Monday, May 27, 2013

Jobs and Justice: Raising the Floor on Worker Rights and Wages in Haiti

(Cross-posted from Other Worlds)
By Beverly Bell, Alexis Erkert, and Deepa Panchang
May 23, 2013
Over the past few weeks in this article series, we’ve heard firsthand from Haitian garment workers about low wages, sexual abuse, labor rights violations, and work-related injuries they suffered in sweatshops.

Meanwhile, the world has watched the death toll in last month’s factory collapse in Bangladesh creep to above 1,100. Global activists have joined the calls of protesting workers, ramping up pressure on clothing retailers against the regular mistreatment and deaths of workers. Slowly, the public is realizing that exploitation within the garment assembly industry is not the exception, it’s the rule. Today, we take a deep dive into the economics of this sector in Haiti to look at how it has come to be, and at what alternative pathways might look like.

In discussions among foreigners about working conditions and wages in the assembly industry, we often hear, “But Haitians need jobs. Wouldn’t things be worse without them?”

The question creates a false choice between no job and a grinding, exploitative job. Looking at the factors that led to low factory wages in the first place helps expose the myth. Western governments and their international financial institution (IFI) partners have played an active role in creating the dearth of options that exists for Haitian workers. For example, trade policies from the 1980s onward caused the decimation of the Haitian agricultural sector. Out-of-work farmers fled on masse to cities, and many had no better option but a factory job. Foreign policies imposed on the Haitian government have also contributed to a near-complete lack of public services and a weak, dependent domestic economy, which ramp up desperation; desperation, in turn, forced workers to accept the low wages.

The offshore assembly model creates a race to the bottom. In it, businesses circle the globe seeking the lowest cost of production – which involves the lowest health and safety standards and suppressed union organizing. As factories move to the next country, they create dirt-poor workers.

Despite this, governments, the UN, and the IFIs tout the garment assembly industry as a path to development in global South countries. The UN places the expansion of free trade zones (groupings of export-producing factories that enjoy tax exemptions and fewer safety, health, and environment regulations) toward the center of its development road map for Haiti. A 2009 report it commissioned argued that Haiti’s duty-free, quota-free preferential access to the American market, combined with low labor costs and a lack of protectionist policies, makes the country “the world’s safest production location for garments.” Weeks after the earthquake, that paper’s author, Oxford University economics professor Paul Collier, likened the catastrophic moment to 19th Century development of the US West, with its “investment booms, financed by enthusiastic outsiders. The earthquake could usher in such a boom in Haiti.”

Apparently sharing this view, four months after the earthquake the US Congress extended US trade preferences for assembled garments to Haiti in a law that was portrayed as a relief measure. Also since the earthquake, the US and other global players came up with $224 million to subsidize the development of a new free trade zone in northern Haiti, Caracol. Developers, who displaced 366 farmers from arable farmland for the project, promised more than 20,000 jobs. In actuality, fewer than 1,500 people are employed in the park; and after paying for transportation and meals, workers reportedly end each day with an average of US $1.36. More free-trade zones are in the offing.

For all the funding and attention the sector has received, the 24 factories currently making garments for export to the US employ very few people: 25,924, or approximately 0.5% of the working-age population. No matter the numbers, the industry’s contribution to the national economy is false development, said economist Camille Chalmers with the Platform to Advocate Alternative Development in Haiti. “Almost all of the primary materials used in manufacturing come from outside. When they say that Haiti exports hundreds of millions of dollars in products, a lot of that goes to [foreign companies to] pay for the inputs like cloth and equipment. Once assembled, the goods aren’t consumed in Haiti but are shipped abroad. The government doesn’t even benefit from taxes or tariffs. Haiti’s only role is as a stopover in the production process, where cheap labor keeps profit margins high.”

Haiti does need work opportunities, as any cash-desperate person there will tell you. But not at any price or under any conditions. Former factory worker Ghislene Deloné said, “It can’t be based on the exploitation of people. We need to be treated like human beings.” And Camille Chalmers said, “When we speak of employment, we have to talk about the quality of employment. [This sector] doesn’t create work that can develop our human resources or reduce poverty. These comparative advantages just reproduce misery.”

