Did the State Department help suppress the minimum wage in Haiti

Did the State Department help suppress the minimum wage in Haiti?

The Wikileaks cables show U.S. Embassy officials began monitoring the minimum wage issue as early as 2008, when the Haitian Parliament began discussing doubling or tripling the daily minimum wage of 70 Haitian gourdes to keep up with inflation. That’s roughly equal to $1.75 a day, or about 22 cents per hour.

Memos from 2008 and 2009 obtained by Wikileaks strongly suggest, but don’t prove without a doubt, that the State Department helped block the proposed minimum wage increase. The memos show that U.S. Embassy officials in Haiti clearly opposed the wage hike and met multiple times with factory owners who directly lobbied against it to the Haitian president.

HOPE, not change

In 2011, Wikileaks made nearly 2,000 cables available to the progressive magazine, The Nation, and Haiti Liberté, a weekly newspaper in Port-au-Prince.

The two media outlets assessed the cables and found, among many other revelations, that the “U.S. Embassy in Haiti worked closely with factory owners contracted by Levi’s, Hanes, and Fruit of the Loom to aggressively block a paltry minimum wage increase” for workers in apparel factories.

The Wikileaks cables show U.S. Embassy officials began monitoring the minimum wage issue as early as 2008, when the Haitian Parliament began discussing doubling or tripling the daily minimum wage of 70 Haitian gourdes to keep up with inflation. That’s roughly equal to $1.75 a day, or about 22 cents per hour.

(Some context here: Three quarters of Haitians live on less than $2 a day, according to the United Nations’ World Food Program, while garments constitute about 90 percent of Haiti’s exports, according to the Guardian. Haiti increased the daily minimum wage to the equivalent of $5.11 in 2014.)

But back in 2008 and 2009, embassy officials repeatedly told Washington that a hike would hurt the economy and undermine U.S. trade preference legislation known as HOPE.

The program, shorthand for the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement Act of 2006, gives garments manufactured on the island duty free access to U.S. markets. Levi Strauss, Haneswear, Nautica, and Dockers are just some of the American companies that benefit from HOPE. Congress passed HOPE II in 2008, extending the program for another 10 years.

In January 2008, Ambassador Janet Sanderson wrote that representatives of the business community — including the man tasked with implementing HOPE — had met with embassy officials and criticized Haitian President René Préval’s efforts to raise the minimum wage as the wrong medicine for the ailing economy.

An unsigned embassy cable sent to Washington in December 2008 echoed the private sector’s assessment and reported that increasing the minimum wage would “have significant impact” on business.

The State Department continued to promote HOPE as an economic boon for the island. In memos prepping U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and Clinton for their visits to Haiti, chargé d’affaires Thomas Tighe told the diplomats to “urge” the Haitian government take advantage of HOPE and HOPE II.

After advising a congressional delegation to Haiti almost exactly the same thing, Sanderson told Washington that Haitian Prime Minister Michele Pierre-Louis was onboard with HOPE, “although pending legislation to nearly triple the minimum wage would likely set back those efforts in the short term.”

Deputy Chief of Mission David Lindwall put it most bluntly, when he said the minimum wage law “did not take economic reality into account but that appealed to the unemployed and underpaid masses.”

Préval as proxy

Nonetheless, the Haitian Parliament voted to triple the daily minimum wage to 200 gourdes ($5 a day, or about 62 cents per hour) in May 2009. As the bill awaited President Préval’s signature, students protested over the delay while factory owners criticized the legislation.

The U.S. Embassy, meanwhile, continued to lament the hike and raised concerns about the stability of the region that they hoped Préval would help address, according to the cables. Préval, as they say, leaned in.

Sanderson, in a June 10 memo, cited a study by the Haitian Association of Industry (ADIH) stating that the new minimum wage “would result in the loss of 10,000 workers in the sector” and noted that ADIH has met with Préval three times.

“A more visible and active engagement by Préval may be critical to resolving the issue of the minimum wage and its protest ‘spin-off’ — or risk the political environment spiraling out of control,” she wrote.

A few days later, Préval seemed to be on board with the embassy and industry position on the minimum wage issue.

On June 17, Tighe told Washington that industry and USAID studies found that a 200 gourdes minimum wage “would make the sector economically unviable and consequently force factories to shut down.”

He also noted that ADIH members and HOPE factory owners told U.S. officials that in lieu of greenlighting the legislation as is, Préval would instead propose a lower, phased-in minimum wage for the textiles sector (100 gourdes in 2009, 125 gourdes in 2010, and 150 gourdes in 2011).

Protesters continued to call for Préval to sign the original bill, with some demonstrations escalating into violence, as parliament considered the president’s amendments.

In a June 24 cable to a congressional delegation, Tighe said the demonstrations added uncertainty to the political and security situation in Haiti and “job creation under HOPE II may be threatened by a bill Parliament passed May 5 to nearly triple the minimum wage.”

When the delegation met with Préval the next day, the president parroted this line and encouraged the congressmen “to write to Haitian members of Parliament to express concern about the devastating impact a sector-wide increase in wages would have on job security and job creation,” according to a memo from Tighe.

By July, Préval was a formal and vocal opponent of the 200 gourds wage, warning of the consequences for jobs and emphasizing the importance of the assembly sector for exports, according to cables.

“This is the only issue in recent memory where the president has made a strong effort, by negotiating with stakeholders and using the media, to effect a legislative outcome,” Tighe said.

In the fall of 2009, Préval and Parliament agreed to enact the $5 daily wage for all sectors except textiles, which got a $3 wage. But was the State Department right in opposing the increase?

“I have no idea what would happen if Haiti did have a $5-a-day minimum wage,” Adam Davidson of NPR’s Planet Money said in 2011. “But I do think it’s reasonable to assume that some factories would close and far fewer new ones would be built. Far fewer Haitians would be allowed to take that first tentative step on to the ladder of industrial development.”

