Rich Man, Poor Man—the new assembly factory near Ouanaminthe

By Amy Bracken, Labour News Network, 29 October 2003

Ouanaminthe residents say Dominican business giant takes advantage of job-starved town.

First in a two-part series by Amy Bracken of the Haitian Times newspaper exploring the impact of the newly opened factory in the free trade zone in north-east Haiti where Haitian workers assemble Levi jeans for a Dominican company.

OUANAMINTHE—Early Monday morning, a crowd of Haitians line up to cross the border to the Dominican town of Dajabon. Mondays and Fridays are market days there, and men and women travel from as far as the west coast of Haiti to buy goods from the Dominican Republic. By late morning, women walking back into Haiti with cartons of eggs stacked high on their heads, and men drive back on mopeds with huge bundles of live chickens tied to handlebars.

But on Wednesdays, Ouanaminthe’s market day, there is a mere trickle of customers traveling over the border from Dajabon, said Ouanaminthe resident Jean-Frederic Theodore. This relationship between the two countries will only become more lopsided, he said.

Theodore, a bar owner whose family has lived in Ouanaminthe for several generations, lost 26,000 square meters of fertile agricultural land on the border in March when a Dominican company sent tractors to bulldoze and pave over the field of crops he had inherited from his grandfather.

Now Theodore has no more land, and all the farmers who worked for him are jobless. They are among 40 proprietors and several hundred farmers who were driven from a total of 230,000 square meters of land on the Maribahoux plain, the second most fertile stretch of land in Haiti. The Haitian and Dominican governments agreed to create a free trade zone, which would consist of 13 factories, all owned by the Dominican apparel maker Grupo M, and all to produce goods for American brands, such as Levis and Hanes.

The World Bank, which has withheld loans to Haiti since 1998 for being in arrears, is lending Grupo M $20 million for the project.

The zone is expected to create thousands of jobs in a part of Haiti where the unemployment rate is estimated at as much as 15 points above the national average of 70 percent.

But for many in this town of 60,000 residents, the project is a blow to the way of life of Haitian locals and the autonomy of Haiti itself, many experts say.

From field to factory

I think it’s a culture shock, said Sister Nydia Victoria, of Ouanaminthe’s Juanista Sisters nunnery, which has hosted meetings of displaced peasants and newly employed assembly workers.

She was referring to what happens when you make a factory town out of a place such as Ouanaminthe. The town lacks electricity, most residents must draw their water from a well, residents work all day in the field until 4 p.m. and most of the town is completely dark and quiet by 8 p.m.

At Grupo M’s first factory, which assembles Levi Strauss jeans, its 340 employees take a bus from downtown at 6:30 a.m. and are dropped off at 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.

How can you make a population like this move at factory pace? said Sister Victoria. There is no infrastructure here.

Most Ouanaminthe residents have never used machines, not to mention done any kind of factory work, so Grupo M has a 10-week training program, experts say. Every morning, young men and women pour through the doors of the town’s old Paradis disco, recently converted into a training center, and at the end of the day hundreds empty back out into the streets, wearing bright tape measures around their necks like school uniforms.

Most Grupo M factory workers are school age, experts sat. Displaced farmers over age 35 are considered too old for assembly line work. Several disenfranchised Pitobert proprietors reported that their agricultural laborers are unemployed and seeking work on other properties.

Most have received no compensation for their lost jobs. Pitobert is the specific cite of the free trade zone.

And some fear that finding cultivatable land in the area will only become harder.

Look at what happened with the industrial park in Port-au-Prince, said Herns Laveaux, a member of the Committee in Defense of Pitobert, a group opposed to the free trade zone development.

President Jean-Claude Duvalier created the industrial park in the early 1970s near the capital city’s airport, where dozens of factories enjoy tax exempt status for the first eight years of operation.

The park gave rise to Cite Soleil, a slum notorious for its cramped, poor living conditions and ongoing gang warfare.

Laveaux predicted the same kind of ghettoization in Ouanaminthe’s free trade zone, which would mean the destruction of more fertile land.

Others worry about the Massacre River, which runs past the factory, and which many Ouanaminthe residents use every day for bathing and washing clothes.

But Grupo M Project Director Limbert Cruz said the factory has no impact on the river because only sewing goes on at the factory.

Washing the materials happens at a site in the Dominican Republic. Cruz predicted there will not be enough immigration to cause ghettoization because 95 percent of hires are local.

