As the U.S. Congress considers renewal of the Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act (CBPTA) for Haiti, labor rights provisions must be enforced for trade benefits to reach 57,000 Haiti garment workers, says Solidarity Center Americas Regional Program Director Lauren Stewart.
Further, trade preference programs with Haiti, such as the CBTPA, which allows duty-free access for Caribbean countries to the U.S. markets, have not specified labor rights enforcement “in a way that there is actual teeth,” Stewart said.
Solidarity Center union partners in Haiti say trade agreements should specify the amount of time a factory can be in noncompliance before losing its trade preference eligibility, and should be required to demonstrate progress in remedying violations before being readmitted, she says. Further, unions say there should be a limited number of times a noncompliant factory can be admitted to trade preference programs.
Haiti Garment Workers Struggle to Form Unions
Trade preference agreements for Haiti’s garment industry must include enforcement for decent working conditions and freedom to form unions—Lauren Stewart
With labor abuses unaddressed, garment workers endure poor working conditions and low wages: A 2019 Solidarity Center living expense survey estimated the minimum wage for garment workers in Port-au-Prince at least three times less than basic cost of living.
But because the country has a history of repressing worker efforts to form unions to improve working conditions, many workers fear exercising their right to freedom of association.
“Trade preference programs that enforce workers’ right to organize and bargain is critical to improve working conditions in Haiti,” Stewart told committee members.
There is only one authentic collective bargaining agreement in the garment sector—which means “the great majority of workers are unable to negotiate higher wages and lack a voice in shaping the terms of their labor,” Stewart said.
Although the CBTPA and other trade preference programs in the Caribbean Basin Initiative have stimulated Haiti’s garment industry, Stewart says the economic gains of garment industry have not translated into decent wages and working conditions.
Enforcing worker rights provisions in the CBTPA is “critical to guaranteeing internationally recognized worker rights and fostering the rule of law, both of which are necessary to promote stability and economic development in Haiti,” Stewart said.
The CBPTA expires September 30 and Congress is considering its renewal to 2030.
Witnesses also included Republic of Haiti Ambassador Hervé H. Denis,Georges Sassine, Association des Industries d’Haïti board member, Beth Baltzan, principal at American Phoenix Trade Advisory Services and Jerry Cook, Hanesbrands vice president for government and trade relations.
Garment workers in Haiti are calling for action after Sandra René, a garment worker at the Palm Apparel factory, died due to pregnancy complications in early August. René was turned away from the hospital where she sought medical care because the factory had not paid into the health insurance system for occupational injury, sickness and maternity (OFATMA) on her behalf, as legally required.
With their unions, the Association of Textile Workers Unions for Re-importation (GOSTTRA) and Workers Struggle (Batay Ouvriye), workers are demanding that employers meet their legal obligations so Haitian workers can access health care, especially critical during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Few Garment Factories Pay into Required Health, Pension Funds
Few factories make the required contributions to the health or pension funds. Some 83 percent of factories were noncompliant with such legal requirements between April 2019 and March 2020, according to Better Work Haiti (BWH). Employers are required to register workers in the system, and both employers and workers must contribute the equivalent of 3 percent of the employees’ wages for the past pay period to OFATMA. The employer is responsible for deducting the employees’ contributions from paychecks but often either do not register workers or take paycheck deductions without sending the funds to OFATMA.
Garment workers began returning to the job as early as April when factories reopened after shuttering for a month to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus. Desperate for wages to support themselves and their families, workers risk COVID-19 exposure during crowded work commutes.Workers say they fear they will not have access to health care if they become ill because employers are not paying into OFATMA.
Income inequality is widening in Haiti, which remains among the most unequal countries in the world. The persistence of high levels of inequality is due in part to a concentration of resources in the hands of a small but powerful group of elites, and the weakness or absence of channels of resource redistribution, such as targeted transfers and a social safety net, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Further, the minimum wage for garment workers in Port-au-Prince, the capital, is at least four times lower than the cost of living, according to a 2019 Solidarity Center survey. Since the pandemic, workers no longer work a standard 48-hour workweek, reducing their pay and making them ineligible to receive one day of paid rest per week.
As garment factories in Haiti begin reopening after shuttering for up to four weeks to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus, workers risk exposure during their crowded work commutes and at factories, while most have not received the wages they were promised during the factory closings, according to several garment worker unions there.
