January 11, 2013—Three years after the disastrous earthquake struck Haiti, workers and their families continue to struggle as the cost-of-living keeps rising while wages—for those who have jobs—remain the same. Informal discussions by Solidarity Center staff with Haitian export-processing workers this month indicate that in the past year, the cost of food and education has increased between 20 percent and 25 percent, while rent and transportation have risen between 15 percent and 20 percent.
Post-earthquake unemployment and inflation compounded pre-existing financial difficulties for many families. Even before the earthquake, workers (who on average earn between $3 and $5 a day), struggled to afford food, shelter and school fees for their children. The situation has not improved since the Solidarity Center published a cost-of-living study in March 2011. Now, Haitians also face widespread hunger as two recent storms created $170 million in crop losses.
The Solidarity Center has joined with Haitian unions and worker rights organizations in calling for decent employment, living wages, safe working conditions and the right to form unions without retaliation so that Haitian workers can support their families and help their country recover from the quake and a series of other crises that followed.
The Solidarity Center initiated a new program that works toward these goals, with a specific focus on organizing in the textile sector. The program aims to build the capacity of unions to protect vulnerable workers, participate in productive labor-management dialogue and advocate for public policies that improve the lives of working families. The Solidarity Center—which has been supporting programs in Haiti from its office in the Dominican Republic—opened an office in Port-au-Prince in 2012, hiring a full-time director to ensure that union partners receive the on-the-ground support they need.
Workers Helping Workers, from Disaster through Aftermath
The January 12, 2010, earthquake killed tens of thousands of people and left up to a million homeless. Following the disaster, a massive cholera outbreak struck hundreds of thousands of Haitians. In the earthquake’s immediate aftermath and in the years since, the Solidarity Center, together with Haitian unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and TransAfrica, provided assistance directly to Haitian workers and their families in need. U.S. union members and allies contributed to the Solidarity Center’s Earthquake Relief Fund and the Solidarity Center channeled and coordinated on-the-ground efforts with trade union partners and worked with them to jointly determine the areas of greatest need.
Within days of the earthquake, the Solidarity Center dispatched regular truckloads of emergency supplies to Haiti from its field office in neighboring Dominican Republic. The Solidarity Center also used disaster relief funds to:
• Support AFT in establishing a union-run health clinic in Port au Prince which has provided hundreds of patients with free pediatric, maternal and preventative care since it opened in August 2011.
• Provide educational stipends to more than 700 children, which allowed them to continue their studies in a safe, child-friendly environment.
• Assist the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) in training and deploying 50 Haitian trade unionists to the hardest hit areas of the country, where they delivered hygiene and sanitation kits and information on preventing and identifying the disease.
• Partnered with TransAfrica in the “Let Haiti Live” project, which empowers Haitian workers and their communities to advocate for improved living conditions.
Two years after a massive earthquake destroyed much of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, and surrounding towns, the Haitian people are still struggling to recover from the disaster and the entrenched poverty that it has exacerbated.
The solution, say Haitian workers, is a Haitian-driven reconstruction effort that focuses on sustainable, equitable development aimed at improving the lives all citizens—not just a few.
While unions and worker organizations have been calling for the creation of decent jobs that respect fundamental worker rights, pay living wages, and empower Haitians to provide for their families, little progress has been made toward that goal. Indeed, more than 70 percent of the labor force does not have formal work and struggles to survive, earning less than $2 a day.
To mark the grim anniversary, worker organizations are participating in marches and discussions organized by the larger community to draw attention to the enormous needs in Haiti. They also are educating workers and the community about their rights while continuing to provide the opportunity for workers from various sectors, both employed and unemployed, to meet. The Haitian labor movement has crafted a pubic policy statement of principles on decent work and a living wage, which it will release later this month. Workers plan to press for further improvements.
“The deplorable conditions in which most Haitians live are in stark contrast to the small pockets of improvement and the large-scale investments coming into the country. For those left homeless, access to the very basics—permanent shelter, food, jobs, water, transportation—is elusive,” said Ose Pierre, the Solidarity Center’s program representative in Haiti. “Much, much more needs to be done to create jobs and, at the same time, ensure that workers are paid decent wages and their rights are recognized and respected.”
The Solidarity Center, which focuses on building the capacity of Haitian partners to develop and jointly advocate public policies that help working families, published a living wage survey for apparel workers in March 2011. The research found that prices for necessities and basic goods were out of reach for most workers. This remains true today: The cost of living has increased while wages, for the jobs in the formal economy, have stagnated.
“Haiti’s recovery will depend on the ability of working people to earn a decent wage so that they can pay the rent, feed their children, and live a dignified life. Grinding poverty is never solved through low wages or exploitation,” said Molly McCoy, Solidarity Center regional director for the Americas. “Our partners remain hopeful that the large-scale investments coming into Haiti, including the Caracol Industrial Park, create jobs that pay workers sufficiently to support their families and rebuild their lives and their country.”
In a matter of seconds, the earthquake dramatically altered the scale and scope of the Haitian labor movement. Trade unions and worker organizations suffered huge reductions in membership due to mass casualties and severe unemployment. Many people were further burdened by catastrophic damage to their homes and belongings.
Within days after the quake, the Solidarity Center field office in the Dominican Republic launched a union-to-union emergency response, linking Dominican partners directly with Haitian workers and channeling emergency aid to workers through unions and labor support organizations. The Solidarity Center dispatched regular overland shipments of food, water, rehydration fluids, plastic tarps, diapers, blankets, first-aid supplies, medicine, and feminine hygiene kits to meet the most immediate needs. The Solidarity Center also directed funds to Haitian unions and labor support organizations to locate missing members and restore offices for use as shelters and food distribution centers.
In concert with these efforts, U.S. unions and workers made generous contributions to the Solidarity Center’s Earthquake Relief Fund, which enabled the Solidarity Center to respond to an array of urgent and ongoing needs identified by our Haitian trade union partners. Specifically, the Solidarity Center:
- Paid educational fees for 700 children of union members to attend school.
- Partnered with the American Federation of Teachers to establish the union-run Workers Solidarity Clinic, aimed at serving the health care needs of 26,000 union members and their families.
- Worked with the International Trade Union Confederation to develop and deploy cholera brigades, each composed of 50 trained union members, that deliver much-needed hygiene and sanitation kits as well as information about preventing and identifying the disease to workers and families in the hardest-hit areas. To date, 1,000 kits have been distributed.
- Purchased and installed solar energy panels and work stations for Solidarity Center partner AUMOHD (United Action for Human Rights in Haiti), a worker education and legal support organization based in Port-au-Prince whose office escaped severe damage. The office now serves as a neutral space where Haitian unions can conduct business and access electricity.
- Provided laptops to union partners to ensure ongoing communication and continued operations.
- Provided support to TransAfrica Forum’s “Let Haiti Live” project, which empowers Haitian workers and their communities to advocate for improved living conditions. “Let Haiti Live,” in partnership with local grassroots organizations, is mobilizing vulnerable communities throughout Port-au-Prince to identify their greatest needs and develop advocacy campaigns to direct aid to those key areas. Thus far, communities have highlighted access to clean drinking water as a top priority.