The Multinational Monitor



Working for
Justice In Haiti
An interview with
Yannick Etienne

YANNICK ETIENNE is a member of the Haitian worker organizing center, Batay Ouvriye, and has been working with it since its foundation. Etienne, who is Haitian-born and attended high school and college in New York, is a member of the commission for international solidarity of Batay Ouvriye and a member of Batay Ouvriye's steering committee.


YANNICK ETIENNE: Batay Ouvriye is center where workers can come to organize, to get information about their rights and to discuss problems regarding working conditions and what they can do about it. Batay Ouvriye is also a place where people interested in democratic change in Haiti come together to plan and organize.

Our goal is to build an alternative labor movement in Haiti. We start with the basics: organizing people into workers committees or labor unions. But it is more than that, because we are not only organizing the workers to change things in the workplace, but also in their neighborhoods. We work in the neighborhoods, making connections with working people, small merchants and unemployed people. We also work in the countryside to organize agricultural workers and small peasants, and we work to make connections between people in the urban and rural areas. Batay Ouvriye is a movement, as well as a center.

And while we are doing this in Haiti, we make connections with international organizations -- workers' movements, solidarity movements -- to fight against what is becoming a big threat for working people and people all over the planet: economic globalization.

MM: How did Batay Ouvriye get started?

ETIENNE: It started at the end of 1994, when a group of workers were starting to organize into unions and workers committees. We decided to invite workers from all over Port-au-Prince to discuss the problems they face and what can be done about it. After three such meetings, involving workers from a growing number of factories and workplaces, we decided on a six-point agenda.

We continued to meet and mobilize people. We went to the Ministry of Social Affairs with specific complaints, protested in front of factories and spread information internationally on those factories.

This group of people established Batay Ouvriye.

All of this began just after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide returned, because during the coup d'etat years it was very difficult to organize. People organized to try and take advantage of the political space available after the coup d'etat years. We felt that if there had been more organizing, we would have been better prepared to face the coup and repression. The conclusion was to build stronger organizations.

MM: What were you doing before then?

ETIENNE: From 1986, after Baby Doc Duvalier left the country, to 1991, when the coup took place, I was involved in a neighborhood organization.

It was a period when the democratic spirit pervaded the country, and there was a lot of energy devoted to organizing and trying to change things.

In the neighborhood organization, we started developing little health centers, organizing women, setting up a marketplace and fighting the Macoutes [Duvalier's special military force]. That was in the city. We also had some connections with the countryside, where we were organizing peasants and small merchants.

I was especially involved with the health center, which was most used by women who were taking their kids to see a doctor. I met with different women, and many of them were working in the factories. They asked me to go in front of the factory with them and talk to other women workers. I got hooked on that, and from them on, I got more involved with working women in those factories and withdrew from the neighborhood and student struggles.

In the countryside, I was working in a fishing village, doing a literacy program, promoting health centers and working with market women.

When the coup happened, I was deeply involved in organizing workers in the city and women in countryside. So of course I had to go underground.

MM: What did you do during the coup?

ETIENNE: I continued working, and organizing people against the coup.

I also spent a lot of time trying to find out what happened to different people with whom I had worked. We were working together and suddenly you can't go to their houses, and if you asked about them, people said they didn't know where they were. Some of them went to the countryside to hide. Some of them became refugees. Some of them died.

During the embargo imposed against Haiti during the coup period, some factories closed without giving the workers their severance pay. Workers were afraid to go alone to claim their severance pay, so some of us went with them to the Ministry of Social Affairs. This was risky, because some of the employees and officials at the Ministry of Social Affairs were members of Frappe [the paramilitary force that terrorized Haitian democrats during the coup].

So in a sense I just continued what I had been doing. But it required going in and out. At one point you'd be involved in doing something openly, like going to the court or the Ministry of Social Affairs with the workers, but then the pressure got so great that you would have to go somewhere else. Later, you would come back.

MM: Did you stay in the city?

ETIENNE: I stayed in different places.