Meanwhile, workers say the price of some basic goods is skyrocketing, with reports of rice rising from 1,400 gourdes ($14.45) for one bag to as much as 2,200 gourdes ($22.70). Export apparel workers are paid a daily minimum wage of 420 gourdes ($5.07).
Although workers earlier this month traveled back to their closed factories to collect half their pay during the height of COVID-19’s spread in Haiti, risking their health in crowded tap-taps (public minibus transport) and at factories, many have not received their wages. And for those who were paid, they received only two weeks’ pay a month late, causing extreme hardship for the impoverished workers and their families. Last year, the Solidarity Center found that garment workers’ daily minimum wage is more than four times less than the estimated cost of living in Haiti.
Referring to employers and government officials, Reginald Lafontant, secretary general of the garment workers’ federation in Haiti, asked:
“How heartless are you, to be eating your fancy chicken, goat, turkey yesterday, Sunday? Meanwhile, factory workers have been home for 24 days without a cent. It has been 24 days since they’ve been told to stay home and they haven’t gotten a cent.
“Workers don’t have a cent to buy even herring or even cod fish to boil for their wives, their husbands, their children,” said Lafontant, who heads the Groupement Syndicat des Travailleurs Textil pour la Reimportacion d’assemblage (GOSTTRA).
Limited Factory Work, Unsafe Conditions
Workers and their unions also report that S&H Global at the giant Caracol Industrial Park is requiring workers to sign a document (left) stating that they will take precautionary measures while at work, including wearing face masks and taking their temperatures—and agreeing that if they get sick, they are legally responsible for their illness.
Yet when workers returned to the factory, they were not allowed in, forcing them to gather in front of the gate in crowded conditions, according to the garment unions.
Factories now must operate at 30 percent capacity, with most workers scheduled for three days, forcing them to live on at least half of their usual salary, which was already one-quarter of the living wage.
In addition, since March 29, more than 11,000 Haitians have returned to Haiti from the Dominican Republic. While some are fleeing the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases in that country, others are being expelled by Dominican authorities. Among those are day laborers who work in the Dominican Republic and return to Haiti each day.
On March 26, four national-level unions with members in the garment sector submitted a joint proposal to President Jovenel Moïse calling on the government and employers to respect International Labor Organization (ILO) protocols on COVID-19 in the world of work. The coalition also called on the government and employers to pay workers affected by factory closures the equivalent of the daily wages they earned on average in the three months prior to factory closures.
The unions, all Solidarity Center partners, are Centrale Nationale des Ouvriers Haïtiens (CNOHA), Confederation des Travailleurs Haïtiens (CTH), Confédération des Travailleurs- euses des Secteurs Public et Privé (CTSP) and ESPM-Batay Ouvriye.
Just as the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the massive global economic and social inequality around the world, with workers in the informal economy and supply chains, and migrant workers—many of whom are women—especially marginalized, so, too, does it offer the potential to build more equal, inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that are more resilient in the face of pandemics, climate change and the many other global challenges.
Around the world, unions and worker associations are taking the lead in championing worker rights and in doing so, demonstrating a path forward through collective action to achieve shared prosperity and sustainability. As the novel coronavirus spreads, unions are demanding safe and healthy conditions for workers who must remain on the job, and that they be compensated during forced worksite closures. The following is a small sample of union actions around the globe, reported in large part from Solidarity Center staff in close contact with union partners.
In Haiti, where garment factories were among facilities closed to prevent spread of the virus, workers were asked to return to pick up paychecks (for the days worked prior to the closures) in staggered stages so as to prevent crowding and potential contagion. It is standard practice for workers in Haiti’s garment industry to receive their wages in person, in the form of a cash, because most earn too little to maintain a bank account for check deposits, and paychecks are immediately consumed on basic goods.
Despite a government order to distribute pay to groups of 10 workers at a time, one factory employer simultaneously convened all 2,000 workers to collect their wages, despite the danger. In addition, some factories now are reopening to make masks, in large part for export to the United States, a move that puts at risk workers, their communities and the country’s already fragile healthcare system.
Although some factories have announced measures to protect workers’ health and safety at the factory, they do not adequately address risks workers face going to work as they walk through congested areas and travel up to an hour on crowded tap-taps (covered trucks serving as public transportation). Solidarity Center union partners will play a critical role in monitoring the enforcement of these measures and advocating for additional safeguards.
