The Struggle For A Minimum Wage Adjustment In Haiti
The minimum wage in Haiti is currently set at about 25¢ an hour, less than $2 a day (70 gourdes). This is less than one fifth (20%) of the 1980 minimum wage, under dictator Baby Doc Duvalier. Although, according to Haitian law (Article 137 of the Labor Code), the minimum wage should be adjusted yearly against inflation, capitalists and their governments have conspired to deny workers even this minimum adjustment in order to ensure that Haiti has the lowest paid workers in the Western Hemisphere. They advertise this to promote foreign investment in sweatshops. They benefit from low wages because it bolsters their profits.
In 1980, the Haitian minimum wage was 13.20 gourdes per day. Since 1980, the minimum wage in Haiti has only been adjusted three times. In 1984, it was adjusted to 15 gourdes (10.71 1980 gourdes), in 1995, to 36 gourdes (6.75 1980 gourdes), and in 2003 to 70 gourdes (3.26 1980 gourdes). Each one of these adjustments fell substantially short of cost of living increases. From 1995 to 2005, the cost of living increased by an average of 19% each year. After adjusting for inflation, in 2007, the 70 gourdes minimum wage is worth about 2.50 gourdes (1980), or about 19% of the 1980 minimum wage.
What makes this situation even worse is that in Haiti, unlike here in the US, the vast majority of urban workers are paid salaries which are close to the minimum wage, and sometimes even less, while in rural areas, laborers and agricultural workers are most often paid even less.
How can a worker provide for his family’s needs, on a wage which is so far below subsistence? Yet, the political lobby to maintain these starvation wages is quite powerful. In 1991, when the first Lavalas government floated the idea of raising the minimum wage, which was 15 gourdes at the time, to 25 gourdes, it was met with intense resistance from capitalists and from the US embassy. The USAID launched a series of programs at a total cost of over $26 million to campaign against this increase. Most probably, bourgeois opposition to this plan contributed to Aristide’s overthrow, on September 30, 1991. After Aristide was reinstated in 1994, through US-UN military intervention, he then decreed an increase in the minimum wage in 1995 to 36 gourdes, but this was worth less than half of the 1980 minimum wage and about half of the proposed 25 gourdes in 1991, and less than the value of the minimum wage when Aristide was first voted into office in 1990. When, during his last term of office, Aristide again decreed a minimum wage adjustment to 70 gourdes per day, this represented about a quarter of the 1980 minimum wage, very much in line with IMF prescriptions to solicit foreign investments by keeping wages low.
What levels of profits does such a policy enable? In a 1996 study by the National Labor Committee entitled “The US in Haiti, How to get rich on 11¢ an hour”, it was shown that an assembly line of 20 workers earning the minimum wage at the time would cost a total of less than $67 in wages per day, while, in one day, these same workers could produce Pocahontas pajamas which would retail for about $12,000. These workers were paid approximately 1/2 of one percent of the value of the goods they produced.
Currently, a bill has been introduced in the Haitian parliament by congressman Steven Benoit which would raise the minimum wage to 200 gourdes per day ($5.61 per day or 70¢ per hour). This proposal is based on an estimated “living wage” or, more correctly, a subsistence wage. But why should a member of the Haitian Parliament, ostensibly acting in support of worker’s rights propose a wage adjustment inferior to what is already mandated by Article 137 the Haitian Labor Code? In order to maintain 1980 wage levels, the minimum wage should be adjusted to at least 350 gourdes per day. And when we factor in necessary adjustments for increased cost of living such as more costly living conditions and greater travel distances due to urban sprawl, and greater average skill levels of the minimum wage workforce, then the minimum wage should really be adjusted to about 400 gourdes. That was already the level of adjustment that Batay Ouvriye was calling for in 2003.
Yet, even when faced with this less than equitable adjustment, it is still in our interests as workers to fight for it as a first step, and then to pursue our struggles in the workplace for even greater adjustments. Clearly this is an uphill battle, because already the bosses are complaining that they can’t pay 200 gourdes and that this will drive away foreign investors. But these are the same complaints that capitalists the world over have always used to fight against wage increases. When the Federal Minimum wage was first legislated in 1938 in the US, it was set at 25¢ an hour, and capitalists all over complained that it would bankrupt them. Things have not changed much.
But why should workers here in the US, why should progressive people here in the US, care about the minimum wage in Haiti and the struggles of Haitian workers to gain a just compensation for their labor? It is precisely because capitalist free market globalization is using extreme starvation wage economies such as Haiti to force US workers to negotiate their salaries and benefits downward to compete in this global economy. Capitalists are using the freedom of capital in free trade markets to shackle workers to lower and lower wages, forcing us to compete with the lowest paid workers. This is our plight as workers. Greedy bosses close down factories in the US and relocate them to so-called Third World dominated economies where we, as workers, have to endure starvation wages because of massive unemployment, political repression and USAID, World Bank and IMF policies. And because we can’t earn a living in our native countries, we are forced to emigrate, most often illegally, draining our native countries of their productive labor force. And when we end up as undocumented immigrants here in the US, we are again used as pawns to divide the working class and to drive wages and benefits downward, while these same capitalists and their paid politicians point to us as scapegoats and pass legislation to further persecute and discriminate against us. And again, as they set immigrant workers against native workers, these same capitalists are laughing all the way to the bank, their bank.
That is why as workers, we can’t afford to be divided, because precisely as workers we belong to the same class and are all fundamentally engaged in the same struggle against capitalism world-wide. Only through our united struggle and solidarity can we overcome those who seek through their insatiable greed for more profits to exploit us ever more, to feed their corporate earnings and stock value. Only through our united struggle and solidarity can we attain better compensation for our labor.