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Behind Lavi Che: Ordinary people's daily struggle to survive in the new Haiti

From This Week in Haiti,
Vol. 13, no. 13, 21-27 June 1995

PORT-AU-PRINCE, June 14 (Haiti Info) - Haiti's official minimum wage rose to 36 gourdes per day on June 1, but since the value of the gourde also dropped recently, the new wage is equal to US$2.40. (At the time of the coup d'etat, parliament was set to ratify a minimum equivalent to US$2.85 at the time.)

Although prices have come down since the invasion, they are nowhere near the even lower pre-coup level, and after eight months of waiting, the population is getting testy. At street demonstrations, at town meetings, in political analyses, lavi che or the high cost of living is listed as one of the most important of the people's demands which need to be answered.

President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and various ministers have promised community stores, soup kitchens, and have told people the way to fight the high cost of living is to buy it with a job. But most of the stores have not opened, those that did demand buyers have an official card from a popular organization, and with over 50 percent underemployment, it is difficult to buy anything. For most people, life is a daily struggle for a gourde or two to buy some cornmeal or rice, to pay for a bucket of water.

A dishwasher from a private school said that her employer has agreed to give her a raise to 36 gourdes, but not until October. Even then, I can't live on that if they don't make the prices of food and necessity go down... that's nothing. A taxi driver from Croix-des-Missions to the north of the capital who drives a rented cab 12 hours a day said, After you pay for the car and gas, you might take home 50 or 75 gourdes, if the day was good, he meaning in a month of six-day weeks, if he is lucky, he can make US$16 to $24. The driver lives with his wife, seven children and blind mother in a home rented for 2,500 gourdes/year. The house has no electricity, water, telephone nor toilet.

The driver's children all go to private school (only 30 percent of Haiti's schools are public, and they are severely underfunded) and he also is studying to be a pastor. School can easily cost 500 gourdes/year per child. Saving money is really difficult, but you make a little sol, you pay 100 gourdes every Sunday, he explained. (The sol is a system of popular credit to give people, who do not have any access to institutional or banking credit, the possibility of having an amount of money - for investments or large purchases - they would never have been able to amass with their own incomes. A group of people all make a certain contribution every week or two. Each person gets access to the pool in turn.)

The state asks for a lot of things but it doesn't give us anything, the driver added, and noted that although he pays his license fees and other requirements, police still extort money whenever they can. He is also upset about the increase in the gasoline price from 30 gourdes to 31 gourdes per gallon (the price is now tied to the value of the gourde and can rise again) and said the new minimum wage cannot do anything for people... they should give at least 75 gourdes per day.

Factory workers from the industrial park, crouched on the ground as they rushed to eat in their allotted 30 minutes, were afraid to speak into a tape recorder but allowed a journalist to take notes. When inspectors came to the gates, they quickly changed the subject, since talking to a journalist can cost you your job. When the men left, many said they had not yet received the new minimum wage. Others noted they may get 36 gourdes, but only because their bosses augmented the required amount of baseballs to stitch or jackets to sew. Every day, they spend four to eight gourdes for transport and another 15 gourdes for a plate of rice and sauce.

A 25-year-old woman who sews at an assembly plant could not afford a plate of food. She earns about 30 gourdes a day. She used to sew 70 dozen pieces to get the old wage (15 gourdes), but to get the new one, she has to sew 250 dozen, which she has so far not been able to achieve. Sometimes she is forced to work overtime without pay. But if you ask to be paid, you are told to 'flap your wings' ('get lost'), she said.

The woman lives in Cite Soleil in a two-room house with her child. She pays 1,500 gourdes/year rent. She has no water, electricity or toilet. Although she had worked at her factory for years before the coup, she has lost all her seniority and benefits. She and most other workers are now hired as jobbers on three-month contracts with no benefits.

A market lady, 27, said she can make 50 gourdes a day if she has a good day. She pays 5,000 gourdes/year for her two-room home and sends two children to school. Two other relatives live with her. Her husband does not have a steady job and comes and goes. Sometimes he gets agricultural work. She pays five gourdes a week for the depot where she stores her merchandise, ten gourdes a day for water, 15 a month of electricity. She and her children eat mostly cornmeal, and sometimes bean sauce and a little rice. Thirty-six gourdes is no good! For transportation, food, drink and kids! she said.

Other women who gathered around all denounced the new wage and impossible task of making ends meet: hospital bills, family responsibilities, and other daily expenses. Statistics put the rise in the cost of living over the past three years between 65 and 85 percent. The US Agency for International Development says food prices are between 65 and 100 percent higher while the Haitian government says food prices are up 30 percent, clothing up 43 percent and furniture, 42 percent. In any case, citizens are hit twice: in addition to the price rise, the gourde has dropped in value. In Sept., 1991, one US dollar bought seven gourdes. During the coup it bought up to 20 and now buys almost 15.