Workers in Haiti's free trade zones are protesting for better wages and improved work conditions. The latest demonstrations began in the CARACOL industrial park near Cap Haitien, but shifted to the industrial zones near the airport in Port au Prince over the last two weeks. Workers have been beaten during the demonstrations, and last week three people were shot, one of whom died. Those shot were reporters covering the protests and it seems they were targeted as such by police, but there is no way to confirm.
Back in January, a coalition of nine unions issued an appeal to the government, “seeking a minimum wage increase from 500 gourdes (about $4.82 a day) to 1,500 gourdes ($14.62).” At first glance this is clearly a large increase, but it is one that is long overdue. In the face of demonstrations, the government negotiated a wage increase with free zone companies - one much smaller than the unions were seeking: Just 185 gourdes a day - bringing the total daily wage to 685 gourdes, or roughly $0.80 an hour..
While the question of wages has taken center stage, the concerns are much broader than wage levels, and include unsafe working conditions and the high taxes workers are charged for pensions and health services; benefits most will never enjoy.
The question of rights violations and workplace safety are institutionally separate from the setting of wage levels: the government decides the minimum wage, while issues around health and safety, and concerns over other rights violations in these factories flow through a monitoring process mandated by the United States government as a condition for the passage of the HOPE II Act. As a result, solidarity with workers also requires a multidimensional approach. We can denounce the treatment of workers at the hands of the Haitian government, but must also press the US government and the clothing brands that source in Haiti to do more.
The apparel sector in Haiti employs 63,000+ workers, 53,400 of whom work in factories that are registered under the monitoring system tied to HOPE II. At $988 million in value, the textile sector contributed 83% of Haiti's total exports in 2021. Textiles are thus a critical source for foreign exchange, a reality that gives the companies in these parks an outsized (in relationship to total national employment) leverage over government policy.
And almost all of this apparel is currently coming to the United States. Companies like Gilden, Hanes, Old Navy, Reebok, DIsney and others source their clothing from factories in Haiti.
We will be writing more about the situation as the workers decide how to respond to the government's wage increase proposal, and we decide how to best stand in solidarity with them.