WikiLeaks Haiti: Let Them Live on $3 a Day
The US Embassy aided Levi’s, Hanes contractors in their fight against an increase in Haiti’s minimum wage.
By Dan Coughlin and Kim Ives

Contractors for Fruit of the Loom, Hanes and Levi’s worked in close concert with the US Embassy when they aggressively moved to block a minimum wage increase for Haitian assembly zone workers, the lowest-paid in the hemisphere, according to secret State Department cables.

The factory owners told the Haitian Parliament that they were willing to give workers a 9-cents-per-hour pay increase to 31 cents per hour to make T-shirts, bras and underwear for US clothing giants like Dockers and Nautica.

But the factory owners refused to pay 62 cents per hour, or $5 per day, as a measure unanimously passed by the Haitian Parliament in June 2009 would have mandated. And they had the vigorous backing of the US Agency for International Development and the US Embassy when they took that stand.

To resolve the impasse between the factory owners and Parliament, the State Department urged quick intervention by then Haitian President René Préval.

“A more visible and active engagement by Préval may be critical to resolving the issue of the minimum wage and its protest ‘spin-off’—or risk the political environment spiraling out of control,” argued US Ambassador Janet Sanderson in a June 10, 2009, cable back to Washington.

Two months later Préval negotiated a deal with Parliament to create a two-tiered minimum wage increase—one for the textile industry at about $3 per day and one for all other industrial and commercial sectors at about $5 per day.

Still the US Embassy wasn’t pleased. A deputy chief of mission, David E. Lindwall, said the $5 per day minimum “did not take economic reality into account” but was a populist measure aimed at appealing to “the unemployed and underpaid masses.”

Haitian advocates of the minimum wage argued that it was necessary to keep pace with inflation and alleviate the rising cost of living. As it is, Haiti is the poorest country in the hemisphere and the World Food Program estimates that as many as 3.3 million people in Haiti, a third of the population, are food insecure. In April 2008 Haiti was rocked by the so-called Clorox food riots, named after hunger so painful that it felt like bleach in your stomach.

According to a 2008 Worker Rights Consortium study, a family of one working member and two dependents needed at least 550 Haitian gourdes, or $12.50, per day to meet normal living expenses.

The revelation of US support for low wages in Haiti’s assembly zones was in a trove of 1,918 cables made available to the Haitian weekly newspaper Haïti Liberté by the transparency group WikiLeaks. As part of a collaboration with Haïti Liberté, The Nation is publishing English-language articles based on those cables.

In an emailed statement, the State Department declined to comment on the disclosures in this article, citing a policy against commenting on documents that purport to contain classified information and stating that it “strongly condemns any illegal disclosure of such information.” However, the State Department spokesperson added in the email: “In Haiti, approximately 80 percent of the population is unemployed and 78 percent earns less than $1 per day”— actually, according to the UN Development Program, 78 percent of Haitians live on less than $2, not $1, a day—and “the US government is working with the government of Haiti and international partners to help create jobs, support economic growth, promote foreign direct investment that meets ILO labor standards in the apparel industry and invest in agriculture and beyond.”

For a twenty-month period between early February 2008 and October 2009, US Embassy officials closely monitored and reported on the minimum wage issue. The cables show that the Embassy fully understood the popularity of the measure.

The cables attest that the new wage even had support from a majority of Haitian private sector representatives “based on reports that wages in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua (competitors in the garment industry) will increase also.”

Still the proposal engendered fierce opposition from Haiti’s tiny assembly zone elite, which Washington had long been supporting with direct financial aid and free trade deals.

In 2006 the US Congress passed the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement (HOPE) bill, which gave Haitian assembly zone manufacturers preferential trade incentives. Two years later Congress passed an enhanced version of the duty-free trade bill called HOPE II. And USAID Haiti provided technical assistance and training programs to factories to help them expand and take advantage of HOPE II.

US Embassy cables claimed that those efforts were imperiled by parliamentary demands for a wage hike to keep pace with soaring inflation and high food prices. “[Textile] Industry representatives, led by the Association of Haitian Industry (ADIH), objected to the immediate HTG 130 (USD 3.25) per day wage increase in the assembly sector, saying it would devastate the industry and negatively impact the benefits of the Haitian Hemispheric through Opportunity Partnership Encouragement Act (HOPE II),” said a June 17, 2009, confidential cable from chargé d’affaires Thomas C. Tighe to Washington.

Tighe said that the “ADIH and USAID funded studies on the impact of near tripling of the minimum wage on the textile sector found that an HTG 200 Haitian gourde minimum wage would make the sector economically unviable and consequently force factories to shut down.”

Bolstered by the USAID study, the factory owners lobbied heavily against the increase, meeting with Préval on multiple occasions and with more than forty members of Parliament and political parties, according to the cables.

The Haiti cables also reveal how closely the US Embassy monitored widespread pro–minimum wage demonstrations and openly worried about the political impact of the minimum wage battle. UN troops were called in to quell student protests, sparking further demands from Haitians for the end of the 9,000-strong UN occupation.

As the Haitian Platform for Development Alternatives put it in a press release in June 2009, “Every time the minimum wage has been discussed, ADIH has cried wolf to scare the government against its passage: that raising minimum wage would mean the certain and immediate closure of industry in Haiti and the cause of a sudden loss of jobs. In every case, it was a lie.”

Editor’s Note: We first posted this story on June 1, but at the request of Haïti Liberté, our partner in this series, we temporarily removed it until June 8. Some enterprising bloggers noted the “pulled scoop” and, pointing out that you “can’t stuff the news genie back in the bottle,” attempted to summarize it for their readers. Along the way, a few subtleties got lost—like that the factory owners at the center of this sordid story, who moved successfully to block the $5 per day minimum wage passed by the Haitian parliament, were making goods for big-name US retailers like Levi Strauss and Hanes. In keeping with the industry’s usual practice, the brand name US companies kept their own hands clean, letting their contractors do the work of making Haiti safe for the sweatshops from which they derive their profits—with help from US officials. We apologize for the delay in bringing the original article back online.

