Contractors for Fruit of the Loom, Hanes and Levi’s worked in close concert with the US Embassy when they aggressively moved to block a minimum wage increase for Haitian assembly zone workers, the lowest-paid in the hemisphere, according to secret State Department cables.
The factory owners told the Haitian Parliament that they were willing to give workers a 9-cents-per-hour pay increase to 31 cents per hour to make T-shirts, bras and underwear for US clothing giants like Dockers and Nautica.
But the factory owners refused to pay 62 cents per hour, or $5 per day, as a measure unanimously passed by the Haitian Parliament in June 2009 would have mandated. And they had the vigorous backing of the US Agency for International Development and the US Embassy when they took that stand.
To resolve the impasse between the factory owners and Parliament, the State Department urged quick intervention by then Haitian President René Préval.
“A more visible and active engagement by Préval may be critical to resolving the issue of the minimum wage and its protest ‘spin-off’—or risk the political environment spiraling out of control,” argued US Ambassador Janet Sanderson in a June 10, 2009, cable back to Washington.
Two months later Préval negotiated a deal with Parliament to create a two-tiered minimum wage increase—one for the textile industry at about $3 per day and one for all other industrial and commercial sectors at about $5 per day.
Still the US Embassy wasn’t pleased. A deputy chief of mission, David E. Lindwall, said the $5 per day minimum “did not take economic reality into account” but was a populist measure aimed at appealing to “the unemployed and underpaid masses.”
The prosecution of the former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier represents a landmark opportunity for the Haitian justice system to address some of the worst crimes in Haiti’s past. Duvalier returned to Haiti on January 16, 2011, after nearly 25 years in exile, and was charged with financial and human rights crimes. The investigation is under way. Duvalier’s rule, from 1971 to 1986, was marked by systematic human rights violations. Hundreds of political prisoners held in a network of prisons known as the “triangle of death” died from mistreatment or were victims of extrajudicial killings. Duvalier’s government repeatedly closed independent newspapers and radio stations. Journalists were beaten, in some cases tortured, jailed, and forced to leave the country.
RAM is one of Haiti’s most successful music bands and Richard Morse is its frontman. Here Morse is our guide, sharing his perspective on his homeland with the camera. He shows us the fading glamour of his Oloffson hotel, once the haunt of celebrities, and the rickety shacks which crowd the roadsides as he drives through slum after slum.
The Hotel Oloffson was the inspiration for the fictional hotel owned by the protagonist in Graham Greene’s The Comedians and is one of the few hotels left standing in Port au Prince after last year’s earthquake.
The Hotel Oloffson is an inn in central Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The main structure of the hotel is a 19th century Gothic gingerbread mansion set in a lush tropical garden. The mansion was built as a residence for the powerful Sam family, including two former presidents of Haiti. The hotel was the real-life inspiration for the fictional Hotel Trianon in Graham Greene’s famous 1966 novel The Comedians. Since 1990, the hotel has been the regular performance venue of the mizik rasin band, RAM, famous for their protest music during the Raoul Cédras military dictatorship from 1991 to 1994.
I started following Richard Morse’s twitter feed right after the quake and found his tweets were giving a clearer picture of what was going on over there even better than all of the media reports. His tweets still continue to paint a picture of Haiti’s political and social situations.
And here’s a video of him telling the history of his hotel and Haiti.
Aid workers have already baptised the earthquake in Haiti a “historical disaster”. It will rate high in the annals of the humanitarian aid world because of the number of victims and scale of the destruction. But the rescue operation is also becoming notorious for the slowness with which aid is reaching the victims. Five days after the quake hit, many places are still largely bereft of international aid.
Not through lack of funds, supplies or emergency experts. Those are all pouring in from dozens of countries. But most of the aid — and aid workers — seems stuck at the airport.
Rescue teams have pulled survivors from five-star hotels, university buildings, a supermarket and the UN headquarters, all in Port-au-Prince’s better neighbourhoods. In poor areas, where the damage appears much greater, apparently forgotten victims report on Twitter that they have yet to encounter the first foreign rescuer.
Many aid workers are reported to have orders not to venture out without armed guards — which are not there at all, or only after long debates with the UN military command. The UN has lost a number of staff in the quake, and is not keen to risk more lives.
But the Haitian people seem to scare aid workers more than Somali warlords, Darfuri Janjawid or Afghan Taleban. Frightened Dutch aid workers abandoned a mission without reaching the collapsed building where people were trapped, and frightened doctors have left their patients unattended.
The experience of CNN’s medical reporter, Dr Sanjay Gupta, is telling. In a makeshift clinic he encountered a Belgian medical team being evacuated in a UN bus. UN “rules of engagement” apparently stopped them providing security for the doctors. The Belgians took most of their medical supplies with them, to keep them out of the claws of robbers.
Dr Gupta and his camera team stayed the night, monitored the abandoned patients’ vital signs and continued intravenous drips — and they were not robbed. Some rescuers are leaning so much toward security that they will allow people to die.
However, if you can’t give as much as you would like, or find yourself wanting to do more, then I have one further suggestion: contact the White House and tell them that you support granting Haitians Temporary Protected Status (TPS) immediately.
TPS is a form of temporary humanitarian immigration relief given to nationals of countries that have suffered severe disasters, natural or man-made. (For example, El Salvador got TPS was after the country was hit by a terrible earthquake in 2001, Honduras after Hurricane Mitch in 1999, and Burundi, Liberia, Sudan, and Somalia were designated because of ongoing armed conflicts.)
Once a country has been given TPS, its nationals who are in the United States can apply for work authorization (a very useful thing to have if, say, one needs to send money home to family members in need of medical care or a house that has not been reduced to rubble), can’t be deported or put into immigration detention (also quite handy if you’re trying to work and send money home), and can apply for travel authorization, which allows them to visit their home country and return to the US, even if they wouldn’t otherwise have a visa that would allow them back into the country (incredibly important if you have loved ones who have been badly hurt and need to visit them, or if you need to go home to attend funerals).
Designating Haiti for TPS status would provide an immediate, tremendously valuable benefit to Haitian immigrants in the United States. But, more importantly it would benefit their loved ones who remain in Haiti and are in desperate need of their assistance. TPS would increase and stabilize remittances at a time when they are absolutely vital. Equally significantly, especially in the quake’s immediate aftermath, it would allow immigrants to return to Haiti to find and help their loved ones, or to mourn those who they have lost, without jeopardizing their ability to return to the United States and support their surviving family members.