Four Haitian garment-sector unions, all Solidarity Center partners, issued a joint proposal to President Jovenel Moïse calling on the government and employers to respect International Labor Organization (ILO) protocols on COVID-19 in the world of work. The coalition also called on the government and employers to adhere to Haitian labor code stipulating workers receive pay when the government closes workplaces, and urged government and employers to pay workers the equivalent of the daily wages they earned on average in the three months prior to factory closures. The coalition also recommends the government provide support to informal workers, cease collecting income tax and reallocate funds from the country’s cancelled Carnival event to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. The unions include Centrale Nationale des Ouvriers Haïtiens (CNOHA), Confederation des Travailleurs Haïtiens (CTH), Confédération des Travailleurs- euses des Secteurs Public et Privé (CTSP) and ESPM-Batay Ouvriye.
Palestine General Federation of Trade Union members are fanning out to 12 checkpoints along the Israel-Palestine border to address the health needs of the tens of thousands of workers returning home to the West Bank and Gaza as their worksites shut down in Israel, a large-scale movement that is exacerbating the spread of COVID-19.
Iman abu Salah, a member of PGFTU’s organizing team at Bartaa’h barrier near Jenin city in the West Bank, told Solidarity Center staff that three organizers are stationed in two shifts, connecting with between 100 and 200 workers per shift. Union members assist returning workers in completing detailed forms to ensure accurate reporting of health issues, and the unions share their reports with emergency health committees in each district. PGFTU members also are providing workers with information on protecting against the virus, as well as with union contact details in their city or village. Unions and health teams joined together to provide sterilized buses to take workers directly to their home city, village or refugee camp.
In Myanmar, as around the world, garment workers are especially hard hit by the #COVID-19 crisis as global retailers cancel orders, with factory employers laying off workers without pay, firing union supporters and forcing nonunion workers to remain on the job without safety protections, according to union leaders. Garment workers and their unions are mobilizing to demand that factories close for their safety and are seeking full pay for time off during the closures. Unions are pushing for employers to sign agreements that factories will recognize the union when they reopen and maintain all previous wages and benefits.
Unions representing garment workers in Lesotho, where more than 45,000 workers make jeans, T-shirts and other goods for export, are calling on the government to provide full wages to furloughed workers during the 21-day government-imposed lockdown to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus. The unions are also demanding that those required to work be provided with free transport in compliance with social distancing guidelines.
Workers have “sacrificed their lives for the country with meager wages and are continuing to keep the economy going as essential workers during this time,” according to the statement by the United Textile Employees, National Clothing, Textile and Allied Workers’ Union and the Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho. They “not only contribute to the GDP, but support numerous families, unemployed relatives and poverty-stricken families with their wages.”
The Albanian telecommunications union won a four-hour work day for those not teleworking, as well as company-provided masks, while in Kyrgyzstan, the union federation is urging the government to include remote work standards in the labor code. Unions in Albania, Kyrgyzstan and Montenegro have released statements calling on governments to improve social, economic and public health policy to protect both their membership and society.
In Thailand, Solidarity Center’s union and migrant worker partners are communicating with workers via social media, as unions set up an online Labor Clinic to create and post videos on worker rights and benefits during layoffs and plant closures, and are providing instructions for applying for unemployment and social welfare benefits. Unions are hosting live Facebook forums enabling workers to send in real-time questions and comments. Unions in the aviation sector are calling on the government to protect full-time permanent and subcontracted workers, and provide health and safety measures in line with international labor standards at all workplaces. Migrant worker organizations also are reaching out to migrant workers in Burmese with information on preventing and identifying COVID-19 symptoms and with information on locations to access health care.
The Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU) supported the launch of a regional isolation center for workers, and unions throughout Ethiopia are driving anti-stigmatization conversations that seek to encourage workers to report cases of infection and are negotiating with the government to ensure workers are protected on the job during the pandemic.
The Central Organization of Trade Unions-Kenya (COTU-K) distributed protective gear to workers, such as masks, gloves, soap and hand sanitizer before shops were closed, and has met with the Kenyan government to lobby for support for informal workers, who comprise some 80 percent of the workforce. Additional Solidarity Center partners—the Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers (AUKMW), the Kenya Union of Commercial, Food and Allied Workers (KUCFAW) and the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA)—are advocating for measures to protect cashiers and other workers exposed to the public.
