Garment Exports Rise but Haitian Workers Paid Starvation Wages

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.

Haiti: Instead of Lifting, Wages Keep Workers in Poverty

Credit: Congress of Haitain Workers

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.”

Indonesia: Workers Set for Second Nationwide Strike

November 4, 2013—Indonesian workers are planning a second round of nationwide protests for better wages, likely beginning November 6, according to the Jakarta Labor Forum.

After 3 million workers last week went on a two-day strike across the country, the government raised the minimum wage by between 10 percent and 11 percent, well short of the amount workers are seeking in an economy where inflation is expected to rise by 9 percent next year. Indonesian workers are calling for higher wages to match those of other Asian countries as foreign direct investment flows into the region’s biggest economy. Workers also want an end to job outsourcing.

In an editorial supporting the workers, the Jakarta Post wrote that “workers live in virtual poverty even while the minimum wage is described as a ‘decent standard of living.’”

The editorial quoted Jumisih, a union leader from North Jakarta’s industrial area, who said: “Renting a small space … with several others, with no ventilation in a squalid area is not decent.”

At least 17 workers were attacked during last week’s rallies, according to the Confederation of Indonesian Worker’s Union (KSPI). The union said the workers were hospitalized after receiving wounds from sharp weapons and four are in critical condition. KSPI is calling for an end to such attacks.

Indrasari Tjandraningsih, a labor researcher at AKATIGA, the Center for Social Analysis, maintains that workers’ demands to ban outsourcing are also supported by data on the widespread exploitative and degrading practices.

In an opinion piece in today’s Jakarta Post, he writes: “When workers demand social security they refer to both the Constitution and the law on social security. All these show that workers’ demands are not irrational but have solid grounding. This state of affairs should be understood in a more positive context: Indonesian workers are getting more aware of their rights and also have more capability to see problems in a comprehensive and objective manner.”


Indonesian Unions Hold Two-Day National Strike

Hundreds of thousands of Indonesian workers started a two-day national strike today demanding the government institute a fair minimum wage, end rampant employer violations of labor outsourcing and speed up implementation of a universal health care law. Several unions conducted rallies over the three days leading up to the national mobilization to increase public awareness of the effort.

Union workers also are calling for passage of a national law protecting domestic worker rights and repeal of a recently passed law widely criticized for its apparent aim to restrict the freedoms of civil society organizations.

Speaking on behalf of a coalition of unions participating in the action, Indonesian Trade Union Confederation president Said Iqbal said,”We have been compelled to take to the streets since the government and employers have been unwilling to seek solutions to these issues with us in good faith.”

Indonesian unions also held a national strike in October 2012, pushing similar demands. Policymakers took swift action to engage labor leaders to find solutions in the days and weeks following that strike. Provincial minimum wages, for example, were increased around the country by an average of 30 percent and a new regulation on labor outsourcing was issued that largely met union demands.

Unions say that last year’s wage increases, although significant, fell well short of a decent wage and that the new labor outsourcing regulation has not yet been implemented.


Colombia: Many Women Workers Face Job Discrimination

Afro-desendent women gathered in Medellin, Colombia, in April for the first domestic workers union congress. Credit: IDWF

Afro-desendent women gathered in Medellin, Colombia, in April for the first domestic workers union congress. Credit: IDWF

In Colombia, “even when there’s an improvement in the overall economy, women don’t see any improvement,” says Sohely Rua Catañeda. As a result, many women who are unable to secure formal employment are forced into the informal sector to support themselves and their families, laboring as domestic workers or street vendors. Women in these low-paying jobs have limited or no access to social services and are unable to address workplace harassment or unsafe working conditions.

Rua Catañeda, secretary of women and labor at the Escuela Nacional Sindical(National Union School, ENS), Colombia’s pro-worker think tank, recently met with Solidarity Center staff and others to discuss current ENS research on women in the Colombian economy. The Colombian labor market is “a reflection of discrimination,” she says, a statement she bolsters with ENS research that points to cultural factors blocking women’s economic advancement.

Only 8.5 million of the 18.2 million working age women have jobs—compared with 12 million working age men who are employed—and the vast gender gap in workforce participation is largely due a type of cultural discrimination in which employers seek women who fit a certain ideal. And that ideal, says Rua Catañeda, is one that frequently excludes Afro-descendent women, those who are over age 40 and those without the financial resources to buy new clothes or get manicures.

“There’s a lot of pressure for women to invest in their outer appearance for jobs. Afro-descendent women will never have an opportunity for these jobs,” Employers’ preferences for blonde women with straight hair requires women to spend a lot of time “conforming to an image that is really not what we look like.”

Seeking to improve the conditions of low-wage women workers, ENS is working to connect women with unions to strengthen their voice on the job so they can collectively improve wages and working conditions. ENS works closely with the Solidarity Center to support the Afro-Colombian Labor Council (Consejo Labor Afrocolombiano), founded last year by Afro-Colombian labor leaders and Colombian trade unions to advance racial inclusion in the labor movement and in Colombian society. Afro-Colombians comprise more than three-quarters of the country’s poor. Since then, Afro-Colombian women launched the Union of Domestic Service Workers (Unión de Trabajadoras del Servicio Domestíco, UTRASD) in Medellin, the first-ever union in Colombia created entirely by Afro-descendent women.

Rua Catañeda says the first step toward opening the labor market to women is to convey the extent of the problem to the Colombian public. Colombians, who see many women working in public places, think they have plenty of access to jobs, she says. Further, many women’s groups have focused on individualist, entrepreneurial solutions which in the past 10 years have seen few results.

But such solutions have not gone far to address most women’s economic struggles. “What you have are a lot of really tired women who have put a lot of work into their jobs and are poorer than ever before.”

Although recent legislation improving worker rights has passed, Rua Catañeda says technical and other reasons have prevented beneficial legislation from being enforced—making women’s increased membership and involvement in unions all the more critical

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