A better question than “Wouldn’t no job be worse?” is how to ensure good, dignified jobs, based on the requirements outlined by workers and as mandated by the International Labour Organisation. Here is where we come in. We can support alternative sources of employment that provide more power and economic advantage to workers, their families, and the domestic economy, like worker-owned businesses, cooperatives, fair trade enterprises, and smallholder agricultural production.

We can also help stop the race to the bottom so that all workers can support their families and live with dignity. There is no reason to consent to a system wherein both the maker and the wearer of a product are degraded. We can work to ensure that the current model is more humane, by pressuring our governments and the IFIs to make enforceable labor rights and living wages standard policy in all trade agreements and so-called development programs.

We can, moreover, engage in the campaigns driven by affected workers, like boycotts against corporations with bad records. University campuses around the country have succeeded with this tack on apparel made by Nike, Russell Athletics, Reebok, and others.

It is often still the case that, when pressured, companies just close their doors and relocate to another country. This doesn’t mean that we should stop campaigning, but rather that we should redouble our efforts to raise the floor everywhere. Instead of allowing unlivable wages and violation of labor rights to be cast as a comparative advantage, we should accept nothing less than jobs with justice for all.

To get involved, check out the websites of United Students against Sweatshops, Witness for Peace, Worker Rights Consortium, Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, and Corporate Action Network.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Leaving Luna

Luna was probably the only Haitian able to get the paperwork she needed to immigrate last week, and yet she took one look her little cat carrier next to our pile of luggage and said, 'You want me to go WHERE? Forget about it.'

Leave it to a cat to make an international move as stressful as possible. Though we anticipated that she might not go willingly and locked her in the house that morning, she slipped out at some point when I opened the door. And, from some excellent hiding place, she watched as the entire neighborhood mobilized to find her (probably as much to stem my hysterical flood of tears as for any other reason).

We had to leave without her, but neighbors and friends saved the day promising to feed her, check in on her, and bring to the US for us when they come in a few weeks. Someone sent this picture of her on our porch the next day, looking for all the world like she owns it.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The M Community: LGBT Courage in Haiti

An Interview with Charlot Jeudy

(Cross-posted from Other Worlds)
By Alexis Erkert
May 17, 2013

Jeudy is the president of the Haitian organization KOURAJ, meaning “courage” in Creole.

May 17, International Day Against Homophobia, is important because more than 60 countries around the world commemorate this day, which is to raise awareness about homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, and the possibilities for a world without discrimination. For Haitians engaged in the struggle, we are claiming the day, too, to remind people that we’re here, what we want, and that we’re suffering.

Homophobia affects our entire society. That’s why we have the slogan, “Homosexuality hurts no one; homophobia hurts everyone.” Homophobia is what stresses people out. Homophobia is what pushes people to violence.

In 1992, homosexuality was taken off the list of mental illnesses, which was critical. Now it is homophobia that must be considered as a mental illness.

A little boy who feels effeminate is more likely to drop out of school as a result of harassment. I know boys who were beaten by schoolmates because they were effeminate. I know boys who were expelled from school because they were effeminate. These children then become the bane of society. I know people who have been disowned by their families. There are violent rap artists whose song lyrics promote hatred towards us. Recently, in the town of Jacmel, two youth were viciously beaten, told they were ruining the area because they were masisi [meaning “gay” as both value-neutral and as hate speech].

When people are shunned because of their sexuality, KOURAJ exists as a support group. We can’t provide them with income or social housing; we aren’t the state. We can’t take them in. But we can put pressure on discriminators, we can start discussions, we can advocate for changes in public opinion. All of this is part of our fight for the rights of the M community, something new that we’re naming ourselves. The M community is comprised of masisi [gay], madivin [lesbian], makòmè [transgender], and miks [bisexual].

Certain aspects of sexuality are taboo in Haiti, and they need to be discussed. It’s necessary for people to understand that we can have sexual differences, but that that doesn’t stop us from evolving together as a society. Only when people have changed their perceptions and preconceptions can we build solidarity.

