Haiti Archives 1995-1996
09/01/96 THIS WEEK IN HAITI January 3 – 9, 1996 Vol. 13, No. 41

“Le journal qui offre une alternative”

DISNEY’S HELL IN HAITI

The dewy eyes and beguiling smile of Walt Disney’s newest animated star, Pocahontas, may have charmed children the world over this Christmas. But in Haiti, Pocahontas symbolizes a living hell for many of the young women toiling in the country’s assembly zones, according to a new report released last month.

Workers stitching clothing emblazoned with feel-good Disney characters are not even paid enough to feed themselves, let alone their families, charges the New York-based National Labor Committee Education Fund in Support of Worker and Human Rights in Central America (NLC). “Haitian contractors producing Mickey Mouse and Pocahontas pajamas for U.S. companies under license with the Walt Disney Corporation are in some cases paying workers as little as 15 gourdes (US$1) per day — 12 cents an hour — in clear violation of Haitian law,” said the NLC. Along with starvation wages, Haitian workers making clothes for U.S. corporate giants face sexual harassment and exceedingly long hours of work. “Haiti does need economic development and Haitian workers do need jobs, but not at the price of violating workers’ fundamental rights. Paying 11 cents an hour to sew dresses for Kmart is not development. It is crime,” charged the NLC.

Over the past two decades, U.S. State Department officials have consistently prescribed development of the “transformation industry” as the antidote to Haitian poverty. In the early 1980s, about 250 factories employed over 60,000 Haitian workers in Port- au-Prince. The minimum wage then was US$2.64 a day. But many sweat-shops fled Haiti after the fall of the dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986. Others left shortly after the election of Jean- Bertrand Aristide in 1990, who campaigned with nationalist rhetoric, and still more left after the 1991 coup d’etat.

But Haiti’s miserable condition today makes it an ideal “competitor” in the world labor market, say U.S. State Department officials, and the assembly zones are again at the heart of the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) for Haiti now being peddled by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Still, the recovery of the assembly zones remains weak. Only 72 assembly firms employing some 13,000 people had been re- established by September 1995, according to a Haitian government agency. International financial institutions argue that Haiti must lower the other costs of assembly production like port, telephone and electricity fees. Hence, the World Bank is pushing for U.S. companies to take control of these key sectors through the privatization of Haiti’s publicly owned industries. Meanwhile, SAP strategists argue, wages must be kept low and “competitive.”

But the National Labor Committee (NLC), and Haitian workers, contend that the assembly zones in Haiti, like those in the rest of the Caribbean and Central America, are zones for slavery. “As Haitian factory owners and American corporations are profiting from the low wages, Haitian workers are struggling every day just to feed themselves and their families,” noted the NLC report, entitled, “How to Get Rich on 11 Cents an Hour.”

In particular, the report notes how factory owners are trying to avoid paying Haiti’s new minimum wage of 36 gourdes per day (US$2.40) and charges that more than half of the 40 textile assembly firms operating in Haiti at the time of the NLC’s research in August 1995 were violating the minimum wage law. President Aristide raised the minimum wage last May from 15 to 36 gourdes per day. Although it was the first wage hike since 1984, the NLC notes that the new minimum wage “is worth less in real terms than the old minimum wage of 15 gourdes was worth in 1990… And since Oct. 1, 1980, when dictator Jean-Claude (”Baby Doc”) Duvalier first set the minimum wage at 13.20 gourdes, the real value of the minimum wage has declined by almost 50%.”

In the 12-page report, the NLC saves some of its sharpest criticism for giant U.S. corporations, like Sears, Wal-Mart and Walt Disney Company, which contract out to U.S. and Haitian firms. At a Quality Garments factory, making Mickey Mouse pajamas, employees reported that last summer they had worked 50 days straight, up to 70 hours per week, without a day off. “One worker told the NLC that she was supposed to sew seams on 204 pairs of Mickey Mouse pajamas in a day for which she would be paid 40 gourdes ($2.67). But she was only able to complete 144 pairs for which she was paid 28 gourdes (US$1.87),” said the NLC. The report noted that Michael Eisner, the CEO of Disney, earned $203 million in 1993, about 325,000 times the salary of workers in Haiti. “If a typical Haitian worker worked full-time, six days a week sewing clothes for Disney, it would take her approximately 1,040 years to earn what Michael Eisner earned in one day in 1993,” said the report.

Overall, the NLC found a “pattern of abuses, including low wages, so low, in fact, that a factory owner told the NLC that, ‘The workers can’t work effectively because they don’t eat enough.’” The report calculates that a family in Port-au-Prince must spend — at the very least — 363 gourdes, or $24.20, per week for food, shelter, and education. “But a minimum wage earner, working 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, takes home 216 gourdes per week, or less than 60% of a family’s basic needs,” said the report.

The NLC lays much of the blame for the deteriorating conditions of Haitian workers at the doorstep of USAID, which committed $8 million of U.S. taxpayer money to promoting foreign investment in Haiti this past year. “The U.S. government has shown a commitment to aggressively court U.S. business to invest in Haiti, but it has shown no such commitment to the workers who produce for those U.S. companies,” the NLC argues, noting that USAID has historically pressured the Haitian government to keep wages low.

Now, the NLC, which is affiliated with textile unions in the United States, sees that the low wages in Haiti will be used to try to depress the wages of other workers in the Americas. “Haitian wages are extremely attractive and lower than in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, other major assembly zone operations. In other words, Haiti defines the wage floor for the entire Western Hemisphere,” said the report. Haiti is presently way out in front in the race to the bottom.

[For further information, or to order copies of the report, contact: The National Labor Committee Education Fund, 15 Union Square West, New York, NY 10003-3377 Tel: 212-242-0700]

Caption: A worker at L.V. Myles, a U.S. owned garment factory in Port-au-Prince, wrapping clothing under license with the Walt Disney Corporation to be sold at Sears department stores.

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