Recently released Wikileaks cables show that the United States worked to aggressively oppose a ‘paltry’ minimum wage rise for Haitian assembly zone workers.
The US embassy worked closely with factory owners contracted by Levi’s, Hanes, and Fruit of the Loom to block a wage rise, according to secret US State Department cables obtained by Haiti Liberte and The Nation magazine.
The factory owners refused to pay $0.62 an hour, or $5 per 8-hour day, as decreed by a measure unanimously passed by Haiti’s parliament in 2009. The cables show that, in the background, the factory workers were backed by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the US embassy in Haiti.
The minimum daily wage before the rise was a mere $1.75 a day. Haiti is already the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and also one of the most unequal. The CIA ‘world factbook’ recognises that “Poverty, corruption, and poor access to education for much of the population are among Haiti’s most serious disadvantages,” though it also states that Haiti “enjoys the advantages of low labor costs and tariff-free access to the US for many of its exports.”
The factory owners opposed to the minimum wage increase told parliament they were willing to accede to a paltry 9 cent per hour pay rise for workers (totalling a mere $0.31 per hour) as they toiled in factories making T-shirts, bras and underwear for US clothing companies.
The US State Department stepped in, urging the then-Haitian president Rene Preval to intervene.
In a June 10, 2009 cable to Washington, US ambassador Janet Sanderson said: “A more visible and active engagement by Preval may be critical to resolving the issue of the minimum wage and its protest ‘spin-off’ — or risk the political environment spiraling out of control.”
A mere two months later, President Preval negotiated with Parliament to secure a deal to introduce a two-tiered wage rise: one for the textile industry at $3.13 a day and another for all other industrial/commercial sectors at $5 a day.
Despite the two-tiered proposal, the US embassy was still not satisfied. Deputy chief of mission David Lindwall said the $5 a day minimum wage “did not take economic reality into account”, but was a populist measure aimed at appealing to the “unemployed and underpaid masses”. Haitian supporters of the minimum wage rise stated that, actually, the rise was necessary to keep pace with inflation and rising costs of living.
As stated, Haiti is the poorest country in the hemisphere and many struggle with hunger and poverty. The CIA ‘world factbook’ website states that Haiti is already: “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with 80% of the population living under the poverty line and 54% in abject poverty” – so why did the US intervene so aggressively, opposing the minimum wage increase? Their own intelligence agency plainly states on their website that they recognise that Haiti struggles with such levels of poverty.
According to a 2008 Worker Rights Consortium study, a working class family of one working member and two dependants requires a daily wage of at least $13.75 to meet normal living expenses – and this was in 2008. 3 years later, Haitians are describing the difficulties in meeting the rising cost of living.
In response to a request for a statement regarding these cables and alleged US intervention, the US embassy’s Information Officer Jon Piechowski told Haiti Liberte: “As a matter of policy, the Department of State does not comment on documents that purport to contain classified information and strongly condemns any illegal disclosure of such information. In Haiti, approximately 80% of the population is unemployed and 78% earns less than $1/day – the U.S. government is working with the Government of Haiti and international partners to help create jobs, support economic growth, promote foreign direct investment that meets ILO labor standards in the apparel industry, and invest in agriculture and beyond.”
The Haiti cables also reveal how the US embassy closely monitored pro-wage increase demonstrations and how there were worried about the political impact of minimum wage increases. UN troops were called in to quell student protests, sparking demands for the end of the UN military occupation of Haiti. Does this suggest that the UN was working on behalf of US interests, ignoring the interests of the poverty-stricken Haitians?
Due to the fierce protests of workers and students, sweatshop owners and Washington won only a partial victory in the minimum wage battle, delaying the $5 a day minimum for one year and keeping the assembly sector’s minimum wage a notch below all other sectors. In October 2010, assembly workers’ minimum wage rose to $5 a day, while in all other sectors it rose to $6.25.
The Haitian Platform for Development Alternatives said in June 2009: “Every time the minimum wage has been discussed, [the assembly industry bourgeoisie in] ADIH has cried wolf to scare the government against its passage: that raising the minimum wage would mean the certain and immediate closure of industry in Haiti and the cause of a sudden loss of jobs. In every case, it was a lie.”