What kind of jobs

Claudel Desamours was a young employed mason when he entered the Grupo M training program last spring. In masonry, he earned the equivalent of $7 a day, working from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. When he started at Grupo M, he was told he would soon be making the same salary. But after five months, he said he earns $2 a day and working from 90 minutes longer.

It’s a low salary when people start, Cruz said. But then, we pay for quantity of production.

Two dollars a day is Grupo M’s base salary, which exceeds Haiti’s legal minimum daily wage of $1.20. [Charles Arthur notes: this part seems a big wrong to me—the Haitian legal minimum daily wage is 70 gourdes which is the equivalent of US$1.64. Plus, Grupo M reportedly pays 140 gourdes as it daily basic wage which is the equivalent of US$3.30, or twice the legal minimum. I am waiting for Amy Bracken to comfirm or adjust these figures.]

But critics say the daily hours are so long that though employees work five days a week, they put in more than the equivalent of six eight-hour days.

Calculated in terms of weekly hours, the base salary at Grupo M comes out to less than minimum wage, critics say.

Many but not all employees make more than the base salary. If someone works at 100 percent efficiency, sewing 700 hems in one day, for example, he or she makes $20 a week, said Cruz. The average weekly salary is $15, he said.

It is impossible to live off that salary, said Remy Jean-Pierre, who entered the factory training program after graduating from high school.

Jean-Pierre hopes to attend university to study science or medicine. But can’t afford it. Instead, he sews crotch seams for about $12 a week. To be 100 percent productive, he said he must sew at least 5,304 seams a day.

On that salary, Jean-Pierre can’t afford to take his girlfriend out, he said, not to mention save up for school.

Salnave Joseph was a second-year law student when he dropped out to work for Grupo M.

But he argued tirelessly with management about inadequate wages and working conditions, until he was fired in August, without his last week of wages.

It was illegal for them to throw me out without any compensation after working there for three months, he said. Joseph is still out of work.

Several workers say they have seen people threatened or fired for trying to organize a union. But Cruz said he plans to allow and work with unions, including planning a meeting with several in Port-au-Prince.

Mark Constantine, who works on the project for the World Bank’s International Finance Corp., said he is confident the right to organize will be respected. Grupo M adheres to both its own code of conduct . . . as well as those of its major customers [Levis, Liz Claiborne, Tommy Hilfiger], Constantine said.

In each case, prohibitions against the use of child and forced labor, discrimination, as well as freedom of association (right to organize) are incorporated.

The operation will be subject to periodic audits from contractors with the American brands, he said.

Some Haitian assembly workers are irked by what they see as an age-old unequal Dominican-Haitian dynamic being played out on the factory floor.

All the factory supervisors are Dominican, employee Claudel Desamours said. And they regard Haitians as dogs.

Employee Remy Jean-Pierre said he believes the treatment of workers at the factory is normal, but the dynamics between employees and bosses are tough because the bosses are all Dominican.

He said he found out from a Dominican operator who does the same tasks as he does that the base salary for Dominicans is higher than that of Haitians.

A master-slave dynamic

Behind the front desk in the Port-au-Prince office of GARR, a refugee support group, a poster describes in Creole a bitter component of Haiti-Dominican relations: More than 200,000 Haitians are living like animals in the sugar cane fields of the Dominican Republic. Every day, more than 300 are forced back over the border, but Haitians still continue to go there. Remember, it is the responsibility of us all to resolve that problem.

Starting in the early 20th century, as the population grew and cultivatable land diminished in Haiti, hundreds of thousands of Haitians crossed the border to work in Dominican sugar cane fields and the largely American-owned industry came to depend on cheap Haitian labor.

In 1937, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo asserted control over the border region by ordering the massacre of tens of thousands of Haitians in the area. But soon the migratory flow began again.

In the 1950s, the Dominican government began paying the Haitian government millions of dollars each year to transport laborers to the border to work on Dominican sugar plantations.

The virtual sale of Haitian workers gained international notoriety and ended in the 1980s, But worker advocates continue to report slave-like conditions for Haitians on Dominican plantations, and the association of a slavery with Haitian-Dominican workplace dynamics remains strong for many Haitians.

Locals report the relationship between Ouanaminthe and Dajabon is generally good, despite a dramatic difference in quality of life between the two.

Some turn their anger toward the Haitian government. We cannot blame the Dominicans because they are looking out for themselves,said Hans Flisfeld, a Ouanaminthe resident who opposes the free trade zone. It is us, the Haitian government, that has a responsibility to protect us. The Haitian government decided to give the land without any prior consent.