The Massacre river in northern Hispaniola divides the Dominican Republic and Haiti. It is crossed by a crumbling bridge, with Ouanaminthe, Haiti, on one side and DajabÃ³n, Dominican Republic, on the other. In 2002 Jean-Bertrand Aristideâ€™s government announced the creation of a free trade zone in Ouanaminthe. The proposal was fiercely resisted by local landowners, tenant farmers and agricultural labourers, who were promised compensation but have received none. But resistance was impossible: the tractors that tore up the crops were accompanied by armed guards, leaving the farmers helpless, homeless victims.
The Dominican investor was clothing subcontractor Grupo M, the largest employer in the Dominican Republic, with 12,000 workers in its factories and a reputation for treating them brutally and ignoring union rights and regulations. The World Bankâ€™s International Finance Corporation, possibly unaware of the malpractice, provided a loan of $20m for Grupo M to set up in Ouanaminthe. We may presume that Aristide was better informed about Grupo Mâ€™s nature: on 8 April 2003, when he came to lay the foundation stone with the Dominican president, HippÃ³lito MejÃa, he did so in secret. Haitians only heard about it the day after, in the Dominican press.
In August 2003 Grupo M opened two facilities in the new free trade zone, employing around 1,000 workers. The Codevi factory produces Levis 505s and 555s jeans while the MD factory makes T-shirts, all exported via the Dominican Republic.
Grupo Mâ€™s Haitian employees were made to work at high speed for long hours in terrible conditions and paid a pittance. They soon protested: on 13 October 2003 the Codevi Workers Union (Sokowa in Creole) was created in Ouanaminthe and affiliated to Batay OuvriyÃ©, Haitiâ€™s worker support organisation. On 2 March 2004, with the country in a power vacuum following Aristideâ€™s departure, Grupo M fired 34 union members, with militiamen from northern Haitiâ€™s “rebel army” on hand to crush resistance.
On 13 April, after tough negotiations attended by representatives from the World Bank, Levi-Strauss & Co, and a tripartite commission from the new Haitian government, Grupo M agreed to reinstate the 34 workers. But, as Yannick Etienne of Batay OuvriyÃ© explains: “They forgot that there was also an agreement to let the union negotiate a new factory-wide contract.”
A new contract was urgently needed. Codevi employees were being made to work from Monday to Saturday, often doing 55 hours instead of the official 48, with no overtime money. “You canâ€™t ask questions,”says Etienne. “If you do, they put your name down so they can fire you.” Recalcitrants were called into the back room: “Youâ€™re locked in there for hours, guarded by armed thugs. They put the air conditioning on full blast to make it uncomfortable.” Female workers are given a mysterious injected “vaccination” every two months and many have complained of irregular and unnaturally long periods; there has been an abnormally high rate of unexplained miscarriages among Codevi workers.
Sokowa continued to campaign for a new contract and on 7 June staged a half-hour work stoppage. On 8 June 40 heavily armed soldiers from the Dominican Republic arrived (on Haitian territory) to beat the workers. A 24-hour strike followed and Grupo M bosses closed the factory, illegally locking out its employees; 370 were laid off 48 hours later when the plant reopened.
Since then the workload has increased further. Workers were expected to produce 1,000 pairs of jeans a day. They are now required to turn out 1,300 for 1,300 gourdes ($37) a week. “No one can meet these targets,” says Etienne, “and you only get 432 gourdes ($12) if you donâ€™t manage it.”
While Dominican soldiers, now in plain clothes, continue to enforce order, Grupo Mâ€™s chief executive officer, Fernando CapellÃ¡n, has threatened to relocate. “We donâ€™t believe the factories will close,” says Etienne, “but the threat is a clear signal that this is war.” Batay OuvriyÃ© has fought tough battles before – it rose up in 1995 against the Walt Disney Corporationâ€™s Haitian subcontractors and the Association of Haitian Industrialists (ADHI). CapellÃ¡n, a Dominican, is a member of the ADHI. Etienne is suspicious: “I think the Dominican and Haitian bosses want to work together to get rid of our young union and remove all workersâ€™ rights to ensure maximum exploitation.”