You have to move all the time, and remain separate from your family, so that if something happens to you, it happens to you and not to other members of your family. You have to protect them.

But when I think about it, it is much more difficult now.

MM: It is more difficult to organize now?

ETIENNE: Yes. During the coup, you had to face the political repression. You know this could happen at any time.

Now, you are taking some risk, because it is a "democracy." You don't know how big the political space is. It is dangerous. Anything could happen. Anything could change. But you are already out in the open, and there is probably no place to hide.

So that is why it is more difficult and stressful, at least for me, personally, right now.

But you don't think about those things all the time. You have to move on.

MM: What sort of workers are you involved in organizing?

ETIENNE: We are involved with: factory workers, including those in the plants assembling goods for export; workers in industries producing for local consumption; people working in homes, like domestic workers; agricultural workers -- all kinds of working people.

We do advocacy work and legal assistance. We go to the Ministry of Social Affairs if their rights were violated. We go to Labor Court with workers. We try to get lawyers to help them. We inform people about their rights. And we fight with workers to change working conditions, by pressuring the factory owners, in Haiti and around the world.

We know the Haitian private sector is well connected with American companies and the American government. So we have to put pressure on them as well as the Haitian factory owners. That is why international solidarity work is important to our work in Haiti.

We also pressure the Haitian government to change its policies.

MM: Do you work mostly with garment workers?

ETIENNE: The majority are. Probably about 70 percent of the assembly plant workers sew garments. A few work in plants making electronics or crafts.

MM: When you say you want to create an alternative labor movement, what does that mean? An alternative to what?

ETIENNE: An alternative to what exists right now. The workers have had very negative experiences with the traditional Haitian labor federations. After 1986, people started forming new unions, and they contacted the labor federations, but things went badly.

Those organizations are too bureaucratic and opportunistic, and they have sold out to the factory owners. Some of them even support structural adjustment programs and different anti-worker government policies.

The alternative must be very grassroots, built by the workers themselves. They can ask questions, they know what is going on. It must be ruled and led by the workers themselves, not by so-called leaders who are not involved in daily struggle. It has to very democratic and very combative. Because if it is not combative, it will not get far. The elite is very powerful, and they have been having a ball for many years. They will not let go.

The organizations of the elite, by the way, have been financed by the U.S. government, to build democracy in Haiti. But they are totally undemocratic. They won't allow unions, they won't permit any kind of debate.

MM: Has the traditional labor movement received money from the U.S. government?

ETIENNE: Yes, from the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID)

MM: Has that affected the way the movement has developed?

ETIENNE: I think so. They want a business union movement, led by very soft and nice-talking people.

That won't work in Haiti, because the workers have to face a very anti-people elite. They have their own interests. There is no middle ground. If they accept you on their ground, it is just to eat you. You have to be much stronger and have your own agenda.

MM: What are the elements of your agenda?

ETIENNE: First, to raise the minimum wage to 75 gourdes (from 36) a day. But that figure was two years ago, and 75 may no longer be adequate.

Second, to change the labor code, which was adopted in 1984, and is a copy of the 1961 labor code adopted under Francois Duvalier, Papa Doc. The labor code says you have the formal right to organize, but there are no real protections.

Third, to fight against repression inside the factories -- sexual harassment, intimidation, verbal abuse. All the stuff that is part of the daily repression inside the factories.

Fourth, to fight against illegal suspensions and firings.

Fifth, to organize and bargain collectively.

Sixth, to reform the Ministry of Social Affairs, which works on behalf of business people, not working people.

All of these things are very important to the workers, who feel that they are not treated like human beings.

To promote this agenda, we hold demonstrations, write letters, prepare reports, work with international allies. Above all, we organize, to become a strong force. When we say we want to build a movement, it means we need people. They know when they face us, they are facing a group of people who know what they are and what they want.

MM: Do you think the government is committed to the same kinds of goals?