WikiLeaks Haiti: The Nation Partners With Haïti Liberté on Release of Secret Haiti Cables

Leaked documents provide an extraordinary glimpse of US maneuvering in Haiti from before the 2004 coup through the devastating 2010 earthquake.

Drawing from a trove of 1,918 Haiti-related diplomatic cables obtained by the transparency-advocacy group WikiLeaks, The Nation is collaborating with the Haitian weekly newspaper Haïti Liberté on a series of groundbreaking articles about US and UN policy toward the Caribbean nation.

Haïti Liberté, published largely in French and Creole, is working with WikiLeaks to release and analyze the Haiti-related cables, which will be featured in a series of English-language Nation pieces, written by a variety of freelance journalists with extensive experience in Haiti and posted each Wednesday for several weeks.

The cables from US Embassies around the world cover an almost seven-year period, from April 17, 2003—ten months before the February 29, 2004, coup d’état that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide—to February 28, 2010, just after the January 12 earthquake that devastated the capital, Port-au-Prince, and surrounding cities. They range from “Secret” and “Confidential” classifications to “Unclassified.” Cables of the latter classification are not public, and many are marked “For Official Use Only” or “Sensitive.”

The cables that form the basis of the articles in this series are being published in their entirety on the WikiLeaks site. However, in some cases, names will be redacted for safety reasons.

While not revealing any intelligence or military operations, and not comprising a complete set of all Port-au-Prince Embassy communiqués, the cables offer a penetrating look into US strategies and maneuvering in Haiti during the brutal coup years (2004–2006) and the period after President René Préval’s election (2006–2010). We see Washington’s obsession with keeping Aristide out of Haiti and the hemisphere; the microscope it trained on rebellious neighborhoods like Bel Air and Cité Soleil; and its tight supervision of Haiti’s police and of the United Nations’ 9,000-man military occupation known as the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH).

Embassy officials offer candid assessments of other ambassadors and of Haitian politicians, UN officials, and other public figures. Sometimes their analysis is illuminating; more often, their assessments range from arrogant, pedantic or self-serving to false, tendentious or just plain ridiculous.

What emerges is an extraordinary portrait of Washington’s aggressive management of Latin America’s first sovereign nation—and its bare-knuckled tactics on behalf of US corporate interests there. But the cables also show how Washington’s designs are met with fierce resistance from the Haitian people. And they reveal how Haiti is a key arena for North-South struggle and East-West intrigue. Washington squares off against Caracas and Havana, particularly over oil, while Beijing and Taipei engage in fierce diplomatic arm-wrestling that threatens to derail the UN military mission in Haiti.

This release is part of the latest phase of WikiLeaks activity. Originally, WikiLeaks distributed the 251,287 leaked US Embassy cables and the Afghan war logs it obtained last year by providing them to large Western newspapers like the New York Times and the Guardian and the German magazine Der Spiegel. Since late December, WikiLeaks has selected media outlets in other countries—well over fifty now—and provided them with the US Embassy cables relevant to their country or region. Where they have been published, these disclosures have almost invariably generated major headlines, but typically they have received scant attention in the United States.

By partnering with Haïti Liberté, and placing the cables in context for a US audience, The Nation hopes to heighten the impact of the Haiti releases in the United States and internationally—and to advance the WikiLeaks mission of transparency in government that we regard as critical to democracy.

Leaked US Cables Paint Portrait of Brutal, Ineffectual and Polluting UN ForceAs the renewal date for the UN mission in Haiti nears, WikiLeaks cables reveal a litany of MINUSTAH’s failures.

Country’s Elite Used Police as Private Army: A secret US Embassy cable describes how Haiti’s business elite armed and deployed police units in pro-Aristide strongholds like Bel Air and Cité Soleil after the 2004 coup.

The Post-Quake ‘Gold Rush’ for Reconstruction Contracts:Leaked cables show disaster capitalism in action.

The Earthquake Cables: Despite reports from its own embassy that the post-quake situation in Haiti was “calm,” the United States launched a massive military operation that sparked an international backlash.

Embassy Warned of Earthquake Vulnerability: A 2005 cable obtained by WikiLeaks predicted that the Haitian government was “unprepared to handle a natural disaster of any magnitude.”

Let Them Live on $3 a Day: The US Embassy aided Levi’s, Hanes contractors in their fight against an increase in Haiti’s minimum wage.

Cable Depicts Fraudulent Haiti Election: Confirming what Haitians already knew, a WikiLeaks document shows how US and international donors staged the phony presidential election.

The PetroCaribe Files: The fight Big Oil lost in Haiti (for now).

On Background: From WikiLeaks to WikiHaiti: Now that WikiLeaks is collaborating with media organizations across the globe, a huge trove of previously-unpublished State Department cables are coming to light.

Nation Conversations: Betsy Reed and Dan Coughlin on WikiLeaks Haiti

The explosive diplomatic cables prove what many Haitians already knew about US and UN meddling in the country.

From the US pushing its self-interested political agenda in Haiti to corporations refusing Haitian workers even a dismal minimum wage, the diplomatic cables from Haiti recently made available by the transparency-advocacy group WikiLeaks have confirmed many Haitians’ worst suspicions about international meddling in their country. The collaboration between The Nation and Haïti Liberté to analyze the contents of the cables has made many of these back-door operations clear for the first time.

In this Nation Conversation with executive editor Betsy Reed,The Nation‘s Dan Coughlin explains why he believes this newfound transparency could be the grain of sand that brings the country’s machinery of corruption grinding to a halt.