We’re working with legal experts to draft an anti-homophobia, anti-discrimination law. We’re also petitioning the state to sign and ratify the Yogyakarta Principles and the UN declaration for the Universal Decriminalization of Homosexuality. There are conventions to which Haiti is already signatory, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and our own constitution says that the state is obligated to guarantee everyone’s protection without distinction.

We are also working with two institutions, the International Lawyers’ Office [BAI] and Defenders of the Oppressed [DOP], who can provide legal assistance in cases of homophobic violence. The challenge is that victims often don’t want to press charges or pursue a claim publicly. Victims worry that if they go to court, they’ll attract negative press. We need to change the system.

I am a man that will always be with another man, and I want to be able to do that in my own country. I knew that to do this in Haiti would be a challenge, but I threw myself into the struggle anyway. And it is a struggle. I could move to North America and live freely with a man. Sorry, but no. Haiti is my home.

If there is to be a movement for the rights of M persons in Haiti, Haitians must be behind it. We recognize that we cannot take on the identity of the international LGBT movement. We take note and are encouraged by the successes of this movement around the world, but from a sociological standpoint, Haitian culture is different and our movement must reflect that.

For example, the societal definition of masisi is ‘acting as the female partner in a homosexual relationship.’ You can have muscular, manly M persons, but for Haitians, they cannot be called masisi.

The word masisi has always been an insult. It makes people uncomfortable for us to use it, but in Haitian Creole, there is no other way for me to describe what I am. The upper class uses French and English terms, but Haiti has a large non-bourgeois population, and our message must be directed at those people who are actively discriminating against us. If we claim the word masisi to reflect who we are instead of how discriminators see us, they can’t go on verbally abusing the M community.

All seven of the KOURAJ executive committee members are out. We’re out on behalf of the organization’s 70 other members, so that they can see themselves in us. We can’t shy away from confronting homophobia, wrestling with it publicly, because somewhere someone might be struggling in silence.

We take every opportunity to sit with people and explain our mission, but we know it will take time. Haiti’s traditional human rights organizations are unwilling to defend us. Universities and institutions of higher learning don’t touch this question, although we encourage them to. Members of the press have historically been reticent to bring incidents of homophobia to light for fear of being associated with us. Politicians are the same, although we regularly invite them to participate in our activities.

Since 1986 and the return of so-called democracy in Haiti, the government has done little to advance human rights. President Martelly has contributed to the problem, financing groups with anti-M hate music to participate in Carnival, etc. When Madame [Michelle] Pierre-Louis was nominated for prime minister in 2009, other politicians stated that as a madivin, she wasn’t a citizen, was incompetent, and couldn’t serve her country. Being an M person is viewed as a political liability.

We’re beginning to see positive signs of change, though. When community members walk in the streets and someone calls them a masisi as an insult, others will often chime in to defend them. We’re also getting more calls for assistance, which proves that people do believe that we are able to help with their problems. In the past, M persons have sometimes been refused medical treatment, but that’s also changing.

The press is slowly beginning to seek KOURAJ out to offer comment, which means they recognize us as an authority on this subject. They’re beginning to realize that they can’t deal with it in ignorance as they have in the past.

I can’t measure the impact KOURAJ is having in terms of figures and numbers, but it still holds a world of importance. We’ve made all of our resources available to this group. We’ve taken our own money and lent it to masisi who needed it. We’ve invited them to eat together, had discussions, and enjoyed each other’s friendship. That’s community, solidarity. To no longer be alone isn’t something we can measure, and it feels good to know that we are providing a network for the M community.

We are not acting in the hopes of future recognition. We’re acting for change now, and I’m certain it’s happening. We’re Haitians through and through, and want society to see us as we see ourselves.

Alexis Erkert is the Another Haiti is Possible Coordinator for Other Worlds. She has worked in advocacy and with Haitian social movements since 2008. You can access all of Other Worlds’ past articles regarding post-earthquake Haiti here.

