Paul Martin’s Haitian Adventure

On Monday I opened my morning paper to learn that Canadian troops had turned their guns on the people of Haiti and their elected president, Jean Bertrand Aristide.

In 2000 and 2001 the overwhelming majority of Haitians voted for Aristide and his Lavalas movement. Aristide was committed to making investments in healthcare, education and improving working conditions in a country where 10% of the people are starving to death.

Paul Martin’s Canada Steamship State has an answer to Haiti’s hunger; gunboat diplomacy.

The big players in Haiti’s low wage economy are the plantation, sweatshop and export processing sectors backed by big US, French and Canadian companies. And let’s not forget the CIA backed drug lords for whom a lawless Haiti is a convenient base of operations.

These did not get their way in 2000, so they started a civil war, with a little help from their friends.

First they made unsubstantiated complaints through the Organization of American States about the 2000 Haitian election. Our government declared the 2000 elections to be stolen, but could produce scant evidence. The Canadian press nodded respectfully, while others paid attention to facts on the ground.

The International Coalition of Independent Observers, which monitored Haiti’s elections, declared that “Free, fair and peaceful elections were held despite neglect from the UN, OAS, and the United States. Haitian voter participation was largely misrepresented in the international press.” The voter participation rate overall was between 60 and 65%, and in big cities like Gonnaives 90%.

But when you’re a gun, the truth looks like a target. The OAS simply repeated opposition lies that most Haitian voters boycotted the polls. Canada sided with the OAS and the USA to prop up Haiti’s feeble ruling clique.

When you have money, both guns and facts are available for purchase.

Since 1% of Haitians control 50% of the country’s wealth, and this 1% forms the backbone of opposition to Aristide, the USA, France and Canada were without a large Haitian social base from which to organize effective electoral opposition. Unable to win at the polls, they used their money and connections to arm the convicted criminal military officers and death squad commanders who in 1994 fled to the Dominican Republic and Queens NY. Behold Haiti’s latest coup d’etat, made by our “rebels.” Today armed death squads roam the streets of Haiti, killing their enemies in the streets, while Canadian and US soldiers stand aside.

Prime Minister Paul Martin first committed approximately 180 troops from the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment, as well as the Joint Operations Group from Kingston to provide “security” for the criminal Haitian thugs. When on Thursday it became apparent that the political façade created for the coup was crumbling, Martin scaled back Canada’s commitment to 60 soldiers. Martin claims he is keen to get Haiti “on the right track.”

Aristide had Haiti on the wrong track, the track towards liberty and independence and maybe even some small justice. He was feebly trying to deliver what Haitians have been demanding for years; reform of Haiti’s corrupt economy, an increase in living standards, an end to the transit of 50 tons of Colombian cocaine per year through the island, and most importantly higher wages.

After returning to power in 1994, Aristide’s government raised the minimum wage from the equivalent of $1.40 US per day to $2.40 per day, against the advice of USAID. The Canadian coup is the result of a direct conflict between the democratic aspirations of Haitian workers and the profit system.

Haiti has the lowest wages in the western hemisphere, and the Canadian apparel industry likes that just fine, thank you. A 1998 newsletter from the Campaign for Labour Rights described typical conditions in Haitian garment factories. Workers face “threats if they try to organize and claim the right to collective bargaining, illegal firings, verbal abuse, sexual harassment, no access to potable water not enough sanitary facilities, no adequate lighting and ventilation and the constant pressure to work at an enormous speed.” These conditions remain virtually unchanged.

As of March 2nd, 2004 Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) states, “some Canadian companies are looking to shift garment production to Haiti.” DFAIT provides research and Haitian contacts through a variety of sub-agencies to Canadian companies that want to exploit low Haitian wages.

Montreal based Gildan Activewear is already subcontracting work to Haitian owned sweatshops, and they have opened a new factory in Port au Prince which employs 400 to 500 people. Gildan, one of the largest T shirt makers in the world, claimed recently to CBC radio to pay its workers a premium on the minimum Haitian wage. However unionized workers at Gildan’s Montreal factory earn more than 10 times the Haitian wage, and unorganized Haitian workers employed by Gildan recently told the CBC that their wages are not enough to live on. With recent increases in the cost of fuel in Haiti – the IMF demanded it be deregulated and the price has soared – Haitian workers have once again been demanding their minimum wage of 36 Gourdes per day be increased to keep up with inflation.

But what’s bad for Haitian workers – low wages and appalling conditions – are good business for the T shirt trade. At the time of writing, a blank Gildan T sells on Ebay for about $1.25. It’s a volume business, our appetite for T shirts. Gildan’s sales have nearly doubled, from $344 million in 1999 to $630 million in 2003. In the same period Gildan stock soared on the Toronto Stock Exchange from $5 to $44 per share. According to UNITE, Gildan has received over $3 million dollars of federal subsidies while it contemplated moving production offshore.

In 2002 Gildan donated $2000.00 to Paul Martin, campaigning then for the leadership of the Federal Liberal Party.

In February 2003, Gildan won an award for “social responsibility” given by the Association of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, (CME) and the government’s Canadian International Development Agency, (CIDA) which subsidizes Canadian companies to invest overseas. CIDA has been heavily criticized for lending to Liberal Party allies to subsidize projects of dubious social development value.