A Pulled Scoop Shows U.S. Fought to Keep Haitian Wages Down (UPDATED)

The Nation has a scoop—or had, actually—from Wikileaks cables showing that the Obama administration pressured Haiti not to raise its minimum wage to 61 cents an hour, or five bucks a day.

The magazine posted the story the other day and has now pulled it,saying it will repost it next Wednesday “To accord with the publishing schedule of Haiti Liberté,” its partner on the piece.

But you can’t stuff the news genie back in the bottle. They already put it in my browser and many others, so I’ll summarize what it said (and I’ll link to it once The Nation republishes it).

Two years ago, Haiti unanimously passed a law sharply raising its minimum wage to 61 cents an hour. That doesn’t sound like much (and it isn’t), but it was two and a half times the then-minimum of 24 cents an hour.

This infuriated contractors for (UPDATE: I originally wrote that the companies themselves did this here, but The Nation wrote that it was contractors for the companies, so I’ve added “contractors for” here) American corporations like Hanes and Levi Strauss that pay Haitians slave wages to sew their clothes. They said they would only fork over a seven-cent-an-hour increase, and they got the State Department involved. The U.S. ambassador put pressure on Haiti’s president, who duly carved out a $3 a day minimum wage for textile companies (the U.S. minimum wage, which itself is very low, works out to $58 a day).

The Nation:

Still the US Embassy wasn’t pleased. A deputy chief of mission, David E. Lindwall, said the $5 per day minimum “did not take economic reality into account” but was a populist measure aimed at appealing to “the unemployed and underpaid masses.”

Well, hey. Imagine Haitians doing things for their “unemployed and underpaid masses” rather than rich Yankee corporations. The outrage! No wonder we have 9.1 percent unemployment and 16 percent underemployment here while the folks who sent the economy in the tank are back making millions.

Let’s do a little math. Haiti has about 25,000 garment workers. If you paid each of them $2 a day more, it would cost their employers $50,000 per working day, or about $12.5 million a year.

Zooming in on specific companies helps clarify this even more. As of last year Hanes had 3,200 Haitians making t-shirts for it. Paying each of them two bucks a day more would cost it about $1.6 million a year. Hanesbrands Incorporated made $211 million on $4.3 billion in sales last year, and presumably it would pass on at least some of its higher labor costs to consumers.

Or better yet, Hanesbrands CEO Richard Noll could forego some of his rich compensation package. He could $10 million package last year He could pay for the raises for those 3,200 t-shirt makers with just one-sixth of the $10 million in salary and bonus he raked in last year.

And that five dollars a day? The Nation reports that a Haitian family of three (two kids) needed $12.50 a day in 2008 to make ends meet.

But, of course, the clothing companies are hardly America’s only imperial beneficiaries in Haiti, as The Nation reports in a story on the oil companies that it hasn’t pulled.

WIKILEAKS: U.S. Fought To Lower Minimum Wage In Haiti So Hanes And Levis Would Stay Cheap

A Wikileaks post published on The Nation shows that the Obama Administration fought to keep Haitian wages at 31 cents an hour.

(This article was taken down by The Nation due to an embargo, but it was excerpted at Columbia Journalism Review.)

It started when Haiti passed a law two years ago raising its minimum wage to 61 cents an hour. According to an embassy cable:

This infuriated American corporations like Hanes and Levi Strauss that pay Haitians slave wages to sew their clothes. They said they would only fork over a seven-cent-an-hour increase, and they got the State Department involved. The U.S. ambassador put pressure on Haiti’s president, who duly carved out a $3 a day minimum wage for textile companies (the U.S. minimum wage, which itself is very low, works out to $58 a day).

Haiti has about 25,000 garment workers. If you paid each of them $2 a day more, it would cost their employers $50,000 per working day, or about $12.5 million a year … As of last year Hanes had 3,200 Haitians making t-shirts for it. Paying each of them two bucks a day more would cost it about $1.6 million a year. Hanesbrands Incorporated made $211 million on $4.3 billion in sales last year.

Thanks to U.S. intervention, the minimum was raised only to 31 cents.

These papers have come to light thanks to Haiti Liberte, a small Haitian newspaper with offices in Port-au-Prince and New York City.

Haiti: Leaked Cables Expose U.S. Suppression of Min. Wage, Election Doubts and Elite’s Private Army


Drawing on almost 2,000 classified U.S. diplomatic cables on Haiti released by WikiLeaks, a partnership between The Nation magazine and the Haitian weekly, Haïti Liberté, exposes new details on how Fruit of the Loom, Hanes and Levi’s worked with the United States to block an increase in the minimum wage in the hemisphere’s poorest nation, how business owners and members of the country’s elite used Haiti’s police force as their own private army after the 2004 U.S.-backed coup that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and how the United States, the European Union and the United Nations supported Haiti’s recent presidential and parliamentary elections, despite concerns over the exclusion of Haiti’s largest opposition party, Lavalas, the party of Aristide. We speak with the reports’ authors, longtime Haiti correspondent Dan Coughlin and Haïti Liberté editor, Kim Ives.

JUAN GONZALEZ: A new exposé on Haiti shows how business owners and members of the country’s elite used Haiti’s police force as their own private army, giving them guns and ammunition, after the 2004 U.S.-backed coup that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. It’s part of a series of reports that draw from almost 2,000 U.S. diplomatic cables on Haiti released by WikiLeaks. The series is a partnership between The Nation magazine and the Haitian weekly newspaper, Haïti Liberté. The cables cover an almost seven-year period, from April 2003 to February 2010, just after the earthquake that devastated the capital of Port-au-Prince and surrounding cities.

AMY GOODMAN: Another recent exposé details how the United States, the European Union and the United Nations supported Haiti’s recent presidential and parliamentary elections despite concerns that the country had unfairly excluded Haiti’s largest opposition party, Lavalas, the party of Aristide.

