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Protests expected as Haiti workers reject new minimum wage

More than 52,000 Haitian garment sector workers are likely to be demonstrating on the streets of the island's capital city, Port-au-Prince, next week after trade union representatives rejected an increase in the minimum wage proposed by the government.

The Haitian government published a decree on the minimum wage increase for various industry sectors on 1 October, in its official newspaper, Le Moniteur, Presses Nationales d'Haiti.

Under Article 5 (Segment F), earnings in the export-oriented assembly industries and other manufacturing industries – the category under which the garment manufacturing sector falls – minimum pay rates have increased 20% from HTG350 (US$5) to HTG420 (US$6) for an eight-hour working day. The wage increases took effect on the same day they were announced.

But Jean Bonald Golinsky Fatal, president of the Confederation of Public and Private Sector Workers of Haiti (CTSP), says the increase is not enough.

"We want HTG1,000 (US$14.31), but the government gives us only HTG420. We reject it." The CTSP, one of the country's main trade unions, is working with other unions and community organisations such as Gosttra-Haiti and CNOHA, the National Centre of Haitian Workers, to come up with a firm response to the government's offer. In addition to rejecting the wage increase, unions have labelled the rise "a provocation."

Workers in towns such as Ouanaminthe, in the north-east of Haiti, have already been protesting over what Fatal described as a "meager increase."

Workers and their trade unions have been demanding pay increases since 2017, when they were seeking HTG800 per day, arguing that wages must reflect the cost of living in Haiti.

Not everyone views the wage increase in a negative light, however. Fabrice Leclercq, the International Labour Organization's ( ILO) country coordinator for Haiti says it is a "very positive move on the part of Haiti's government."

While Leclercq admits the rise falls well short of the unions' expectations, he says it shows that the government is "finally sitting and hearing what workers are saying."

But he told just-style wages should have increased back in May and added that this, coupled with the fact there is not a significant difference between HTG350 and HTG420, "could trigger some sense of discontent, which may push the government to make another move soon."

But CTSP president Fatal doubts that will be the case, saying that while the unions are always open to dialogue with the government, he fears this time around the door for discussions has closed.

"We want dialogue, but the Haitian government does not want to sit with us."

Manufacturers' perspective

However, manufacturers led by the Association des Industries Haiti (ADIH) President Georges Sassine, maintain the government must address pressing socio-economic issues, such as the costs of transport, food and other services, and not walk away with the idea that a salary increase will cure all the workers' woes.

In fact, Sassine believes the 20% increase may lead to more hardship and diminish the very limited purchasing power that some workers have at present.

"This will mean more money coming out as workers' taxes. They are now in a new tax bracket. The government now has to raise the bracket for individual taxes," says Sassine.

He adds that many garment industry workers are paid more than HTG420 a day by manufacturers. And for those employers who do not pay above the old minimum wage of HTG350 per day, the increase could take a bite out of their profits.

However, Leclercq says the ILO will be monitoring developments to ensure the minimum wage law is met by owners, despite the opinions and emotions surrounding the matter.

Leclercq says the ILO inspects factories several times a year to ensure strict adherence to the principles of the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement (HOPE) Act of 2006 and the Haiti Economic Lift Program (HELP) Act of 2010. These are key for manufacturers to continue to do business with the United States, and require that workers' rights are respected.

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