ETIENNE: No. The government is committed to the IMF and World Bank. It is committed to implementing the structural adjustment program, so that it will get more loans. The government is committed to have low wages in order to "attract" investors. The government is committed to implement U.S. policies for Haiti. And the U.S. agenda for Haiti is to have a second-hand democracy.

We are fighting against all this. What the people wanted when they voted Aristide in 1990 was real democracy and real change. Look at what happened: we had a coup, now we are under occupation by UN troops. They say it is the return of democracy -- but there is no democracy there.

MM: How serious is the problem of repression in factories? What happens to workers who try to organize?

ETIENNE: "Syndicat" is the word in Haitian creole for "union." If you say "syn," the first syllable, you get fired. This is even if you were talking about something else -- unity instead of union, say.

The factory owners tell workers right up front, "If you need a job, don't join the union. I won't accept any union in my factory."

If you talk with them, they will say that they will not accept a union. If a union is organized, they say, the factory will be closed.

So people are afraid to join unions. The factory owners put out word that if you join a union, they won't receive any orders from foreign countries, particularly from the United States. I guess the Haitian factory owners get pressure from their U.S. contractors. So it trickles down, and they put pressure on workers.

If a worker files a claim against them, accusing the factory owner of firing the worker for her union activities, the owner would send his big-shot lawyer to say, "No, there is no way we are violating citizens' rights. We respect the constitution, the labor code. We would never fire a worker for his or her union activities. The worker was fired because she was talking to a co-worker, because she was late for work or because she missed a day of work." They will say she was fired for other -- all kinds of false -- reasons. They will never admit they fired a person for union activities.

The Ministry of Social Affairs will accept the factory owner's statement. It is very difficult for the worker to prove she was fired due to her union activities. That is one of the reasons we need to change the labor code, to give workers genuine protections for organizing.

MM: Are any workers able to join unions?

ETIENNE: Yes, of course. You have to organize underground, at first. You have to organize small groups, and then you have to build it.

In order to get legal recognition, you find a good group to say, "There is a union. We want collective bargaining. Here are the executive members." But once you put these people forward, most are going to get fired in the next three or four months.

MM: So do most of the union members keep their membership secret?

ETIENNE: Definitely, you have to.

MM: It must be hard to have an effective union if you can't operate collectively.

ETIENNE: Yes, it is difficult.

And if the union gets to a point where it is about to reach agreement with the boss on a particular issue -- probably following weeks or months of discussion -- the union says, "Sign this agreement." He says, "No, I won't sign anything. I give you my word."

U.S. AID is funding private sector organizations, but it is not teaching the elite how to be democratic. Those people who are very cozy with the U.S. government or the U.S. embassy are the most undemocratic people regarding labor rights.

MM: How about the U.S. companies themselves?

ETIENNE: We don't deal with U.S. companies. They stay in the United States. They contract with Haitian factory owners, and that is who the Haitian workers have to deal with.

Many factory workers don't even know the name of the particular company they are working for, let alone who that company is contracting for. Sometimes they don't even know the name of the boss, or the address of the company. They know the factory is there, they go to work every day, but they don't know the address. If we help them file a complaint, we have to ask, "Who is your boss?" They don't know. "What is the company name?" They don't know the name.

It can take us a year to make people understand why they should understand who they are working with. So you can understand how difficult it is to get people to know the name of the company they are contracting for.

We can't ask them, "Are you making Disney garments?" We have to ask, "Have you ever seen a drawing with this little figure?" Because Mickey Mouse is not a mouse to them, it is something else. So it takes it while to teach them who they are working for.

If you say, "Sears," Sears does not represent a thing for these workers. The same goes for J.C. Penney.

Disney is now a big name here, but no one in Haiti knew about Disney until we got involved and passed out a lot of information to workers for Disney subcontractors explaining what Disney is and why it is important.

You have to move from that small bit of information to build people's awareness, consciousness, about what the struggle is about. It takes different stages.

If you go to Haiti and ask the Haitian, "What is a company's code of conduct?" they will say, "What?" They won't even understand the phrase, "code of conduct." So we have to build one step at a time.

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