For each Pocahontas pajamas priced at $11.97, a Haitian worker receives only 7 cents
(IPS) NEW YORK -- For U.S. companies, the best deals are
made in Haiti.
In a country where the legal minimum wage is a meager $2.40 a day, more than half of the 50 assembly firms operating in Haiti are not paying even that, according to a recently released report by the New York-based National Labor Committee (NLC), a human rights and labour group.
From Disney's Pocahontas pajamas to Hanes underclothes, Haitian workers are making pennies an hour producing items for the U.S. market.
For each Pocahontas pajamas priced at $11.97 in Wal-Mart, a Haitian worker receives only 7 cents, according to the report titled "The U.S. in Haiti: How to Get Rich on 11 cents an Hour."
The report details how major U.S. corporations like Disney, Wal- Mart and J.C. Penney are profiting from the exploitation of Haitian workers.
Calling the report's allegations a "misunderstanding," a Disney spokesman said: "We care very deeply about the conditions in which our products are made." He added that Disney requires any factory producing its products to obey local labor laws.
"All it would take is one phone call from Disney and the conditions would be improved"
Haiti's assembly factories are clustered in industrial
parks along the road to Haiti's national airport. The average
factory is hot, crowded, and poorly ventilated. Workers labour as
much as 70 hours a week in these conditions.
And a worker lucky enough to be paid the minimum wage earns only $14.40 in a six-day work-week, the report states.
Approximately 10 plants in Haiti produce for Disney, though the contracting may have several layers. Disney contracts out to L.V. Myles Corp., a sleep-wear company, which sub-contracts out to Haitian-owned companies.
According to the NLC report, the company owned outright by L. V. Myles does pay the minimum wage to its employees, but companies that L.V. Myles subcontracts with, do not.
Paul Miller, president of L.V. Myles, contends that his company complies with all Haitian laws. He said it is the company's understanding that the Haitian contractors are paying the minimum wage, but: "Of course it is very hard to police the pay of an unrelated company."
Eric Verhoogen, a labour researcher who authored the report, said it would not be difficult for L.V. Myles to investigate abuses by its subcontractors. One such Haitian-owned company producing Disney pajamas pays its workers 12 cents an hour. It is located just 200 metres from the company owned by L.V. Myles.
"Disney should get down there and police its own factories," said Verhoogen. "All it would take is one phone call from Disney and the conditions would be improved."
In May, 1995, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide raised the minimum wage in Haiti to 2 dollars and 40 cents a day. Many companies, resentful of the increase, bypassed the law by raising the quota of factory piece-rates.
Under this system, workers are paid per item that they sew. As a result, workers are unable to meet their quotas, and continue to receive less than the minimum wage, according to the report.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which has long tried to promote assembly industries in Haiti which rely on cheap labour, was not enthusiastic about Aristide's decision to boost the minimum wage.
USAID, which fervently promoted foreign investment in Haiti during the years of the Duvalier dictatorship, abruptly halted its support when Aristide became president in 1991.
U.S. pressed hard for the privatization of state-owned industries, claiming it would bring more jobs to Haiti
with a government somewhat captive to the
foreign forces in the country, USAID has again been pushing to
open the country to foreign businesses. It has also pressed hard
for the privatization of state-owned industries such as the
telephone and electric companies, claiming that these policies
will bring more jobs to Haiti.
"This is what privatisation means for Haitian workers," said Verhoogen referring to the worker abuse documented in the report. "It's not a pretty sight."
Since September 1994, when a U.S.-led multinational force intervened against the military regime, Washington has spent $596 million assisting U.S. and Haitian businesses, according to the report.
While the U.S. has poured money into Haiti to help private businesses, such funding has rarely been used to assist the grass- roots movement, it says.
"The U.S. has spent all this money to restore democracy to Haiti, but has done nothing to investigate the legal violations of basic workers' rights in Haiti," said Verhoogen.
Some analysts say that if wages are not kept at a "competitive" rate in Haiti, companies will pack up and move their production plants elsewhere. But others argue that even if companies were to simply pay Haiti's paltry minimum wage, these wages would still be much lower than those they could find anywhere else.
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