Spolight on the ‘informal sector’ in Haiti

OGITH’s General Secretary Patrick Numas speaks to Cecilia Locmant for an ICFTU ‘spotlight’ interview, 21 June 2002

In Haiti, the informal economy provides a living for 70% of the population. Thus, unions like the OGITH are trying to organise a section of these workers in a particularly difficult economic context and in a still unstable political climate.

The political crisis in which Haiti has been engulfed for many years is having serious repercussions on the living conditions of workers in the country. What exactly are things like for them?

After the coup d'état of 30 September 1990 against Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the three-year embargo imposed soon afterwards by the Organisation of American States (OAS), aimed at driving the generals from power, the economy has deteriorated alarmingly. And it is mainly the most vulnerable sections of the population who have suffered most. The embargo has destroyed exports. Between September 1991 and May 1994, employment fell from 44,000 to 8,000 in the subcontracted industrial park (otherwise known as export-processing zones or EPZs). That means that 81% of the workforce in this sector is now unemployed, compared to some 40% in the rest of industry. Citizens have had to face up to an ever-increasing decline in their income, whilst the price of basic goods has increased. Thus, in order to ensure their families’ survival, these former manual workers have had to look for work in the informal sector.

What conditions are people working under in these export-processing zones?

Men and women in this sector are working in very bad conditions. Many of them have no protective materials at their workplace. Sanitary conditions are inadequate too. They buy their lunch from mobile restaurant vans parked near the factories, which do not apply any hygiene standards. Thanks to an ILO project in Haiti on improving the living conditions of subcontracted workers financed by the Americans, their situation might eventually be improved. In principle, those employers in the industrial park who are members of the Association des Industries d'Haïti will receive direct financial assistance from this project. The project’s main Technical Committee will collaborate with company managers to improve their approach to competitiveness and improve the protection of workers at their workplaces.

To promote the tripartite approach, representatives from the ADIH (employers), the Secteur Syndical Haïtien (unions) and the State will together make up the Project’s Advisory Committee (Conseil Consultatif de Projet, or CCP). I will represent the unions on this advisory committee. Up till now, the meetings have been very positive and the advisory committee has a busy schedule for the two years ahead. In another strand of the project, the ILO and SONAPI (a state institution that supervises the industrial park) will establish, in cooperation with informal sector representatives and the mobile restaurant owners, a venue where subcontracted workers can meet in more hygienic circumstances.

Informal work is growing in towns and cities. What about agriculture?

Haitian women working in agriculture are still the main category of workers in the informal sector. With the new political crisis after the contested elections of May 2000, unemployment has risen again and forced many Haitians to join those working in the informal economy.

Do these workers receive any form of social security?

The social protection system in Haiti needs to set up again from scratch. No citizens receive proper protection from social security programmes. Social security institutions like the ONA and the OFATMA which receive employers’ and workers’ contributions and are meant to provide sickness benefit need to be totally restructured. Their administrative boards should in theory be composed of State, employers’ and union representatives, however in practice the State does whatever it likes with the workers’ contributions. The Secteur Syndical Haïtien (union centre), of which the OGITH is an affiliate, has made several attempts to create a better-run administrative board. Each Social Affairs Minister has boycotted these efforts, however.

How have the unions helped these workers?

Wherever you go in the country you will find savings banks. Their policy is geared to freeing up interest rates. Many of them give credit to groups of women in the informal sector at very high interest rates. This scandalous situation has led some cooperatives to freeze certain economic transactions until July.

As unions, we are keen to set up cooperatives that will really be able to help workers, like the first cooperative set up in 1844 in Rochdale, England. We can honestly say we have made a little progress with the creation, in October 2000, of COPECTRAH, the savings and credit bank for Haitian workers (Coopérative d'Epargne et de Crédit des Travailleurs Haïtiens). The ICFTU’s Projects Department helped us draft the statutes of this institution.

In addition to these savings banks, how have the unions been able to help these workers?

As you know, Haiti is still in a post-electoral crisis following the elections of 21 May 2000. This situation is severely affecting trade union activities. Several efforts have been made by the OGITH, in agreement with the SSH and the Civil Society Initiative (Initiative de la Société Civile) to encourage and help Lavalas and the Convergence Démocratique to find a way out of the political crisis destroying the nation. Despite everything, democratic unions have continued the struggle and we launched a major trade union and awareness-raising campaign on 1 May 2002. A weekly newsletter is being distributed encouraging workers from EPZs, the service sector, construction and the informal sector to join unions.

So being a trade unionist is still a very dangerous job in Haiti?

We have maintained contacts with the grass roots, otherwise Lavalas would have eliminated them by now. Members of the OGITH in the commune of Anse-à-Foleur (Northwest of the country) were released from prison thanks to a trade union mobilisation with ICFTU support. However, many of them are still unable today to move freely around their communes. There are also many yellow unions that assist the Lavalas government. Their existence undermines our attempts to create a unified movement. What is more, you can be seriously led astray by chatting, in the evening, to what you believe to be colleagues or other union groups.

How could the international trade union movement help you? (training, funding, etc.)

We rely heavily on support from the international trade union movement for those Haitian unions that really defend workers’ rights. The kind of support can include training or funding of useful projects with economic or social aims. We also want to provide better support for workers through the creation of well-structured cooperatives that can help them fight unemployment and poverty. Here too, the ICFTU could help us a lot.