Labor Abuses At CINTAS Producing Factory in Haitixo

UNITE, [21] October 2003

They lock the gates on us and sometimes put security guards out in front with rifles to prevent us from leaving, said Jacqueline, as she described the method her employer uses to force workers to work over 10 hours a day without compensation. The supervisors would yell and curse at us to finish our quota. My daily quota is sewing 90 dozen zippers on pants for 80 gourds (~$2 USD).

Jacqueline works for a Cintas subcontractor, Haitian American Apparel Co. S.A. (or as workers call it, HAACOSA). She estimates that she is just one of 1500 workers who make uniforms for Cintas, and whose daily reality is working in conditions that are in severe violation of Haitian Labor Codes and International Labor Standards, as well as Cintas’ own Code of Conduct.

Jacqueline, a 42-year-old mother of four, lives in a one room shack in Cite Soleil, one of the most impoverished and dangerous urban slums of Port-au-Prince—no running water, sewage, or electricity. I begin work at 6:30am and normally finish my quota by 5pm, she began.

The factory gets so hot it is like working in fire. Inside the air is so hot and full of dust that I can’t breathe, so I would put my handkerchief around my nose and continue working, she said. HAACOSA doe not have any purified water for us to drink. Instead, there is a tub of water that, I think, is rainwater or something because it is smelly and dirty. I think supervisors pee in the water because it smells so bad. When asked if she drinks the water, she responded, I have to, I don’t have money to buy water.

Worker after worker were to describe the same wretched conditions inside the factory. Patrick, a 26-year-old HAACOSA worker said, The heat and dust and noise and the pace of work become so overwhelming, workers just faint at their machines. I don’t know if it’s out of exhaustion, heat, or dehydration. All the supervisors do is throw water on them until the worker gets up and then the supervisors tell them to get back to work.

The worst part of working at HAACOSA is that the supervisors don’t know how to respect workers. They constantly yell and curse at us to meet quota and to work faster. If you complained about working overtime or about the heat or dust or water, they would just tell you to go home and not come back. What can we do?

As if paying less than the legal minimum of $0.22 per hour was not bad enough (cost of living in Haiti is 3 times the legal minimum wage), the forced overtime, firings without due process, loan-shark activities by the general manager and supervisors, and dangerous health and safety conditions like no ventilation, no access to purified drinking water, and frequent puncture wounds due to the lack of security guards on sewing machines make the conditions in HAACOSA one of the worst in the Western Hemisphere.

Cintas is the largest uniform rental provider and industrial launderer in North America and has enjoyed 34 years of consecutive growth. Sales in 2002 were U.S. $2.27 billion and profits were $234 million. During an annual Cintas shareholders meeting on October 14th, a proposal by Walden Asset Management and Domini Social Investments asking the board to report on the compliance of offshore vendors, like HAACOSA, with the company’s code of conduct was rejected.

When Timothy Smith, Walden’s senior vice president, disclosed the labor violations being practiced at HAACOSA, Cintas responded by saying that they had NEVER heard of HAACOSA. However, business documents, workers’ testimonies, and Cintas labels provided by HAACOSA workers tell another story. Under Cintas’ Code of Conduct, Cintas has a responsibility to ensure that labor rights are respected in their subcontracted facilities.

This is not the first time Cintas, the largest uniform rental provider and industrial launderer in the nation, is being charged with not ensuring the rights of its’ workers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has cited Cintas for over 100 health and safety violations, including two on-the-job fatalities. Currently there is a 15-state class action lawsuit against Cintas for failing to pay overtime to its employees.

There are a growing number of people and institutions that are telling Cintas to clean up its act. For example, university students are taking action to get their schools to stop doing business with Cintas until Cintas respects workers’ rights. The HAACOSA situation should indicate to the public that there is an endemic practice of disrespecting workers’ rights at Cintas, both within their U.S. facilities and their subcontracted facilities abroad.