And a third report in the series explains how contractors for Fruit of the Loom, Hanes and Levi’s worked with the U.S. embassy to aggressively block a minimum wage increase for Haitian assembly zone workers, the lowest-paid workers in the hemisphere, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

We’re joined now by the two the authors of these reports: veteran Haiti correspondent Dan Coughlin and Haïti Liberté editor Kim Ives. Dan covered Haiti for the Inter Press Service from the United Nations and Port-au-Prince between ’92 and ’96, currently executive director of Manhattan Neighborhood Network, MNN, and writes for The Nation magazine.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Kim, why don’t you start off just outlining the latest revelations that you’ve gotten from these WikiLeaks documents and what these documents are? They’re U.S. government cables.

KIM IVES: Yeah, well, the U.S. government cables are part of the 250,000 confidential and secret cables that WikiLeaks got from the diplomatic service, from the State Department. Essentially, since we were on last talking about PetroCaribe, we’ve had four major stories, which are that they were blocking the hiking of the minimum wage from a buck-seventy-five a day to $5. They wanted to $3, and that’s what they won, working with Haitian assembly industry owners.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Who was trying to raise the minimum wage?

KIM IVES: That was the people. There was a movement on the ground of students, workers and the general public, which wanted to see it go up.

AMY GOODMAN: And who was blocking?

KIM IVES: That was the assembly industry owners and the U.S., working with them. The two of them worked together to basically bring in Préval to stop it and set it down to three bucks a day. So, that was one. At the same time, they were going into an election, which was clearly flawed. They knew it. And they had a meeting, and they said, “OK, the”—

AMY GOODMAN: This is the U.S.?

KIM IVES: Yeah, the U.S., along with the E.U., U.N. and a numb er of other so-called friends of Haiti, sat down and said, “OK, we’re going to fund this election, even though we know from the start that it’s flawed.” And they had a meeting and said, “OK, we’re going to rubberstamp it and pay for it, even though we know it’s flawed,” and at the same time saying they were going to pay for the right-wing opposition, the National Endowment for Democracy-funded opposition, by buying them radio time and so forth.

We also had a story last week that was by Ansel Herz about the way the U.S. came in with their military right after the earthquake and, with no clearance from Préval, decided to bring in 22,000 troops. When the people needed doctors and engineers and so forth, here were soldiers patrolling the street and blocking the hospital, as we saw, Amy.

And finally, this week, we have the question of the bourgeoisie turning the police into their own private army.

DAN COUGHLIN: And what these cables show, Amy, is really remarkable. It’s like the curtain being pulled from behind the Wizard of Oz, a really inside look at what the U.S. policy is in Haiti, the materially poorest country in the Western hemisphere. So they’re blocking a preferential trade deal with Venezuela that means huge stability for the Haitian people, stable electricity supply, $100 million in extra funding for the government, which they use for social programs.

We see the manipulation, extraordinary manipulation, of Haiti’s presidential election, where, quote-unquote, the international community recognizes that the opposition is “emasculated.” So why are we bothering to have an election, if the most popular political party has been banned? And you see in these cables, the Canadians and others are like a little concerned. Hey, how are we going to have an election here? And literally, the head of the E.U. in Haiti—

AMY GOODMAN: European Union.

DAN COUGHLIN: —the head of the U.N., the head of—the Spanish ambassador, the Brazilian ambassador, the U.S. ambassador, at a meeting, at a table, discussing this. And finally, they decide, “Oh, we have too much invested in Haiti not to let these fraudulent elections move forward.”

AMY GOODMAN: It’s like the Republicans have the Democrats banned in the United States. You know, Democracy Now! went with Jean-Bertrand Aristide, returned with him from South Africa, where he was in exile for seven years, to Haiti. We were on the plane when he returned. At the airport, when we landed, he was greeted by thousands of supporters. He addressed the crowd in several languages. When he spoke in English, he said, “Exclusion is the problem. Inclusion is the solution”—not directly referencing his party, Fanmi Lavalas, which was excluded from the election, but when he addressed the Haitians in Creole, in their language, he was much more explicit.

JEANBERTRAND ARISTIDE: [translated] You are right. If we don’t salvage our dignity, our dignity will be gone. Yes, you are right, because the problem is exclusion, and the solution is inclusion. The exclusion of Fanmi Lavalas is the exclusion of the majority. The exclusion of the majority means that you are cutting off exactly the branch that we are all sitting on. The problem is exclusion; the solution is inclusion of all Haitians without discrimination, because everybody is a person.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, March 18th, just a few months ago, on the tarmac at the airport in Port-au-Prince, addressing that his party, the main party, was excluded from the election. And you’re saying the documents show the U.S. said we’ve got—they recognized it was a massive problem, but they said they were going to push it through, the elections.

DAN COUGHLIN: Yeah, absolutely. Not only were they going to push it through, they were even considering then—they even discussed a plan to actually help some of the right-wing opposition parties to get on the air, to put them on the Haitian media, in order to try to, what they considered, balance the playing field, though in fact the largest political party would still be barred. But they were out there trying to actually intervene in the Haitian sovereign election process. And, of course, in the cables, it shows they don’t care. It’s not an issue for anybody that, oh, they’re intervening in a local election and on the side of some parties against the other. They’re just interested in pushing through their candidate.

KIM IVES: And that’s what really comes out in it, was that you see, for the Lavalas Family, they felt more that it would look bad. But for the other ones, they were really concerned that they fare well, that they had been emasculated, that they were somehow disadvantaged, even though they were the ones that got millions of dollars through the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, these two tentacles of the NED that go into Haiti.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Dan, I’m wondering if you could be a little more specific in terms of this attempt to block the trade deal with Venezuela, specifically what the cables, some of them, said in terms of reporting—I guess they were reporting back to Washington what was going on?

