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.”