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Haiti’s showdown on union rights

November 16, 2011

The apparel industry was widely hailed in some circles as a vital economic opportunity for Haiti, particularly after the devastating earthquake which hit the country in January 2010. Although the creation of approximately 26,000 jobs in the country is certainly welcome, the full benefits of those jobs will only be felt if the workers have access to their legal rights, including the right to form unions and bargain collectively, and are paid a living wage. 

Approximately 90% of Haiti's exports to the USA are apparel, aided by targeted trade programs that provide duty-free access to US markets. Linked to those trade benefits, the International Labour Organization and International Finance Corporation launched the Better Work Haiti program in 2009, which monitors conditions in 29 Haitian factories and reports publicly on their compliance with international labour standards.

Unpaid wages

The Better Work program's latest public report, issued in October, indicates that compliance with those standards is still remote. Ninety-one percent of factories are not even paying Haiti's CAD$6.28/day minimum wage. Eighty-seven percent were not compliant with legal working hours. Only one apparel factory has a functioning union.

Union-busting

This lack of union representation was something a group of Haitian workers sought to change when they registered a new industry-wide labour union, Sendika Ouvriye Takstil ak Abiman (SOTA) with the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour on September 16, 2011.

However, according to the union federation of which SOTA is affiliated, shortly after SOTA was registered six of the seven workers who serve on the executive committee were fired or forced to resign by the factories where they worked.

The Genesis factory, which produces almost exclusively for Canadian-owned Gildan Activewear, was the first to terminate members of SOTA's leadership: one worker was forced to resign on September 23, and three workers were dismissed on September 26. Another factory which produces for Hanesbrands, One World Apparel, dismissed the Secretary of SOTA on Septem­ber 26 after he spent time handing out SOTA flyers outside of the factory before his shift.

"The fact that nearly all of the union's executive committee members were fired within weeks of their emergence as union leaders, as well as the specific circumstances of the dismissals, strongly suggest that these firings were direct results of these workers' decision to exercise their rights to freedom of association," says Scott Nova of the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC).

Urging action

MSN, the WRC and more than twenty other organizations are calling on Gildan and Hanesbrands to ensure that the discharged union leaders are reinstated immediately, on a provisional basis, while an investigation into the layoffs is carried out. Better Work is currently conducting a fact-finding exercise in the factories involved.

"It's not acceptable that factory owners can fire workers for organizing to defend their rights," said Yannick Etienne of Batay Ouvriye, a Haitian workers' organization that works closely with SOTA, during a recent visit to Canada. "We hope people in Canada will support the sacked workers in their fight to be reinstated right now."

Twenty US and Haitian organizations have written to Gildan and Hanesbrands urging them to ensure respect for the rights of the workers who make their products. "Exer­cising their right to advocate for fair wages and safe and decent conditions of work is an important means by which the people of Haiti can improve their economic circumstances, overcome the poverty that has long plagued the nation, and secure a viable future," says the letter.

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