Bitter Fruit

By Charles Arthur, New Internationalist, no. 341, December 2001

Glamorous brands of French liqueur use one image; Charles Arthur finds another on the orange plantations of Haiti.

‘Spiked with oranges from the French West Indies,’ runs the slogan on the Grand Marnier poster. It shows a laughing woman reclining on a chaise-longue and clutching a bottle of the luxury cognac-based liqueur.

In 1880 French businessman Louis Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle purchased plantation land in Haiti to grow bitter oranges for use in his family’s cognac. The Paris-based Marnier-Lapostolle company still owns a 72-hectare plantation not far from Haiti’s second city, Cap-Haitien.

Here, workers have now enlisted the support of international solidarity organizations in their struggle for union rights, better pay and improved conditions. Paid on the basis of how many cases they fill or empty, they have worked non-stop to earn a pittance, even by Haitian standards. Their workplace lacked the most basic toilet and washing facilities. The cutters suffered hand and facial irritation from the citric acid in the juice. Constant exposure to the acid spray caused respiratory and digestive problems. Sick-pay and pensions, although legally due, were not provided.

It was only in 1999, when some of the 350 workers on the plantation formed a union, that any of this became known to a wider public. A few years before, the Haitian workers’ organization Batay Ouvriye (Workers’ Struggle) had helped form unions in garment-assembly factories in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. Now it encouraged the plantation workers to make contact with solidarity organizations. Réseau-Solidarité in France and the Haiti Support Group in Britain duly launched a worldwide publicity campaign.

As the dispute continued, the plantation management fired union leaders and tried to intimidate workers. Solidarity organizations responded by escalating their campaign. Such was the deluge of e-mails arriving at Marnier-Lapostolle offices in Paris that at one point the company threatened the Haiti Support Group with legal action, claiming it was a victim of e-mail ‘spamming’.

The pressure on Marnier-Lapostelle increased in the summer of 2000 when Yannick Etienne, a Batay Ouvriye organizer, was invited to Britain by the campaigning organization War on Want. British trade unionists sent hundreds more protest letters, and the renewed pressure paid off. On 25 July 2000 union and management agreed a 50-per-cent wage increase and the provision of protective clothing. The difficulty of forcing even such limited gains out of Marnier-Lapostolle contrasted starkly with its earnings of $12 million for 1999-2000.

Inspired by the success of the Marnier workers, in late 2000 workers at the nearby Guacimal SA announced the formation of their own new unions. Guacimal operates an orange-tree plantation near the northern town of St Raphael and a processing plant outside Cap-Haitien, supplying orange peel used in the production of Cointreau liqueur. The giant French multinational Rémy Cointreau owns a minority share in Guacimal. In the financial year 1999-2000 it recorded a net operating profit of $61 million—a 163-per-cent increase on the previous year. Fortune magazine recently ranked company chair Dominique Heriard Dubreuil fifth on its list of the world’s most powerful women in business.

The 330 Guacimal workers endured much the same conditions as the Marnier workers. Despite a repeat of the international letter and e-mail campaigns that succeeded with Marnier, the much larger Rémy Cointreau proved a harder nut to crack. In February 2001 the company sent out a glossy brochure claiming that although workers had been on strike, the local management had resolved the problem by raising wages and delivering boots and gloves.

In reality, the local management in Haiti had gone on the offensive. Union leaders were threatened and attacked. In April the dispute spread when the plantation director discriminated against union members in the allocation of land plots for use during the ‘dead’ season, when there is no work. Local peasant farmers—who had been promised new infrastructure in return for leasing their land to the company back in 1958—joined union members occupying the plantation in an effort to force managers to negotiate. In turn, the Guacimal management sent police to arrest union leaders.

The Cointreau workers’ unions have responded by uniting with other new workers’ organizations across the north of the country. With no sign of a negotiated settlement, the new federation has begun to explore the possibility of cutting out the middlemen by taking over the retailing of the orange extract to the European market. The struggle continues.