DAN COUGHLIN: Yeah, and you could see that specific detail on Haiti-Liberte.com’s website and on TheNation.com, as well. But what happened is, Chevron and Exxon Mobil, amongst other oil companies, in conjunction with the U.S. embassy, tried to block this deal by putting enormous pressure on President Préval to stop the oil from coming in and the deal with Chávez to happen. And in fact, when Préval visited President Bush in the White House, this was the main issue of conversation, was Haiti’s relationship with Venezuela, Haiti’s attempt to get energy independence. And so, you see how they maneuver, what strings they pull, how they’re constantly applying pressure on Haiti, whether it’s to keep the minimum wage low, to stop energy independence, to have their people win the election. And—

KIM IVES: We also see it in the case of the “gold rush”—that’s the words of Ambassador Kenneth Merten—that came after the earthquake.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. ambassador.

KIM IVES: The U.S. ambassador said there’s a gold rush right now, because the gold was all these billions of dollars going to Haiti, and our contractors, U.S. contractors, are going to get it. So you had people like General Wesley Clark going down and fronting for a company called InnoVida, which put up these apparently completely worthless foam core construction houses, supposedly donating thousands, and another company called AshBritt based out of Pompano Beach, which were all going down basically to get a part of the booty, this disaster capitalism run amok. So we see, you know, the U.S. basically rubbing their hands, along with these people.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk, Dan, about the U.S. corporations and the minimum wage. Name the corporations. And what were they doing with the United States?

DAN COUGHLIN: Well, Haiti was the original runaway shop back in the ’70s, when American companies, trying to flee U.S. workers, U.S. unions, moved to Haiti. If you remember, it was famous for baseball production back in the ’70s. So it’s always been an offshore, tax-free, low-wage, no worker—minimal worker rights, minimal environmental regulations in Haiti. It’s just a free trade zone. So it’s been developed like that intermittently over the last 40 years. But Haitians object to this, because they’re mistreated, poorly paid, and so there’s a lot of resistance to it.

But companies like Hanes, Fruit of the Loom, Levi Strauss, these are named in the cables, who use these contractors to make, manufacture undergarments, T-shirts, in Haiti itself as a very low-waged center, in fact the lowest-wage center in the hemisphere. And it’s acknowledged as such, the poorest-paid, the lowest-paid workers in the hemisphere. These assembly zone contractors, who have these contracts with Hanes and Fruit of the Loom, are putting enormous pressure, with the U.S. embassy, on the Haitian parliament not to increase the minimum wage, because they claim that this will devastate the industry. This is the same argument that they’ve used time and time again. But these are the poorest-paid workers in the hemisphere. They can hardly eat. I think a third of the population of Haiti requires some food assistance.

KIM IVES: And Amy, this bourgeoisie that is carrying this out is the same one that is behind the coups that are happening in Haiti, that backed the coup. We’re going to have a piece shortly showing, through the cables, exactly how much they were behind the coup. And they’re also the ones who are turning the Haitian police into a private army.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I was going to ask about that.


JUAN GONZALEZ: You mention specifically Fritz Mevs, the son of one of the richest families in Haiti—

KIM IVES: Right.

JUAN GONZALEZ: —admitting, essentially, how they were supplying guns to the police force in exchange for them defending them.

KIM IVES: Yeah, essentially, what they had done, they had bought off one of the popular leaders of Cité Soleil, and he had actually been killed by, essentially, other groups in Cité Soleil who saw that he was a turncoat and defending the coup and defending the occupation and the bourgeoisie’s property. And so, when he was knocked out, the bourgeoisie panicked, and they said, “OK, we’re going to start to fund the police.” And the U.N. was useless, because—or not useless, but not as effective as Labaniere. And so, basically, they backed the police, and it went all the way ’til they carried out a tremendous massacre on July 6, 2005, where dozens of people were killed, including Dread Wilme, who had been the leader of this resistance in Cité Soleil to the coup and occupation.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! spoke with Haiti’s former first lady, Mildred Aristide, on March 18th, the historic day that the Aristides flew back from South Africa to Haiti. I spoke to her about her husband’s return to Haiti and why she thinks the U.S. tried to stop the trip.

MILDRED ARISTIDE: Everyone knows that it is a horrific situation that the country is living in now, and with the earthquake. And so, when they say they want Aristide present, to me, I see that as to be to accompany them in this process, as he accompanied them as a priest when he was a priest, as an educator when he was teaching, as president when he was president, and now as a citizen, as a former president, and as someone who will continue and will work on expanding the work of the foundation in that capacity. And, you know, to say that it’s the past is just really a crazy notion.

AMY GOODMAN: So, two U.S-backed coups, 1991 and 2004, and now the U.S.—well, President Obama calling President Zuma to say, “Do not fly the Aristides home to Haiti.”

MILDRED ARISTIDE: I think—again, I think it’s—it’s an inability, maybe, by the American political process to understand the kind of relation that Titide has with the Haitian people, and it doesn’t fit within the kind of policy frameworks that perhaps they have of—and so, it’s an unwillingness to see beyond that. I’ll attribute it to that. And, you know, in the meanwhile—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain a little more what you mean.

MILDRED ARISTIDE: Well, I think that—I think that the United States and a lot of those western European countries see politics a certain way, and I think that they have no right to impose that on other peoples.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the former first lady of Haiti, Mildred Aristide, as she was about to land for the first time President Aristide was returning to Haiti in seven years after he was ousted in a U.S.-backed coup, the second coup backed by the U.S. Dan?

DAN COUGHLIN: Well, she really understates the situation, because between 2004 and 2006, 3,000 people were killed. There was a bloody repression in Haiti during that period, with real issues at stake. And you see that in the cables time and time again, where the Haitian elite, for instance, you know, is putting huge pressure on the U.S. and the U.N. and the Haitian police to act in its interest to attack and to murder, to kill pro-Aristide, pro-democracy individuals in the poorest slum in the hemisphere.