Copyleft. You may reprint this article in whole or in part. Please credit any text or original research you use to Alexis Erkert, Other Worlds.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Road trip: Bassin Zim

Getting out of Port-au-Prince is the very worst part of any road trip. In Croix-des-Bouquets, cars and motorcycles compete for limited road space with crowded tap-taps emblazoned with slogans like The Good Shepherd, Mèsi Jezi (Thank you, Jesus), Dieu est avec nous (God is with us), and Bondye Konnen (God knows) and Jazz la (Jazz). As part of an astute political analogy, Amy Willentz recently wrote, "These colorfully painted and meticulously decorated jitneys honk and rattle and seem to promise a breezy world of Caribbean fun and speed. But motionless in the endless traffic jams, inside all is darkness and jumble, heat and noise, and suffocation."

We can keep moving on the motorcycle, threading in and out of lines of traffic, though I am almost clocked in the head by a pink floor fan. Its owner clutches the side of a tap-tap with one hand, and the fan and a 3-tiered corner shelf unit with the other.
At the desolate base of Morne Cabrit, Goat Mountain, we pass tidy rows of candy-colored houses. It looks like 3,000 toy blocks were plunked into the middle of the desert under a postcard-blue sky. There are no trees. There is no surrounding infrastructure. This controversial (because Haiti faces a housing crisis, and no-one knows who will live in these houses...) project was financed by the Venezuelan Petro-Caribe Fund to the tune of $44 million. Across the highway, a backdrop of scrub and cacti frames a donkey nuzzling her foal.

Route National 3 winds up the mountain overlooking Lake Azuei and beyond, Lake Enriquillo in the Dominican Republic. Ignoring flashy new billboards warning of the dangers of overloaded motor vehicles, tap-taps hurtle towards Port-au-Prince piled impossibly high with plantains, breadfruit and mangoes. Trucks from the opposite direction carry red, mesh bags of garlic and plastic washtubs - imports from across the border.
The air cools as we continue to climb. There are more trees and, from Morne Blanc, a stunning view of the Central Plateau. In Terre Rouge, we pass a restaurant called "Slave Bar Resto." Wooden stalls will overflow on market day to make the road nearly impassable, but for now they sit empty just past an empty military base. Formerly a UN base, it was also occupied last year by members of the former FAd'H (Haitian Armed Forces) when they were vying to get their jobs back. Near Mirebalais we pass another base, this one used by Nepalese UN troops. It is here that cholera was introduced to Haiti in 2010, from sewage that the UN dumped into a tributary of the Artibonite river. In accidental irony an NGO sign across the road reminds passers-by, Dlo se lavi. Water is life.

Mirebalais is happening these days. There's a spiffy new park at the entrance to the city, with a welcome sign missing the "M" in "Mirebalais." The new Partners in Health teaching hospital has been inaugurated three times, perhaps appropriate given the contribution it will make to healthcare provision in Haiti. For old times' sake (...Ben used to work in Mirebalais part-time), we stop at the Buena Bar-Resto for a meal under the raised eyebrows of Papa Doc Duvalier. Si dye and the Haitian justice system vle, Jean-Claude, son and heir to Papa's dictatorship, may face charges of crimes against humanity. The hearings are dragging out, though, and neither the government nor international community seem inclined to push for a trial. Across the country, victims' families have just commemorated a particularly bloody day for which justice has never been served.

Too close to the Buena Bar-Resto's dictator, a second hand ticks around the face of Jesus clock. Jesus is blond-haired, blue-eyed. A flat-screen on the opposite wall is televising Au nom de l'honneur, which as best as I can tell is a French-language Jordanian soap opera set in Switzerland.
We spend the night at a Mennonite retreat center nestled into a valley in Marouge, just outside of Mirebalais. New friends Jon, Samuel, Widner, Wadner and Gonzales knock mangoes out of trees with precision and play the latest rap music videos on an i-pod touch.
From Marouge, the highway (gloriously paved with funding from the European Union) winds along the Artibonite river and past the Peligre dam, a tragedy of a project that flooded agricultural land and doesn't supply Haiti with as nearly as much electricity as it could.

