Since mid-January 2022, several thousand workers have been demonstrating in the streets of Port-au-Prince, as well as at assembly parks in Haiti’s north and northeast, to demand an increase in the minimum wage to 1,500 gourdes ($14.56), social support, and better working conditions in subcontracting assembly industries where about 57,000 people work.
After at least four intense protests, de facto Prime Minister Ariel Henry decided to raise their minimum wage from 500 gourdes ($4.85) to 685 gourdes ($6.65). The decision has been described as a provocation by the trade unionists who are demanding 1,500 gourdes.
This tiny minimum wage hike has angered the workers. Last week, they organized two major protests that resulted in the death of a photojournalist, Maxihen Lazzare, and several injuries. This, at a time when the country is facing a worsening socio-political and economic crisis months after the heinous assassination of President Jovenel Moise in his private residence in Pèlerin district above Pétionville.
“Despite the mobilizations to demand an adjustment of the minimum wage, the Haitian state with the complicity of the bosses is refusing to give us a salary increase,” said Dominique St-Eloi, coordinator of the National Central of Haitian Workers (CNOHA), which is waging an intense fight against the system exploiting Haiti’s working class.
Workers have gone three years without a raise, while the price of basic necessities and transportation has dramatically increased, he said. “We are asking for 1,500 gourdes with social support,” said St-Eloi, arguing that the inflation rate is currently 24.6%. “The bosses and the authorities treat the workers harshly. They have condemned workers to work for a pittance of a salary for years without adjusting it.”
According to Jean Eddy Lucien, a historian and geographer at the State University of Haiti, when you look at workers’ wages, it’s a “genuinely complicated” question in terms of what they receive for the work they do. “When you consider the textile sector in Haiti, investors come because they are certainly attracted by the minimum wage,” he says. The researcher takes as an example, a worker in the United States who might earn a $15 an hour – for eight hours that is $120.
Meanwhile, Haitians receive less than $5 an hour. Doing the math, one can see how many Haitian workers the capitalists can exploit with the salary paid one North American worker. “A worker who works for eight hours for less than $5 [as is the case in Haiti] — he is a paid slave. The workers’ movement is another awakening in the Haitian social movement. It is a revolutionary environment,” said Lucien, noting that the workers’ struggle is the motor of human advances. “It is they who can change history.”
Work Only for Food
“A worker cannot live with the 685 gourdes that Prime Minister Ariel Henry has just offered to the workers,” St-Eloi asserts, detailing the daily expenses workers face: 200 gourdes for transport, 150 gourdes for food, and 100 gourdes for juice in the morning. At noon, a work might buy a dish of food for between 200 and 300 gourdes and a juice for 100 gourdes. That’s about 850 gourdes daily right there.
“We must not forget that the worker lives in a house, has a family, and has school fees to pay each month,” he said, noting that workers sometimes suffer from tuberculosis and often endure stomach ulcers from not eating enough. “Workers resist eating in the morning,” St-Eloi said. “They only take a piece of cassava or a little bread with peanut butter, which must last them the whole day.”
“This means that the worker labors only to be able to eat and has no social or cultural life,” said Professor Lucien, who focuses on social movements and class struggles in Haiti. “The workers’ milieu is the most revolutionary milieu. These are not just local demands — but also cross borders. The capitalists operate in a network,” and so must the workers.
Repression of the Workers’ Struggle in Haiti
St-Eloi denounced the recent acts of police violence that repressed the worker protests with live ammunition and tear gas. He criticized the bosses who withhold insurance money from workers paychecks but do not pay it to the insurance institutions. This deprives the workers of the medical care that they usually end up needing.
“We ask everyone to support the Haitian workers, who are fighting a fundamental battle,” St-Eloi said, “a fight which, according to the Constitution, gives them the right to demonstrate, in order to defend their rights and their interests.” He called the workers movement today “class struggle.”
Lucien recalls that to maximize their profit in the subcontracting sector, investors need conditions like low wages and the non-payment of taxes. “They must have a power preventing people – if they rise up – for the reaction to be rapid,” he said. “There must be a very repressive police force.” He also denounced certain media which are in the service of the bosses and try to create confusion.
“One of the conditions, they must have stability,” he said, “and this stability requires repression.” This is why in all the areas where there is foreign capital invested, like the industrial parks of Caracol in the North, CODEVI in the Northeast, or SONAPI in Port-au-Prince, you see that the police control the district. “The police are more repressive towards the workers than any other social group,” Lucien said, noting that the police force is not independent but is there to defend the bourgeoisie.
“Whether we speak of the government or the police, they are instruments in the hands of the national and international bourgeoisie,” Lucien concludes, arguing that the government and the police take a stand for the bosses. “The recent protests have allowed social movements that were in slow motion to take off.”
A shorter French version of this article was first published by Enquet’Action.