And by “poor” I mean—you see the cables. What are the people fighting with in Cité Soleil? You know what they’re fighting with? It says fecal matter. They’re burning sewage to try to keep the U.N. out of Cité Soleil, to stop the shooting, the killing of themselves. These are people who are literally naked, who are hungry, who have no clothes. And they’re fighting the biggest armies in the world, just like they did 200 years ago. And when you talk to the people, they see it as part of that same struggle, against the Napoleonic armies, against the British Empire, against the Spanish Empire from 200 years ago. Now they’re fighting the Brazilian army, the eighth-largest army in the world. the U.S. Army, the U.N. occupation, to keep them poor. And this is the struggle that is happening. And Aristide did represent these poor people. And that’s why he had to be overthrown.

KIM IVES: I should also say that I just did a piece in The Guardian about—drawing on some letters that my grandfather had written from the Mexican embassy back in 1926, where he was saying—

AMY GOODMAN: Who was your grandfather doing there?

KIM IVES: He was actually a guest of the ambassador at the time. Sheffield was his name. And he was saying that we probably shouldn’t be forcing the Mexicans to take our industry and our investments; forcing it is going to bring great unhappiness. And yet—I compared it to this—now, here we are again, almost a century later, and we still have the U.S. forcing its agenda, its interests, on these countries, through these diplomatic intrigues that we see in WikiLeaks, or through economic sanctions, or through outright war.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, though, the earthquake there in Haiti had to be the most cataclysmic event in the history of the country, but the cables also show that there was a sense in U.S. government already that the country was prone to a major earthquake?

KIM IVES: Well, yes. On May 11th, 2005, there was a 4.3-level earthquake in Haiti, and it didn’t do much damage, but that was a warning to them, and they were aware. And they said, “Man, if there’s an earthquake here, it’s going to be the worst thing that could happen. Haiti is in no way prepared to deal with any catastrophe like that.” And they said, you know, “Let’s get preparations.” But nothing was done, clearly.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! was mentioned in the cables, Dan Coughlin?

DAN COUGHLIN: One cable, actually released previously through a FOIA request, a Freedom of Information Act request, by Professor [Keith] Yearman at the College of DuPage in Illinois, where I think, Amy, you did a piece, again, back in July of 2005, exactly about Cité Soleil and what the—and a U.N. massacre there, that we’re talking about.

KIM IVES: With Seth Donnelly.

DAN COUGHLIN: With a person from a labor delegation out of San Francisco, Seth Donnelly. And so, you actually accurately reported what was going on, and the embassy was alarmed by it and reported on Democracy Now! and other groups, saying, “Hey”—what they were upset about was that there wasn’t push back, PR push back, on Democracy Now! by the U.N.

KIM IVES: And that’s what—and that’s what Hillary Clinton was coming with when she was saying, “We have to get the narrative right.” And they were calling—and we see that in one of the cables after the militarization, calling around to embassies around the world to tell them to go after the editors, go after—if there’s anything, if it’s in Ecuador or if it’s in Doha or if it’s in Thailand, go and fight back against any negative portrayal of the U.S. deployment after the quake. So they want to make sure that they get the narrative right. And you got it wrong, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: The next installment?

DAN COUGHLIN: Well, there’s a lot—a lot to go through, obviously. WikiLeaks, in general, is going from country to country, releasing thousands of cables, extraordinary stories all around the world happening every day, and local, smaller countries around the world, like Haiti. And the work that Haïti Liberté has done is amazing, and they go into much more detail in their publication on these cables. But there’s going to be hundreds more released from the Haiti trove, including a special next week on the Haitian parliament and what’s happening with Haitian parliament.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you very much for being with us, Dan Coughlin, executive director of Manhattan Neighborhood Network, and Kim Ives, who together are doing “WikiLeaks Haiti,” publishing them in Haïti Liberté and The Nation magazine.

Would A $5-A-Day Minimum Wage Make Life Better In Haiti?

Today, The Nation and Haiti Liberte posted a story about some Wikileaks memos that reveal that “Contractors for Fruit of the Loom, Hanes and Levi’s worked in close concert with the U.S. Embassy when they aggressively moved to block a minimum wage increase for Haitian assembly zone workers.”

In 2009, before the earthquake, Haiti’s parliament passed a new minimum wage law mandating that people working in Haiti’s apparel factories — mostly cutting and sewing t-shirts — must make a minimum of $5 a day.

Now, of course, to an American audience this seems so minor, so unbelievably reasonable, it’s hard to see how there can be any opposition: Five bucks a day? As a minimum? It’s easy to be outraged that the U.S. government wouldn’t push for a minimum of more. Who can live on five bucks a day?

I’ve been covering Haiti’s apparel industry for the last year and a half, and I’d like to place this in some context.

Decent statistics are hard to come by in Haiti, but most studies show that more than half of Haitians live on less than $1 a day. Around 80 percent live on less than $2 a day. So, making three bucks per day puts a person into a small elite of high earners. Life in Haiti is still pretty tough on three bucks a day, but those workers are less likely to be hungry or have hungry kids, they’re more likely to send their kids to Haiti’s schools (most of which charge amounts out of the reach of the very poor).

Of course, any worker would rather make $5, but would a $5-a-day minimum wage make life better in Haiti?

Here’s how I think that question through.

Haiti’s industry is focused on commodity white T-shirts for brands like Hanes. The commodity white T-shirt is one of the cheapest, easiest things in the world to make. With $500,000 you could buy a bunch of used sewing machines in Alabama or Guangzhou, rent a cement shell in some poor country, and be in business in a few weeks.

