By Mark Osborn
A year after the fall of the populist, pseudo-radical government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, conditions for the workers and poor of Haiti are terrible and getting worse.
Last year, in May, 2,000 people died as a result of floods that hit the south of the island state. In September another 3,000 died following a tropical storm that hit the north of Haiti.
Fighting broke out in November 2004 as gangs, perhaps based on Aristide’s party, killed opponents in the capital, Port-au-Prince. In the last six months 250 people have died in political violence in the capital.
Last weekend a gang broke into the central prison and released 500 prisoners.
Violent thugs, including former-death squad members of pro- and anti-Aristide regimes, roam the streets and slums. Rape is widespread — and is used as a method of political intimidation.
The police are brutal and corrupt and the UN’s 6,000 troops have failed to keep the peace or disarm the gangs.
Many of Aristide’s political supporters are in jail, despite the fact that UN-mandated elections are set for November. Aristide is now in exile in South Africa and the interim government, set up by the US, Canada and France, has continued to hold political prisoners without charge.
Direct links exist between the political elite, local capitalists and the street gangs. For example, Andy Apaid, a millionaire sweatshop boss and anti-Aristide politician, is reported to have links to the gang that runs an area of the Cite Soleil slum. Apaid is quoted by a human rights group as instructing the local police not to arrest the gang’s leader, Thomas Robinson, but to work with him.
Economy in ruins
Haiti is still a racially divided country. 1 percent of the eight million population — from the French-speaking mixed-race elite — own nearly half the country’s wealth.
Roughly 85 percent of Haiti’s Creole-speaking black majority are poor peasants or unemployed or under-employed.
Two-thirds of the population live from subsistence agriculture.
The average annual income per capita may stand at around $800.
Forty percent of the population is under 14 years old.
Only 53 percent of the population is literate, and more than half lack access to clean water or sanitation.
Infant mortality stands at 76 deaths per 1,000 births and 50 percent of the population is under-nourished.
Haiti has the highest incidence of HIV/Aids in Latin America and the Caribbean, with 300,000 cases — 4.5 percent of the population. As a result, life expectancy is below 50, and related diseases like TB are also spreading.
According to the World Bank, Haiti’s economy has declined by an average of 0.2 percent per year during the 1980s, and shrunk by 0.4 percent per year in the 1990s.
Ecologically, the countryside is on the verge of collapse.
In the last 50 years Haiti’s forest cover has shrunk from 20 percent to just 2 percent of the land mass.
The result has been a surge to the cities, which are crumbling under the weight of the sheer number of people who live there. The city dwellers live in appalling conditions in shantytowns and on the streets.
Workers fight back
Amid all this misery there is an inspiring story about working class resistance.
Batay Ouvriye (Workers’ Fight) is a militant workers’ organisation which fights to organise workers by giving support to union struggles, in extremely difficult conditions.
This is how it describes itself:
“An organisation that brings together factory unions and committees, workers’ associations and militants, all struggling in Haiti for the construction of an independent, combative and democratic union movement, and to organise waged-workers, self-employed workers, as well as the unemployed, in defence of their rights.
“The organisation is an alternative to the traditional bureaucratic, corrupt union movement that helps maintain the ruling classes’ power over the exploited Haitian masses.”
Batay Ouvriye has been attempting to organise workers in the CODEVI Free Trade Zone (FTZ) near Ouanaminthe on the Haitian-Dominican Republic border.
It has given support to the union, Sokowa, set up in a factory owned by clothing giant, Grupo M, where workers stitch jeans for the US transnational, Levi’s.
Grupo M is the largest employer in the neighbouring Dominican Republic, where it has 13,000 workers in 24 plants. It built the CODEVI free trade zone in Haiti (the first two of a dozen projected factories there ) with a $12 million (£6.7 million) loan from the World Bank.
A victory to defend
In June 2004 Grupo M sacked more than 350 workers (including all known leaders of Sokowa) in an attempt to frighten the workers off organising themselves.
After protests — by the workers and the international supporters — and two days of talks with the union the Grupo M bosses accepted the immediate re-instatement of five union leaders, and the progressive re-hiring of 150 or so other people who still want to return to work in the factory.
Grupo M also acknowledged the legitimacy of the union and “assures it of its full rights under Haitian law, and guarantees never again to use armed security guards or other armed groups to intervene in labour disputes.”
The British-based Haiti Support Group (HSG) reports that Sokowa is waiting to see the agreement implemented in practice before celebrating, but says it does seem as though Grupo M — perhaps with Levi’s encouragement — has agreed to most of the union’s demands.
Charles Arthur from the HSG said:
“If this turns out to be a victory, we must recognise the value of the tremendous support and solidarity provided by people in the UK.
“Great efforts have been made, both to provide funds, and to mount an effect campaign in support of the Sokowa union over the last, extremely difficult six months. Considering the large numbers of workers fired back in June, and the length of time it took before the management agreed to negotiate, we’re pretty sure the union would have ‘gone under’ if it were not for the support it has had — especially from No Sweat, Labourstart and the Battersea and Wandsworth TUC.”