police shot live rounds into a crowd of garment workers demanding higher pay, injuring five protestors and killing one journalist, according to one eyewitness.
Reginald Lafontant, national coordinator at Groupement des Travailleurs (euses) du Textile pour la Réexportation d’Assemblage (GOSTTRA), one member of a coalition of garment-industry trade unions coordinating the demonstrations, told Sourcing Journal that security forces employed only tear gas and batons to disperse previous strikes, and if guns were used, fired them in the air.
Now, the minimum-wage conflict in the small Caribbean nation has taken a deadly turn. “Workers are being victimized,” he said of the protests, which have been taking place since January amid a growing sense of desperation. Workers, Lafontant said, are in a state of perpetual debt because their paychecks don’t stretch far enough.
Reuters identified the journalist as Lazzare Maxihen, who worked for Haitian media group Roi des Infos and succumbed to his injuries after he was moved to a hospital. Lafontant said Maxihen wore a bulletproof vest but was struck in an area that was exposed.
On Monday, Prime Minister Ariel Henry announced that the garment industry’s 57,000 employees, who create products for U.S. retailers such as Fruit of the Loom, Gildan Activewear, Hanesbrands, Calvin Klein owner PVH Corp., Reebok, New Balance and The North Face parent VF Corp., would receive a 37 percent minimum-wage bump from 500 gourdes ($4.80) to 685 gourdes ($6.58)—far less than the 1,500 gourdes ($14.41) workers were asking.
Lafontant estimates that 15,000 to 20,000 workers showed up to oppose a pay hike that they deemed “not satisfactory,” especially in light of Haiti’s double-digit inflation, which has sent the prices of basic necessities soaring. He said brands could help by petitioning the government to raise the minimum wage or offering direct financial assistance. (Fruit of the Loom declined to provide a statement, and the other brands did not respond to requests for comment.)
On Thursday, the Association of Industries of Haiti (ADIH), the country’s leading manufacturing trade group, released a statement announcing the closure of clothing factories at Metropolitan Industrial Park and Route de l’Aeroport, near the site of the shooting, to “protect workers and equipment.”
“ADIH strongly condemns the acts of violence perpetrated against the factories of the Metropolitan Industrial Park,” it wrote in French. “ADIH members are aware that an increase in the minimum wage was necessary. However, it wishes to reiterate to the government, to the trade union sector and to the population in general that the social appeasement of which we all dream must go through accompanying measures of the state [as] established over the long term.”
Henry wrote on Twitter on Wednesday that he deplored Maxihen’s death. “I also condemn the violence that has caused injuries,” he wrote in French. “I offer my condolences to the family of the deceased, as well as to the other victims of these brutal acts.”
“While undertaking to guarantee the freedom to demonstrate, in compliance with the law and republican values, the government recalls the responsibility of the public authorities to ensure order and security with a view to restoring peace,” he added.
According to a recent survey by the Solidarity Center, 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 get them through the day.
“Our affiliate and the other unions in the coalition have rejected the wage increase as being totally insufficient given the daily increase in the prices of basic necessities,” Laura Carter, assistant regional secretary, Latin America and the Caribbean, at IndustriALL Global Union, of which GOSTTRA is a member, told Sourcing Journal.
Lafontant said the strikes will continue until at least the end of the week.
Livia Firth, a veteran fashion activist and creative director of sustainability consultancy Eco-Age, told Sourcing Journal that raising the minimum wage is a “very important step” because so many garment workers barely make enough to subsist. She urged brands not to leave Haiti if minimum wages continue to increase further, as they have done in the past, as they “hop from one country to another in pursuit of the cheapest possible production line.”
Haiti’s woes are indicative of a larger pattern within the fashion industry. The Industry We Want, a new multistakeholder initiative helmed by the Ethical Trading Initiative and the Fair Wear Foundation, revealed Monday that garment workers face, on average, a 45 percent wage gap between minimum and living wages. The divide is worse in countries such as Bangladesh, which has a 61 percent wage gap, and Indonesia, which contends with a 71 percent wage gap.
“This tells us that, on average, workers in these countries are receiving just over half of the money they need to reach a decent standard of living,” Olivia Windham Stewart, a business and human-rights specialist, said at the launch of the pilot iteration of The Industry We Want’s dashboard, which also includes metrics for purchasing practices and greenhouse-gas emissions.
“This is, of course, not new information,” she said. “The garment and footwear sector is known for being a sector characterized by the use of cheap and disposable labor. But I think we can all agree that if we are working on a traffic light system, this indicator would show up as red. These are real lives, real workers and real wage gaps and the progress is simply not good enough.”
The dashboard will update every year, using data gleaned from the Wageindicator Foundation, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance and others, to reflect the reality of wages in the industry. More countries will be added in time, as well.
“Measurement of course does not change everything, but measurement can help,” Windham Stewart said. “And as it stands, we are lacking any regular sector-wide data to understand where we are now and how fast we may be moving forward or sliding backward as a sector.”
The Industry We Want’s aim is not only to serve as a “growing resource” for the fashion industry but also to work with affected stakeholders and industry experts to “support and leverage interventions that can close these gaps nationally and, as a result, across the sector as a whole,” she added. “Our aim is a 0 percent wage gap.”