T-shirt producers have the steps down to a science: you have a line of 14 or so workers, each one doing one tiny operation — sew the sleeve onto the shirt, sew the hem, sew the neck band. A decent, experienced manager can take just about any illiterate farmer anywhere in the world and have them sewing T-shirts right away. T-shirt fabric is fairly cheap, so it doesn’t matter that much if a worker messes up a few shirts. And T-shirt fabric is quite forgiving — the sewer doesn’t need to be all that precise.

Since it’s so easy and cheap to move production from one country to another, and since the work requires no prior skill, commodity T-shirt production is highly competitive. If Haiti doesn’t work out, it’s not so hard to pick up stakes and move to Honduras or Nicaragua or Madagascar.

Since commodity T-shirts are, well, a commodity, T-shirt manufacturers primarily compete on price. Squeezing a fraction of a penny per shirt can mean the difference between getting that big Wal-Mart order or going out of business.

All this is to say: When a country is in the commodity T-shirt game, they are at the very lowest, least attractive rung on the ladder of industrialization. They are beggars, fighting with lots of other poor countries for whatever business they can get and the competition is over price. And Haiti has many barriers to offering a competitive price. Haiti has horrible infrastructure—among the worst ports, roads, electrical power grids, and water supplies in the world. Haiti is politically unstable, making large investments unattractive.

Haiti has been desperately trying to seduce apparel manufacturers to build plants, but they’ve found it tough going. Haiti has a few benefits: The U.S. has given duty-free access for certain Haitian-sewn apparel, Haiti is awfully close to the U.S., and Haitians demand much lower wages than anybody nearby.

Honduras and Nicaragua are also pretty close to the U.S., and they also get duty-free access to the U.S. But workers in those countries get slightly higher wages. So, move the Haitian minimum wage up to $5 per day and it’s hard to see why any company would choose Haiti over Central America.

Now, of course, it would be wonderful if Haitians could make far more than $3 a day on average for working in an apparel mill. But — as history shows — that requires that Haitian workers and Haitian factory managers develop the skills to do more complex things than just make a T-shirt. T-shirts are so cheap, there just isn’t much profit in there to pay anybody well. Some Haitian factories do make polo shirts and other higher skill products, and they pay better. If Haiti can move up to much higher-end production — like luxury items, say, for chic New York stores — then Haitians’ will make even more money.

This has been the story of industrial development throughout the world. In England, in the early days of the industrial revolution, workers began making simple, coarse cloth and then learned and developed skills and inventions and eventually made far more complex and valuable goods. Their wages rose along with their skill. Then, New England stole some Brit technology, developed its own coarse cloth business and then learned to make higher value goods. This story, of course, has been repeated in the American South, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China. A surprisingly large number of countries that are middle- or high-income today were able to move out of pre-industrial subsistence agriculture by first adopting low-end textile and apparel manufacturing and then developing greater and greater skills.

Part of Haiti’s tragedy is that it was, once, farther down the road of industrial development than it is today. From the 1970s through the early 1990s, Haiti developed some decent, higher-skill apparel factories and even some electronics assembly factories.

But years of political instability, misrule, and a U.S.-led embargo during Haiti’s post-Aristide dictatorship all but destroyed the local industry. By the time Haiti was ready to develop its industry again in the past five years, global manufacturing technology and trade had been so thoroughly transformed that Haiti had to, basically, start all over.

Haiti was never a truly industrial nation. Even at Haiti’s industrial peak, only a couple percent of Haitians worked in manufacturing. It’s one of the world’s poorest countries, where most people subsist on minimal calories grown on meager plots of land.

The Nation article suggests that the US government conspired to steal a couple bucks a day from Haitians and put it in the hands of rich American corporations. It implies that the U.S. government could just as easily have insisted that companies pay more and the only result would be richer Haitians. It’s hard to reconcile that view with the facts: Even at these very low wages, even with special trade deals that give some Haitian exports tax-free access to the U.S., Haiti is having a terribly hard time attracting more industrial investment. Haiti only has a bit more than 50,000 textile jobs now. The government is hoping to triple that number in the coming years, but is way behind schedule.

The U.S. is certainly not blameless in Haiti’s current straits. Inspired by slave-holding Southerners, we refused to recognize or trade with the state after it overthrew its French slave-owning overseers in 1804. We occupied the country, to disastrous results, from 1915 to 1934. We supported the horrible Duvalier regimes from the late 1950s to 1986. Haiti watchers will, surely, forever debate the pros and cons of US intervention during President Aristide’s two aborted terms. And there’s that devastating embargo in the mid-1990s (which President Clinton now says he “hated” but had to do). Anybody who has spent time researching the various international efforts to help Haiti has a long list of grievances against USAID.

But all that said, the current administration has made some promising moves. Cheryl Mills, Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, did shepherd through the largest recent investment in Haiti, a new industrial park in Haiti’s poorest province—up in the Northeast—that will bring 20,000 jobs. They expanded (though many Haitians will say not by enough) apparel trade preferences and have paid for some programs to develop a better skilled workforce.

I recently spent some time talking to apparel manufacturers in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. They told me how they developed a low-paying, cost-competitive T-shirt sewing industry in the 1980s and 1990s. But, today, their factories and their workforce have developed so much skill that nobody is willing to take those T-shirt sewing jobs. They’re making much more money creating more expensive and complicated clothing.

In short, Dominican textile workers have real bargaining power because they have real, globally competitive skills. I’m sure manufacturers would love to pay them $3 a day, but they can’t because the Dominicans know how to do stuff that commands a higher wage.

I have no idea what would happen if Haiti did have a $5-a-day minimum wage. But I do think it’s reasonable to assume that some factories would close and far fewer new ones would be built. Far fewer Haitians would be allowed to take that first tentative step on to the ladder of industrial development.










Links to articles discussing wages in Haiti