Workers worldwide are demanding a boost in the minimum wage—a fair’s day pay for a fair day’s work.
In Palestine, the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) spearheaded a successful campaign for a minimum wage boost, effective in January, that for the first time in years enables workers to earn above poverty-level wages. The PGFTU is the umbrella federation for unions across the West Bank and Gaza.
“We connected this achievement with activating labor courts to look through workers’ cases that are delayed at the courts. And there are bottlenecks at courts that may reach 10 years. So, we wanted this to be accelerated, and to give the workers their rights,” says Mohammad Badri.
Solidarity Center Executive and Podcast host Director Shawna Bader-Blau says, “Unions in Palestine have an especially high hurdle to ensure workers are paid a decent wage because getting a minimum wage agreement with the Palestinian Authority is only the first step.
“Mohammad describes a tedious, time-consuming process that involves connecting with individual employers, many of whom are hostile, to ensure workers are paid the new wage.
“The employers are very greedy. They did not commit to this resolution and they don’t want to give higher salaries for their workers,” says Badri, who recently was elected to PGFTU’s executive committee and general secretariat.
“We will keep struggling and working at the federation, and we will not give up labor rights. We will protect the rights of our workers.”
Haiti remains in the midst of multiple crises as the country grapples with the question of who will lead the nation in the aftermath of the assassination of President Jovenel Moise. Most recently, the dramatic rise in the cost of living has led workers to demand an increase in the minimum wage.
On January 17, a coalition of nine trade unions sent an open letter to the prime minister seeking a wage increase from 500 gourdes ($4.82) per day to 1,500 gourdes ($14.62). In the letter, they decried the current inflation rate of 22.8 percent and the difficulty of living on subsistence wages, and demanded a response by January 31, 2022.
The letter notes that three years have passed since the last adjustment to the minimum wage. Burdened with rising prices of basic necessities and services such as transportation, health care and education, workers need three to four times their current wages to survive. Article 137 of the Haitian Labor Code mandates that if the inflation rate exceeds 10 percent, the wage is to be adjusted.
The letter was signed by: SOTA-BO-Batay Ouvriye (textile union), Association of Textile Workers Unions for Re-importation-GOSTTRA (textile union); ROHAM, a union affiliated with Centrale Nationale des Ouvriers Haitians (CNOHA); SYNTRACO (textile union at Caracol industrial park); SOVASHG (textile union at S&H factory); SOKOWA (textile union at CODEVI industrial park); SOFEZO (textile union at Ouanaminthe); SROD’H, affiliated with CNOHA; and AASP (association of security professionals).
Trade unionists amplified the letter with social media messages saying, “Since 2019, the same salary. In the meantime, the price of transportation and food increased.”
On January 18, workers at SONAPI industrial park in Port-au-Prince—home to many of Haiti’s garment factories—held a spontaneous demonstration to call for a minimum wage increase. A member of GOSTTRA recorded a video of the protest.
The protest occurred as Prime Minister Henry was appearing at SONAPI for the installation of Dithny Joan Raton as the new labor ombudsperson for the garment industry. Since then, demonstrations have been widespread throughout industrial parks in the country.
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.
A proposed minimum wage of $83 per month—a 60 percent increase over the current minimum wage–was recommended by Nigeria’s tripartite minimum wage committee following years of negotiations and endorsed by President Muhammadu Buhari last year. Workers have seen a steady erosion of their purchasing power caused by rising inflation, with the cost of staple foods rising more than 11 percent last year.
The minimum wage committee’s proposal must be adopted into law by the country’s 360-member House of Representatives in order to take effect, but passage of the law has been imperiled by Nigeria’s state governors, who last week approved a minimum wage of only $74 per month for state workers.
The country’s current minimum wage—$49.60 per month—is not a living wage, say workers, who accepted $83 as a compromise to the $164 per month they said would fairly compensate them and help them survive under hyperinflation.
Nigeria’s unions have been engaged in a years-long effort to increase the minimum wage. A threatened general strike in October 2018 was called off only a few hours before it was scheduled to begin, after the wage committee agreed to increase the minimum wage to $83. A second general strike was called off last week after a new national minimum wage bill was submitted to the National Assembly.
If a general strike is triggered, all public-sector institutions—including schools, hospitals and the oil sector—will be affected.
“We all need to stand ready in a state of full mobilization,” said Nigerian Labor Congress (NLC) General Secretary Peter Ozo-Eson.
Update: On July 27, the Haitian government announced a slight minimum wage increase for garment workers that fall far below workers’ demands for a wage that would enable them to support their families. The minimum wage will rise by 81 cents a day, to $5.73. Union members plan to launch a week-long strike on Monday.
Thousands of garment workers in Haiti took to the streets this month to demand an increase in the sectorwide minimum wage that leaves most workers unable to cover bare necessities.
The current daily minimum wage is 300 Haitian gourdes, or $4.70. Garment workers are demanding that the minimum wage be increased to 800 gourdes, or about $12.70 a day. In 2014, before the devaluation of the Haitian currency and the onset of double-digit inflation, the Solidarity Center found that a real living wage for Haitian workers would be at least $23 a day.
This round of strikes is the latest in a series of demonstrations that began May 19 in the wake of a 30 percent spike in fuel costs, which resulted in dramatic increases to food and transportation expenses for workers. Striking workers are also calling for health benefits and food and transportation subsidies.
Unions are calling on employers to respect workers’ rights to freedom of association, citing numerous instances when workers who tried to form organizations to represent their interests were terminated, threatened or blacklisted. Approximately 45 union leaders from GOSTTRA who were fired in the midst of the May demonstrations remain out of work.
The tripartite Superior Council of Wages (CSS), which includes only two labor representatives and is tasked with providing Haiti’s executive branch with a recommendation for wage increases, issued its latest report on July 10. In the report, the CSS recommends that the daily minimum wage increase a mere 35 gourdes, or 55 cents, citing the need to keep Haiti competitive as the nation seeks to attract more employers in the sector.
Workers are, not surprisingly, outraged by the recommendation of the CSS. They also disagree with the suggestion that the wage increase be implemented in August without retroactive pay to May, as has been the custom in prior years.
Employer representatives, namely the Association of Industries of Haiti (ADIH), have continued to express a desire to offer only minimal wage increases to keep Haiti as a low-wage destination for global brands. In late June, six companies wrote to Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant to demand that the government intervene and quell worker protests related to the minimum wage. As the situation continues to escalate, the focus shifts to President Jovenel Moise and the executive branch. The presidential decree on the minimum wage is expected to be released in the near future.
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