By Mark Osborn
On 11 June the Dominican Republic clothing giant Grupo M dismissed almost one-third of the 800 or so workers at its two Haiti factories in the CODEVI Free Trade Zone (FTZ), located outside of Ouanaminthe on the Haitian-Dominican border.
Grupo M, the largest employer in the Dominican Republic, where it has 13,000 workers in 24 plants, built the zone and the first two of a dozen projected factories there with a 12 million-dollar loan from the World Bank's International Finance Corporation (IFC).
CODEVI has been the site of labour strife almost since it opened.
Among those fired were seven of eight members of the executive committee of the recently founded independent union SOKOWA. The move came after a one-day strike that was almost universally respected by workers.
"We want decent salaries, better working conditions and collective bargaining," organiser Georges Augustin from the militant workers' organisation Batay Ouvriye (Workers' Struggle).
On 1 March, only a few weeks after the union had registered with the government, 34 employees were summarily fired. A month of international mobilising and a push from Levi - who produce jeans in the FTZ - got them their jobs back and elicited promises that negotiations would take place.
"The company refuses to negotiate," Augustin said during an interview at Batay's Cap-Haitien office, a tiny hole-in-the-wall in a slum surrounded by fetid open sewers. "Instead, they harass and beat people and are threatening to close down completely unless workers join a 'yellow union' management is setting up."
SOKOWA say workers regularly work a 55-hour week with no overtime pay, and that most employees earn 12 and dollars a week. Even if a Haitian worker is paid 20 dollars a week (3.30 dollars per day), or one-third more than the country's minimum wage, that amount is only 30 cents more per day than the three dollars a day minimum wage set by dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier two decades ago.
Haiti's current minimum wage of 70 gourdes per day (two dollars) was established in 1995 by then President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, but was contested by Haitian unions and human rights groups. Neither two dollars nor three dollars is enough to live on, SOKOWA notes.
Allegations of forced contraception
Now Grupo M faces new serious allegations. The British-based campaign, the Haiti Support Group, is reporting concerns about 'vaccinations' given to workers at the Codevi FTZ, in March and April 2004, which have, according to two recently issued reports, resulted in miscarriages, stillbirths, and serious menstruation problems for some women.
The two sets of injections administered by Grupo M staff, and which workers were obliged to submit to for fear of losing of their jobs, were described as tetanus shots. However, workers from the Grupo M factories who met with an independent observers group in Ouanaminthe on 17 July 2004 reported serious medical abnormalities in the aftermath of the second injection which suggest that, unbeknown to them, the workers may have been administered contraceptive injections.
This allegation appears to be confirmed by another report compiled by three members of the Haitian Doctors' Union who also visited Ouanaminthe in July. Their report details seven cases of workers suffering serious medical complications - mostly miscarriages - after receiving the 'vaccinations', and 20 other cases of workers suffering from a variety of complaints, mostly involving severe menstrual problems.
The Haiti Support Group comments: "We can scarcely believe that Grupo M would administer intravenous contraceptive shots under the guise of, or along with, tetanus shots, without informing the recipients, but given the pattern of abuse of workers over recent months we are inclined to believe the mounting evidence that this is in fact what has happened."