The Multinational Monitor

JUNE 1993 - VOLUME 14 - NUMBER 6


Aiding Haitian Labor Abuses

Haiti is in desperate straights Following the violent military coup d'etat that ousted the duly elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the country is suffering from conditions unparalleled in the Americas. Yet despite the massive social crisis in Haiti in the wake of the coup, the Bush Administration and the U.S. Agency for International Development, on behalf of U.S. business interests, financed opposition to the Aristide government and paved the way for U.S. companies to exploit and abuse Haitian labor.

In response to the international trade embargo imposed by the Organization of American States (OAS) against Haiti's military leaders, U.S. companies began a lobbying effort. On December 23, 1991, corporations with business interests in Haiti published an ad in the Washington Post featuring an open letter to President Bush. The advertisement pleaded, "By lifting the U.S. embargo you will save lives and lay the economic groundwork for a permanent, stable democracy. ... Please Mr. President, give the American and Haitian workers the best Christmas present yet by allowing them to go back to work."

U.S. corporate concern about Haitian workers rings hollow. The companies operating in Haiti, producing apparel for Sears, J.C. Penney and WalMart, among other large retailers, are notorious for denying their employees freedom of association and the right to organize; refusing to enter good faith negotiations with workers' representatives to reach a collective contract (no collective bargaining agreement has ever been made in any U.S. or Haitian firm exporting to the United States); violating Haiti's constitution and labor code, as well as internationally recognized workers' rights, which demand payment of workers' health and pension benefits and transportation allowances; and failing miserably to fix wages to the cost of living - apparel workers in Haiti are earning 14 cents an hour.

On February 4,1992, George Bush lifted the U.S. embargo on Haiti's export assembly sector. Contrary to U.S. policy guidelines, in breaking the OAS embargo the Bush Administration granted U.S. import licenses to wealthy Haiti business families which are publicly known to have supported and assisted in the coup.

U.S. companies imported over $67 million worth of apparel from Haiti in 1992. U.S. management, returning to Haiti after the embargo, used the climate of terror and military repression to destroy Haitian unions. All normal union activities remain suppressed. Those trade union and peasant organizations which have continued in their attempts to mobilize support are the target of fierce military retaliation.

Between 1983 and 1989, as apparel assembly and exports from Haiti to the United States doubled, real wages in Haiti were slashed 56 percent. The U.S. Agency for International Development (U.S. AID) used U.S. tax dollars to actively oppose a minimum wage increase to 50 cents an hour as proposed by the Aristide government.

These abuses are indicative of the oppressive conditions experienced by the vast majority of the Haitian people. According to Haiti After the Coup, a report written by the New York-based National Labor Committee Education Fund in Support of Worker and Human Rights in Central America, 60 percent of the children in Port-au-Prince suffer from malnutrition; almost one in 10 children born in Haiti dies within the first year of life; Haiti has the lowest calorie intake of any country in the Americas; Haiti's per capita income is $246.13, one-77th that of the United States; 85 percent of the Haitian people are living in absolute poverty, earning less than $150 a year; safe drinking watcr is available to only 13 percent of the population; only 25 percent of the adult population can read and write; only 20 percent of Haitian children finish primary school; and life expectancy is 53.5 years and falling.

A large-scale international aid package to Haiti has emerged as one of the key elements in the intensifying OAS/United Nations negotiations to restore the democratically elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power. The United States will be the leading international donor.

If U.S. AID continues to pursue its failed policies, the United States will be using U.S. dollars to bankroll a tiny and corrupt business elite in Haiti, recreating the very conditions that led to the September 1991 coup d'etat.

Until the constitutional government led by President Aristide returns to Haiti, President Clinton should work to undo some of the damage done to Haiti by the Bush administration in the interest of multinational corporations.

  • Clinton should begin by joining forces with the United Nations and the OAS to immediately tighten the embargo on Haiti.
  • U.S. AID should suspend all private sector funding pending a full public review by Congress and the Clinton administration.
  • Given the desperate conditions facing the Haitian people, all funds from this private sector program should be redirected to support the humanitarian needs of the population, including food, medicine, health services, education, seeds and agricultural tools.
  • U.S. trade law guaranteeing respect for internationally recognized workers' rights must be enforced.
  • The U.S. Commerce department and U.S. AID should make it standard practice in dealing with U.S. companies operating in or sourcing from Haiti to demand that these firms adopt corporate codes of conduct guaranteeing the rights of their employees.
  • The U.S. Labor Department should undertake the first thorough investigation of wages, benefits, hours, working conditions and actual labor rights protections of workers employed in Haiti's export sector producing for the U.S. market.

Finally, a comprehensive list of U.S. companies sourcing from or producing in Haiti should be made public, along with a profile of the wages, benefits, working conditions and labor rights protections in these plants.

U.S. consumers have the right to know at what cost their imported garments reach their favorite department stores, and to boycott those that perpetuate abuses of Haitian workers.

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