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We had to build a workers’ movement: An interview with Yannick Etienne

November 14, 2012

Yannick Etiene is an organizer for the May First Union Federation and a member of the Haitian social movement Batay Ouvriye. MSN had the opportunity to speak with Yannick in Washington DC in October 2012.

I first got involved in the workers’ movement after the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986 when I was working with a health centre and I met a child who had been badly burned all over his body.

I went to visit the boy’s mother, and I found out that she was working in a factory and didn’t have any place to leave her child. So she had left her son alone in their house where he was playing with fire and got burned.

We talked about her situation and the need for a child care centre in the community. And she said, “Maybe you should come and talk to the other workers from the factory.”

Later I got a job in one of the maquila factories, but I didn’t last more than two weeks; I was too outspoken. That factory has long since closed, but I got into organizing more and more, and we decided that we had to have a union and build a workers’ movement.

And then the 1991 coup happened, Aristide had to leave the country, and we had to go underground.

Birth of Batay Ouvriye

As the economic embargo against the military government got stronger, companies were leaving Haiti and they were not paying severance to the workers. So even though we were underground, we had to go public to denounce this situation and get a lawyer to represent the workers.

That’s how Batay Ouvriye started. We were still working more or less underground, but we were also organizing, and in order for workers to understand that it was the same organization doing work in different factories, we put the words “Batay Ouvriye,” which means “workers’ struggle”, on all the leaflets.

In about 1995, we started building unions under the name Batay Ouvriye. Our first union organizing victory was in 2006 at CODEVI, a Grupo M factory in a free trade zone on the border with the Dominican Republic. The fact that the IFC [International Finance Corporation of the World Bank] has a worker rights clause [in its loan agreements with Grupo M] helped us to pressure CODEVI to accept the union.

This is a union with a very important story – it’s the union with the first collective bargaining agreement in history in the free trade zone. It also used an instrument that no other union in Haiti had used successfully – leveraging international solidarity. This history is something you have to keep alive and pass along to next generations.

Attacks on SOTA

Now we have a new union in Port-au-Prince – Sendika Ouvriye Takstil ak Abiman (SOTA) [Union of Textile and Clothing Workers] – a legally recognized union for the whole maquila sector, with chapters in various factories. It’s been in existence for over a year now, and we’ve made some important steps in getting it established in different workplaces.

When the Minister of Labour signed the paper recognizing the union, we immediately had a press conference with people from other unions in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as well as the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, the ITUC, a human rights organization, an outspoken lawyer – so that the media attention would prevent the factory owners from taking action against us. But they fired the leaders anyway.

That almost killed SOTA; it was decapitated. Other members said, “Wow, you know I’m alone in my factory. If this is what happened to the executive committee… I’m just a member, I’m not protected at all.” So we had to put all our energies into the fight for their reinstatement. We had experience from other campaigns – Disney, Levi’s, and the free trade zone (Codevi) – so the employers knew that we had support internationally.

The ILO Better Work project also helped. When the people got fired, we called the Ministry of Labour, and they did a really shoddy investigation. They basically supported the factory owners. But when a Better Work report came out that said yes, there were [freedom of association] violations, that was important for us.

The SOTA chapters really started growing after the union leaders were reinstated. Now we have union chapters in 11 factories, but we still have a long way to go, since there are about 26 factories in Port-au-Prince.

Haiti’s minimum wage fight

A major problem we’re facing right now is getting the employers to pay the legal minimum wage. For example, on October 1 the minimum wage for eight hours work was adjusted from 250 to 300 gourdes (~US$6.00-$7.00).

The law says that production quotas have to be set at a level that allows workers to earn at least 300 gourdes for eight hours work, but some employers set the quota at a level that a worker can never make more than 300, and others set the quotas so high that it would take you two days to reach them.

As a result, workers go to work early and work late or they spend less time in the break period in order to reach the quota. So, they are working more than eight hours for eight hours pay.

In different factories workers are raising their voices about this abuse; we’ve had work stoppages in a number of workplaces. So the owners of course reacted; they have fired the workers who protested or suspended them for up to 10 days. Can you imagine? The salaries are already low and the workers are already in debt, so missing five or 10 days pay is impossible.

A breakthrough

The coming of SOTA was a breakthrough for freedom of association in Haiti. In the first two or three Better Work reports, they said there were no violations of freedom of association because there was no union. Our response was, ‘No, it’s just the opposite – we don’t have unions because freedom of association is not respected.’

So, when SOTA arrived and its leaders were fired there was proof that there was no freedom of association. SOTA opened up the issue. And now we have a table of social dialogue convened every month by Better Work in which the factory owners and the worker representative organizations come together to discuss issues.

This is a breakthrough, and if we didn’t have SOTA, we wouldn’t have come so far.