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Hard Labor

Haitian Labor Leader Appeals for Solidarity

by Stan Goff
  "Our class structure in Haiti is complex," she said. "But the simple fact is that the poor are considered to be animals by the rich." Yannick Etienne, born in the Northern port of Cap Haitien, has lived most of her life in the capital city, Port-au-Prince. She has lived a life of comparative advantage in Haiti, upper middle class by that country's standard, and educated. In the end, however, she chose to side with workers, and has used her familiarity with the culture of the elites to advocate for the exploited. She organizes for Batay Ouvriye (Creole for Workers Struggle), an umbrella labor organization that is attempting to wrest control of organized labor from the traditional unions, which she describes as "opportunistic and co-opted." She visited Chapel Hill on October 7, hosted by the venerable Joe Straley of Carolina Interfaith Task Force on Central America (CITCA).

Her trip on behalf of the three-year-old Batay Ouvriye was intended to "begin linking the American and the Haitian worker. I am here to appeal for solidarity." She warned the twenty or so listeners not to confuse paternalism with solidarity. "We do not need your help, and to take your help would not be constructive," she said. "We are touching base with American workers to emphasize that we must join hands to defeat a monster. That monster is capitalism itself!! We are conscious that capitalism can not be reformed, especially conscious in Haiti, where the devastation of capitalism has been so strongly felt. We want American workers to understand that we are not competing with them, that we are all in the same boat. Our appeal for solidarity is an international appeal to fight this monstrous system."

Batay Ouvriye combines overt and underground organizing. The climate for labor organizing is still very dangerous in Haiti, and there is an elevated level of fear among workers. Batay Ouvriye has established a workers center in Port-au-Prince that provides legal services, organizational support, parliamentary lobbyists, and weekly debates for the purpose of enhancing the political consciousness of workers. They began collecting information on the companies that were using Haitian labor by encouraging workers, who earn around two dollars a day, to smuggle out the labels they were sewing into garments. Garment assembly is one of the major industries that seek the "comparative advantage" of Haiti, corporate-speak for cheap labor. The smuggled garment labels were sued to identify the corporations' wholesale and retail outlets in the United States, in order to target those companies for consumer action. The companies change frequently because the facilities can operate under Haitian supervision on short term contracts. Interestingly, many of the companies who have threatened to pull out of Haiti if the minimum wage were elevated, or if unions became active, were scheduled to leave anyway at the expiration of their contract. They were simply exercising corporate solidarity in opposition to genuine union movements.

The "antiquated labor codes" require at least twelve members in any shop to be card carriers if a union is to be recognized. On the other hand, with the government capacity and will to enforce labor codes, retaliation by firing is common. Batay Ouvriye has developed a "bench strategy," based on a soccer team (the most popular sport in Haiti). Only twelve union members will be identified and actively organizing. If three are fired, three more who were previously signed up will come forward to replace them. This applies the brakes to union-busting through intimidation, and allows the workers more time to continue organizing.

One of the hot button issues in Haiti is privatization of the nine major state enterprises. One more was sold a week prior to Ms. Etienne's visit, flour milling, and 48,000 workers were immediately dropped from the employment rolls. She said that one of the principal goals of Batay Ouvriye is to help workers understand the package deal represented by international finance capital's structural adjustment programs. Most Haitians understand and oppose privatization, but Yannick is convinced that by connecting the issues of export agriculture and "anti-inflationary austerity" measures (maintenance of low wages) to privatization, Haitians will gain a better understanding of the macro-economic picture.

She is guardedly optimistic about the future. "We are small, a bit of sand in the ocean. We are poor. But we are strong. We have endured for a very long time. And we will say that the calls and letters and faxes to governments and corporate executives are needed. But they are only part of what is needed. We must fight this capitalist monster. Haiti is the worst case, as they say, but we will continue to do what we have to out of social and historical necessity. We hope American workers will join us in this larger fight."


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