Investigation Finds Evidence of Violations of Union Rights in Garment Industry

November 30, 2011

On the same day as a high profile event laying the corner stone of “one of the largest and most modern” industrial parks in the Caribbean, an investigation by Better Work Haiti found “evidence of violations of freedom of association” at other Haitian textile factories. Alison Macgregor of the Montreal Gazette reports:

Gildan Activewear Inc. has ordered its Haitian subcontractor to reinstate four workers after an independent investigation concluded they were illegally fired in September because of their involvement with a local union.

The union members worked for the Genesis S.A. factory near the Portau-Prince [sic] airport. The tax-exempt plant, owned by the powerful Apaid family, produces almost exclusively for Gildan. The investigation found there was “evidence of violations of freedom of association” at the factory, Peter Iliopoulos, Gildan’s senior vice-president (public and corporate affairs) said in an interview Tuesday.

[It is also worth noting that the workers’ reinstatement follows pressure from the International Labor Rights Forum, United Students Against Sweatshops, Workers Rights Consortium and other labor solidarity groups.]

Until this past September there was only one union in the Haitian garment sector, and none in Port-au-Prince. In September, the Sendika Ouvriye Takstil ak Abiman (SOTA) union was formed as a sector wide movement. On September 16, SOTA obtained registration from the Haitian Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, yet as the Better Work investigation states:

Between 23 and 30 September 2011, six members of the Executive Committee of a new trade union formed by workers in the garment sector in Haiti (SOTA) were terminated by three factories in Port-au-Prince.

In each case, Better Work found that the “employer has not provided sufficient information to counter the allegations of anti-union discrimination”. The report suggests the re-hiring of those fired with back pay and concludes:

There is strong circumstantial evidence to demonstrate that the officers of the SOTA trade union were terminated based on their trade union affiliation. The fact that 6 out of 7 officers of the SOTA union were fired by three employers within two weeks of the registration of the union with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs strongly suggests an effort by employers to undermine the new union, and to curtail its growth before it had the opportunity to expand its membership.

With the garment industry heavily promoted by the Haitian government and international donors, it will be imperative to ensure that worker’s rights are respected and strengthened.

New Industrial Park Center of Economic Development Plan

The new industrial park, touted as “the largest single private investment in modern Haitian history”, is part of a larger effort to put textile manufacturing at the heart of Haiti’s economic development.  Haiti has duty-free access to the U.S. market through the HOPE program, and as Paul Collier explained in his influential 2009 report (PDF), “Due to its poverty and relatively unregulated labour market, Haiti has labour costs that are fully competitive with China, which is the global benchmark. Haitian labour is not only cheap it is of good quality.” Yet some question if below subsistence wages will be the answer to Haiti’s lack of jobs and enduring poverty. Macgregor previously reported:

In an April 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech at an Apaid family factory – the same family owns the Genesis factory – in which she praised the creation of new jobs in the industry, with wages at “two to three times the minimum wage.”

But Etienne [Yannick Etienne is the coordinator of Batay Ouvriye] said that in reality many of the factories take advantage of their workers. She said workers are often required to assemble an unrealistic number of garment pieces per day to earn a daily wage of 250 gourdes (about $6.30 Canadian). Since it is impossible to complete the work in a regular work-day, the workers, who are usually woman, end up working 12-to 13-hour shifts.

Even after working 12-13 hours shifts, the wages are generally below what could be considered a “living wage”. The AFL-CIO Solidarity Center released a study in March looking at the cost of living for factory workers in the SONAPI export processing zone near Port-au-Princes airport. The study found that for a single woman with two children, average monthly living expenses totaled $750. Assuming a 48-hour work week, that breaks down to about $29 a day.

The most recent Better Work report (PDF) on Haiti, published in October, found that garment factories were generally compliant with core labor standards on child labor, discrimination, forced labor and freedom of association and collective bargaining but found significant non-compliance in working conditions and operational safety and health. The report found that “Twenty-one out of 23 factories (91%) were found non-compliant in Minimum Wages.” The finding backs up what Etienne had said, as the report notes that much of the non-compliance has to do with an inability to meet production targets during a regular day. Only “an average of 22% of workers reach their targets and earn at least 250 Gourdes per day for ordinary hours of work,” the report found. The Nation reported in June on efforts by contractors, Haitian industrialists and the U.S. government to “block a minimum wage increase for Haitian assembly zone workers.”

Additionally, although the report did not note any non-compliance of freedom of association, with only one union it is hard to accurately report this metric. As Ansel Herz reported:

But the low non-compliance rate is potentially misleading. “Although no non-compliance findings are cited in the current report under Union Operations,” the report notes, there are “very significant challenges related to the rights of workers to freely form, join and participate in independent trade unions”.

“If you look at the reports, in Haiti there is only one unionised factory (in Ouanaminthe) out of 23 operating factories. In the factories in Port-au-Prince, there are no unions. We don’t have any evidence,” [Better Work Haiti’s director Richard] Lavallée said.

He explained that if a factory owner fires a person for trying to organise workers, it won’t be noted in the employee records reviewed by his team.

Asked if Better Work Haiti isn’t really measuring anything when it comes to conditions for labour organising, because there are almost no unions, Lavallée responded, “Exactly.”

Herz also spoke with Yasmine Shamsie, a Canadian scholar who has advocated for a different approach to the garment industry in Haiti. Shamsie notes that the new industrial park was “not conditional on allowing unions to organise that space”. Herz continues:

Her 2010 report for the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum called for a “high-road approach” to the Haitian apparel industry’s expansion, including unionising workers and providing welfare programmes to raise their living standards.

She said she didn’t understand the “lack of interest” in that strategy from international donors. “To be frank, it’s a no-brainer,” Shamsie said. “You say you want to create employment and reduce poverty – then give workers the tools to advocate for better than poverty wages.”

The report is available here (PDF).

Update 12/01: Alison Macgregor reports this morning that Hanesbrands will urge the Multiwear factory to reinstate, with back pay, the employee who was fired this past September. A spokeman for the company told Macgregor, “We are sending our director of labour relations down to the faculty to review our global standards for suppliers”.

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