Six years after a major earthquake devastated the Haitian capital and its environs and the international community promised to “build back better,” Haitian workers say their daily lives are a struggle for survival, with their meager wages insufficient to cover basic expenses.
In recent interviews, Haitian garment workers told the Solidarity Center that they are worse off today than before the quake. With prices rising and wages largely stagnant, their paychecks do not allow them to support themselves and their families.
“We spend almost our entire daily wage on food and transportation,” said one garment worker interviewed. “We cannot save any money and we do not have enough money to get health care or education. Our future is compromised.”
Another worker said he sometimes has to borrow money to “make sure that at least the family has something to eat.”
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world. According to the World Bank, more than 6 million of Haiti’s 10.4 million people (59 percent) live under the poverty line.
Haitian garment workers hold rare full-time jobs in an economy that is largely informal, and work for profitable multinational manufacturers, some incentivized to come to Haiti and create jobs after the quake. Yet garment-sector wages are legally set below the national minimum wage and well below what is necessary to cover basic costs. A December 2015 Solidarity Center analysis of living expenses found that the average garment worker spends 160–225 Haitian gourdes ($2.80 – $3.94) a day on food and transportation for herself, and another 395 gourdes ($6.91) on food for the household. The current minimum daily wage for garment workers, who work 48 hours a week, is 225–240 gourdes ($3.94–$4.20). The minimum wage is supposed to increase this spring, to $5.11 for an eight-hour shift.
In 2013, Haitian workers and their unions waged rallies and protests to demand that the daily minimum wage be increased to 500 gourdes ($8.75) for export apparel workers. The government set the wage at less than half of that. In 2014, the Solidarity Center found that a living wage of 1,000 gourdes per day would allow workers to meet their basic needs.
“As we mark this grim anniversary, we have to ask why the people best-positioned to revive the Haitian economy—hardworking Haitians—are handicapped by abysmal and degrading wages. Until Haitians can earn a living that allows them to do more than barely survive, there will be no real recovery,” said Shawna Bader-Blau, executive director of the Solidarity Center. “The international community and Haitian government should be ashamed of policies that guarantee poverty wages and grant concessions to multinational corporations instead of providing real opportunities for Haitians workers to improve their lives and livelihoods and build a better country for themselves and their children.”
The Cambodian government announced in recent days it would raise the monthly minimum wage in the textile and apparel industry to $128, an amount workers say falls far short of the amount needed to support themselves and their families and is only $8 above the poverty line.
The new minimum wage also is well below the government’s estimates of wages garment workers need: Late last year, a government-appointed committee announced that a minimum living wage should be between $167 to $177 a month. The minimum wage for garment workers at the time was $80 a month, and even with the increase, Cambodia has among the lowest monthly minimum wage in the industry. Garment-making is Cambodia’s largest industry, accounting for 80 percent of exports.
Tens of thousands of garment workers, the majority of whom are women, have waged a series of mass protests over the past year, demanding a living wage. In January, Cambodian security forces shot into crowds of striking workers, killing at least five, injuring more than 60 and resulting in the arrests and dismissals of dozens of workers and union leaders.
In September, garment workers again took to the streets, demanding $177 per month and directing their protests at global clothing brands. Following the protests, a handful of global brands, including H&M and Zara, said they would pay more for clothing manufactured in Cambodia.
Some 90 percent of the country’s 600,000 garment workers have no permanent contracts and are instead employed under fixed-duration contracts. Without formal employment, workers on contract fear they will lose their jobs if they demand better working conditions. Garment workers on contract also are prevented from accruing seniority and related benefits, and women workers suffer discrimination when taking maternity leave or tending to other family-related duties.
Download the fact sheet, “Cambodia: The Garment Sector and Poverty Wages.”
In Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, women are taking concrete steps through unions to achieve social and economic justice and decent work, achievements possible when women are substantively involved in decision-making in their unions, their community and civil society.
In Algeria, the Women’s Committee of the Syndicat National Autonome des Personnels de l’Administration Publique (SNAPAP) has reached out to 600 marginalized and vulnerable women across 11 provinces through educational outreach and study circles. SNAPAP leadership recognizes that despite women’s active social and economic participation, they still face blatant discrimination in their workplaces and communities, harassment, violence, and exploitation on the job.
The Women’s Committee runs study circles with the Regional Algerian Women’s Legal Empowerment Network and with support from the Solidarity Center. During study sessions, the women learn their legal rights under national laws and international conventions. They also are supported in overcoming fears that keep them from challenging repression and violations of their rights, even those often condoned by their societies.
Amid ongoing global economic insecurity, millions of workers are struggling to find jobs that pay a living wage—and the most vulnerable are women, who are more likely to toil in jobs without coverage under formal labor law or social protections, leaving them open to discrimination and exploitation.
The study circles provide a safe place where women can freely talk about their experiences. In recent months, they have described ongoing exploitation in the workplace and at home. All have detailed low wages, long working hours, abusive transfers and dismissals, discrimination, sexual harassment, physical violence and a lack of social protection.
A woman union activist from Adrar, in southwest Algeria, describes how women workers struggle economically in the region, despite the country’s oil and gas wealth. To survive in Adrar, some women work in stone quarries using their bare hands to fill trucks with rocks and gravel for private sellers. Three women recently died from dehydration.