Through Cange where Dr. Paul Farmer built his first hospital, Thomonde, Savane Longue, Savanette Cabrale, Marmon... Fields of maize and beans stretch out beyond breadfruit, mango, and calabash trees. Bare mountaintops rise above. Brightly painted houses with the pitched roofs and tall shutters of traditional Haitian architecture are made of split palm logs. An elevated house for grain storage and one or two ancestral tombs, carefully maintained in deference to the dead, complete each lakou. We pass a cockfighting ring, a mechanic's shop, the signature red flag that rises above a peristyle, and three billboards advertising the cellular company Digicel, a borlette special, and an NGO hand-washing campaign. 
In Hinche we order juice and a plate of spaghetti for a good Haitian breakfast. The Relais Bar-Resto also seems to be a favorite of local politicians, ostentatiously sporting revolvers in the back of their pants.

Hinche is the capital of the Central Plateau and the 1886 birthplace of Charlemagne Péralte, who led the Caco guerrilla resistance against the US occupation. A bust of Péralte stands at the center of the public plaza, and in fading pastoral mural of peasant farmers, Taino Indians and vodou practitioners, he wears a suit and holds a Haitian flag.

It's market day, and the dusty edge of town is a swarm of vendors, come in from the surrounding countryside by donkey or on foot. The road northeast of Hinche bumps through Papaye, the base of Haiti's largest organized peasant movement, the Mouvman Peyizan Papay (MPP). We realize how worn out the shocks are on Ben's motorcycle. It is hot, the landscape barren.

Suddenly, the road makes a sharp turn and ends in an oasis: a 65-foot cascade of white water surrounded by trees. UN soldiers are sunning themselves on rocks at the base. The pool here is usually a brilliant blue, but heavy rains before our visit have made it murky.
Above, smaller cascades tumble into three successive pools, Candelabra, Arc-en-ciel, and Wells. We sit overlooking the uppermost pool and our pint-sized guides, Midlove and Roslyn, regale us with stories of the hungry loa, spirits, that live in underwater caves. A blan came swimming here with a gold tooth, wearing a chain around his neck. He drowned. You can't swim wearing any jewelry, they say, lest you attract the unwanted attention of a loa. Fortunately, you can protect yourself by leaving money in a cave ("We can show you where!") as an offering. Then, after your swim the loa will come to you in a dream and tell you which borlette numbers to play. "You'll win enough money to buy a motorcycle."

When I point out that we already have a motorcyle, Midlove nudges Roslyn and whispers into her ear. "Our mother drowned in this pool," Roslyn says with a sneaky grin. "She left us orphaned with no money and no-one to care for us."

A small grotto closest to the base of the falls is studded with moss-covered stalactite and smells powerfully of the rum serviteur pour here in supplication.
Further up the trail, Midlove and Rosyln pick deftly over slippery river rock and lead us into a stunning cathedral of a cave. Shafts of sunlight shine in from an opening in the roof and bats whirl overhead.
Trying to soak in the majesty of the space, I ask the growing crowd of children with us to please be quiet, but they're excited to show us the mouth of an underground passageway that they say leads to the Dominican Republic. Nearby: a corona bottle of kleren, twine wound tightly around a stalactite, charred evidence of a small fire.

Caves were also ritual spaces for the island's first inhabitants and there are fading Taino petroglyphs on the walls of the cavern. They're hard to see among the modern-day graffiti, but as our eyes adjust we begin to pick out carvings of cartoonesque stick figures, a spider, and other images.
While not exactly the idyllic day picnicking at a waterfall that I had imagined, we manage to pay off our guides and hide in the woods to eat lunch before we climb back on our bike. In the end, we've only driven 140 miles round-trip, but it feels like 500.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Sacred Sunday

We woke up in a cabin that we've been building for five months, and that we finally finished this weekend. Sunrise was spectacular. So, too, was a big pot of pumpkin soup cooked over a fire and, as the afternoon fog rolled in, a communion of beer and beets shared with dear friends also facing transition.

Our convocation and benediction came from Wendell Berry's The Wild Geese,

And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven,
but to be quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.

And a reading from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. There is a time for everything. 

Of course, the sacred is always punctuated by a hammer hitting a thumb, a screaming baby (not ours) with a dirty diaper, rain, and a neighboring farmer angry about a goat. So there was some of all of that, too.
As we hiked out, leaving Kenscoff for perhaps for the last time, Joseph's parting words to us were "degaje w." [Do what it takes to get by]. A perfectly fitting Haitian send-off. 


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