The cabinet Minster for International Cooperation, Susan Whelan, presented the award at a gala $175 dollar per plate dinner whose theme was “Serving the Poor, Profitably” on Feb 5th 2003. The award was presented at the Museum of Civilization.

Activists protested the event, and during dinner managed to penetrate security while chanting “one two three four, CME, you screw the poor … five six seven eight, CIDA only serves the state.” The CEOs did not appreciate the irony.

Nor did the minister. Questioned five days later by the NDP in the House of Commons on the suitability of Gildan for such an award, Whelan had on hand a pat response from the company itself. “Gildan Activewear has responded that these third party allegations are groundless, and according to Gildan the employees were let go because of seasonal variation in demand,” she stated.

Workers at Gildan’s operations in Honduras are not impressed with medals from Liberal Party apparatchiks. The CBC TV programme Disclosure and the Maquila Solidarity Network (MSN) exposed allegations of unfair labour practices in January 2002, a full year before Gildan was lauded by the Canada Steamship State. According to Disclosure, Gildan’s Honduran workers complained of “demanding quotas, supervised bathroom breaks, breathing air full of cotton dust and firings if they try to organize a union.” Female workers complained of forced pregnancy testing. Gildan denies the charges.
The MSN has continued to document complaints from Gildan’s 5000 workers in Honduras, a nation which has been previously pacified by a US backed military dictatorship. “On October 20, 2003, management at Gildan’s El Progreso factory in Honduras fired two workers – Santos Catalino Romero and Saúl Bautista – who were leading a union organizing drive at the factory. According to accounts given the FITH by the fired workers, Gildan’s human resources manager fired them to prevent workers from forming a union. Company security guards were reportedly used to forcibly remove the two workers from the factory. Another 37 workers were fired on or around November 4.” 

While Gildan has requested an audit of its Honduras facility, MSN has little information on conditions in the Haitian plant. But it seems that the island of Hispaniola figures big in Gildan’s plans. On December 3rd, 2003 Gildan announced the purchase of 18 million square feet of land in the Dominican Republic to construct a state of the art plant for knitting, cutting and bleaching cloth. This will turn the DR and Haiti into a manufacturing hub modeled on Gildan’s Honduran operation.

Visit the Gildan Activewear website and one gets a pretty picture. The company promotes its membership in the Worldwide Responsible Apparel Production Programme, or WRAP, which at first glace looks like an advocacy or regulatory body protecting workers rights in southern countries where the garment industry operates. But Gildan’s “social responsibility” is defined by the American Apparel Manufacturers Association which founded WRAP.

WRAP’s standards are lower than those of the student based Workers’ Rights Consortium, which Gildan does not recognize. WRAP standards only require companies to comply with local labour laws, which are of course not generally respected in the countries where the sweatshops operate. Getting around tough labour laws is the whole point. WRAP has not yet assessed Gildan’s Haitian operations. But with death squads on the streets of Haiti, who is going to speak up for labour rights? 

Today the military intervention of the Liberal Party has made Haiti a military dictatorship under Guy Philippe, who in the past has expressed admiration for Augusto Pinochet. During the last Haitian military dictatorship, union organizers were jailed, activists murdered and wages slashed thereby. The killing is already underway. Classic Pinochet, or as the captain of the Canada Steamship State likes to call it, the “right track.”

Haitian union organizers understand their situation well. According to one, “The general weakness of the bourgeoisie…makes it extremely ferocious toward the working class, seeing it as merely a means to extract the maximum profits. To do this the local bourgeoisie leans on the imperialists who, as bandleaders, manipulate and organize the forces of repression, still in the hands of the paramilitary Ton-tons Macoutes….They refuse workers any form of the historical social gains long acquired by the working class internationally and established by national legislation yet constantly violated by the bosses. By denying sick leave, pensions, severance pay, and so on, the Haitian and foreign capitalists can expect to receive super-profits in Haiti.” Your tax dollars at work, financing state terror.

Keeping wages down in the developing world and in Canada is vital to the interests of Canadian capitalism. Canadian, Latin American and Haitian workers are clearly being played off against each other in a racist game, and in the process democracy is crushed, by force if necessary. The Canadian state has declared war on our wages and working conditions, and war on the people of Haiti because they dared to say no.

Canadians, you have been warned. Paul Martin’s government will not respect international law. To ensure the continued viability of Canadian capitalism and to prop up the cheap T, Martin will not hesitate to resort to force to impose an economic regime in Haiti suitable to the interests of the Canadian multinationals and finance capital which profit from poverty and oppression.

Two hundred years ago Haitian slaves raised the banner of liberty. To mark that anniversary the Canada Steamship State sailed into Port au Prince this week flying the Jolly Roger.

The author, Stephen James Kerr  is an independent  investigative journalist and co-host of Newspeak on CIUT 89.5 FM in Toronto.

For more information see the Maquila Solidarity Network’s Gildan Campaign:
NB. The MSN and Gildan’s workers are NOT calling for a boycott of Gildan products, but rather for members of the public to call on Gildan to respect its workers’ rights to freedom of association, and international labour standards as such as the ILO.

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