“Surprisingly, all the basic rights that women should enjoy, such as health coverage and decent living wages, are not being enjoyed by women of the south. Some women tried to change their situation through training, but their certificate of completion was rejected by all the businesses and enterprises in the south, which led women to be marginalized,” said the activist. She added that the women, “work in an unsafe environment and are vulnerable to harassment.”
In Tunisia, where women are playing a key role in enshrining articles in the constitution that guarantee equality and parity, women in the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (General Union of Tunisian Workers, UGTT) are now working to advance women’s roles in their union. They are uniting under the theme, “Partners in social activism, partners in decision-making,” to highlight their essential role in the country’s 2010–2011 uprising and the subsequent democratic transition. UGTT women are campaigning for creation of a quota that would ensure women comprise a minimum percentage of elected officers and members of UGTT decision-making bodies.
Women union members also have been active in UGTT’s push to remove all of the country’s reservations to the United Nations on the Convention on the Elimination on all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). These reservations had enabled Tunisia to opt out of certain provisions, including women’s rights within the family, even though the country had ratified the treaty.
The Confederation Democratique du Travail (Democratic Labor Confederation, CDT) in Morocco is laying the groundwork for a gender advocacy campaign to ensure the consistent application and enforcement of women’s rights. The CDT’s Women’s Committee is laying the groundwork to “give more visibility to the demands of women workers.” The CDT released a memorandum, “Work is a right, with guaranteed dignity and equality,” at a well-attended press conference last month and plans a coordinated workers’ advocacy campaign for women workers.
Despite rising exports, Haitian garment workers are paid so little they can barely afford food. Credit: Lauren Stewart
Despite a 45 percent increase in apparel exports since the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the women and men who sew T-shirts and jeans primarily destined for the U.S. market barely earn enough to pay for their lunch and transportation to work, a new Solidarity Center survey finds.
The average cost of living for an export apparel worker in Port-au-Prince is 26,150 Haitian gourdes (about $607) per month. Yet workers are paid only between 200 gourdes (about $4.64) and 300 gourdes for an eight-hour day (about $6.96). After insurance and social security deductions, most export apparel workers must spend more than half of their salaries on transportation to and from the factory and a modest lunch, leaving little to sustain a family or keep a roof over their heads.
“Workers interviewed in this study had to forgo basic necessities given the disparity between their earned wages and the cost of living,” according to the report. “When asked what they would purchase if they had sufficient income, workers responded with: more food to feed their families, land to build a home, (and) a car or moped to drive their children to school.”
The Solidarity Center survey finds that a real living wage must be approximately 1,000 gourdes (about $23) per day to enable workers to meet basic needs. Haitian unions are demanding a minimum wage increase to at least 500 gourdes (about $11.60) per day and assert that anything lower equates to starvation wages. Despite the export industry’s growth, Haitian law mandates a reduced minimum wage for the sector, which is the lowest in the Western Hemisphere.
Housing (rental) costs spiked immediately after the earthquake, but prices have since fallen by nearly 28 percent. Yet workers still live in substandard housing and pay up to four times more than what they did prior to the disaster. Some families are unable to afford their children’s transportation to school, so many students must walk, sometimes long distances and along busy roads.
“The High Cost of Low Wages in Haiti” analyzed such expense categories as housing, energy, nutrition, clothing, health care, education and transportation to classify the costs of an export apparel worker. The report also includes charts breaking down each category of expense. It follows a similar informal study the Solidarity Center conducted after the earthquake and used the same locally appropriate basket of goods to calculate the cost of living for a three-member household, comprised of one adult wage earner and two minor dependents (ages 8–14).
The report concludes: “Workers need access to decent jobs that pay a living wage and allow them to lead a dignified life. So long as jobs perpetuate worker exploitation and serve only as a means to fend off starvation, poverty will continue to grip the country and hinder the reconstruction process.”
Read the full report.
Credit: Congress of Haitain Workers
Four years ago this weekend, a massive earthquake brought catastrophe to the lives and livelihoods of tens of thousands of Haitians. Despite an outpouring of promises and millions of dollars in investment designated to help workers get back on their feet, the majority of Haitians still live in poverty. Instead of supporting recovery, their meager incomes fund little more than continued privation.
Formal jobs, particularly those in the export sector, were presented as the panacea to Haiti’s economic woes and key to helping Haitian men and women move forward. Yet four years after the January 12 quake, the country has five minimum wages, divided by sector—none of them enough to cover basic expenses, said Molly McCoy, Americas regional program director for the Solidarity Center. “These should be good jobs, but workers are telling us that no one is getting by.”
The Collective of Textile Factory Unions Organization (KOSIT), an alliance of four Solidarity Center partner unions in the garment sector, is calling for a minimum wage that will enable workers to meet their basic needs.
Workers with export-related jobs such as garment assembly, a sector that largely employs women, say they often take home lower than the minimum wage because it is tied to complicated and unreachable quotas. And recent studies point to factories cheating workers out of earned wages, exacerbating the struggle to earn a decent living. Meanwhile, prices in the island nation, a net importer of food and fuel, continue to rise.
As the Solidarity Center reported in 2011 and continues to hear from workers in the capital, Port-au-Prince, workers cannot earn enough to feed and shelter their family, cover transportation to work and send their children to school.
“Haiti needs a single minimum wage that all workers are able to earn—one that people can actually live on,” said McCoy. “Exploitive jobs that mire working people in subsistence lives is the wrong combination for recovery, much less for building Haiti back better.”