Indonesia factory-level unions are negotiating masks and other safety protections for workers, and while they are achieving success, a shortage in personal protective equipment is hindering efforts. For example, 60,000 workers, members os National Industrial Workers Union Federation (SPN–NIWUF), a Solidarity Center partner, successfully negotiated with their employer to receive masks, but the company is unable to procure such a large supply. The company recently agreed to allocate some production line to produce the masks to protect workers. Indonesian unions are urging the government to provide support for informal workers, who comprise more than 60 percent of the working population in Indonesia and Timor-Leste.
Led by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), unions in South Africa established labor law helplines for their members to address employers’ increased abused of worker rights during the crisis.
In Morocco, where hotels have been turned into hospital facilities, the Federation Nationale des Hotels, Restaurants et Tourisme (FNHRT) is assisting hotel workers in collecting unemployment benefits and maintaining contact with workers across the sectors who have lost their jobs. The FNHRT is affiliated to the Union of Moroccan Workers (UMT).
Ten years after a magnitude 7 earthquake destroyed a large swath of Haiti, killing more than 300,000 people and injuring another 1.5 million, workers and their families have not benefited from the billions in international aid that poured into country after the disaster. Nor has the government’s response—expanding low-wage, garment-sector jobs—alleviated poverty. Instead, they struggle to support their families with wages too low to live on even as escalating prices for fuel and other necessities compound the difficulties in their daily effort to survive.
“Workers live day by day,” says Reginald Lafontant, secretary general of the Groupement Syndicat des Travailleurs Textil pour la Reimportacion d’assemblage (GOSTTRA), a garment worker union and Solidarity Center partner.
In response to ongoing mass protests last fall against fuel and food shortages and government corruption, President Jovenel Moïse increased the minimum wage for garment workers and others in the export manufacturing sector from 420 gourdes a day to 500 gourdes ($5.09) a day. The miniscule increase left workers’ wages at less than 2018 levels because of inflation, and the move infuriated workers, who told Solidarity Center staff that the new wage is not enough to pay for food, transportation, housing, children’s school fees and medical care.
Workers Need $18.30 a Day to Support Themselves
More than 60 percent of Haitians survive on less $2 a day, and more than 2.5 million people fall below the extreme poverty line of $1.23 per day. The Solidarity Center report, “The High Cost of Low Wages in Haiti,” which tracked living expenses for garment workers from September 2018 through March 2019, recommends the government increase the minimum wage to an estimated $18.30 per day and allow workers to select their own representatives to the country’s tripartite minimum wage committee.
The cost of living in Haiti has increased by 74 percent since the Solidarity Center’s first wage assessment in 2014. Based on the current minimum wage, workers must spend more than half (55 percent) of their take-home pay on work-related transportation and a modest lunch, leaving little else to cover other necessities. Some workers say they can only afford to eat once per day.
The country’s inability to provide basic goods and services affects workers’ job security as well. With no propane available for cooking in the city, businesses last fall put their staff on unpaid leave. Hotels are closing and major airlines have cancelled flights to the country because of the economic and political turmoil, increasing unemployment and choking off income from much-needed tourist dollars. Haitians are outraged that the island has received millions of dollars in aid since the 2010 earthquake, but public services and infrastructure are nearly nonfunctional.
Haiti’s economy, which never recovered after the earthquake and the subsequent cholera outbreak that claimed some 10,000 lives, has worsened over the past three years. The Haiti Advocacy Working Group, which includes the Solidarity Center, is calling for policies that focus on an equitable and livable future and “promote the creation of decent employment that enables Haitian workers to adequately care for themselves and their families.”
Unions are in the forefront of calling for action to address the crisis. More than 40 labor organizations joined a call last fall for vast nationwide legal reforms, including free and fair elections and the resignation of Moïse. More recently, three Solidarity Center partner unions in the garment industry—GOSTTRA, Batay Ouvriye and Centrale Nationale des Ouvriers Haitiens (CNOHA)—rallied to call for better working conditions, the proper management of pension and social security funds, a living wage and government accountability for corruption.
The government failed to hold elections in October, and one-third of the Senate, the entire Chamber of Deputies and all local offices are set to expire in January 2020, setting the stage for a potential constitutional crisis and another round of widespread protests.
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