By Hanna Claeson
After more than two months of struggle, backed by international solidarity efforts, fledgling Haitian Garment union “Sendika Ouvriye Takstil ak Abiman” (SOTA, or translated into English, Textile and Apparel Worker’s Union), seems to be achieving the before unthinkable. Five out of the six union leaders, who were fired in late September within days of the public announcement of their leadership role in the new union, have been reinstated. Johny Joseph, (Treasurer of SOTA) and Hilaire Jean-Francois (SOTA’s Secretary of Organization),were reinstated in December. The remaining three workers – Wilner Elissaint (General Coordinator of SOTA), Cénatus Vilaire (Secretary of Grievances of SOTA), and Brevil Claude (Education and Public Information Secretary of SOTA) – returned to work in early January, 2012. The sixth worker, Mitial Rubin (Secretary of SOTA), has not been reinstated by his employer, a factory called One World Apparel, owned by Charles Henri Baker, a former candidate for President of Haiti. Four out of the six workers worked at Genesis, a factory that produces apparel almost exclusively for Gildan. Gildan, in turn, is the leading producer of blank T-shirts for the North American market, which are used by universities, public entities, and groups buying in bulk. Genesis was also the first company to start firing workers.
The reinstatement and compensation of all of the union leaders is crucial to the labor justice in Haiti, home to the harshest labor conditions and lowest wages in the Caribbean/Central America region. The continued survival and vitality of the union will set a precedent for union organizing and labor rights advocacy for workers throughout the entire country, in diverse sectors of the economy. It will be a signal to both union and non-union-workers that the right to association can be upheld and respected, instead of only punished and retaliated against. Only when it is safe to join a trade labor union will union-organizing efforts have a chance at achieving their goals: respect on the job, better hours, wages, and working conditions.
The reinstatement of the union leaders is also significant to international solidarity efforts, as it is a testament to our power to successfully support workers’ organizing for their rights. After the International Labor Rights Forum called on its supporters to take action, nearly 5000 people sent letters to Gildan. These actions, combined with the Worker Rights Consortium’s report— that documented the ways that the dismissal of SOTA-union leaders violated laws and university codes, and that recommended reinstatement of the workers as an urgent priority—have shown SOTA and its supporters that they are not alone. Although delayed in its action, Gildan intervened aggressively at Genesis and played a pivotal role in achieving reinstatement. Hanesbrands played a similar role at Multiwear, the factory where Hilaire Jean-Francois is employed.
The battle is far from won. Most immediately, we must continue the call for the reinstatement of Mitial Rubin, and to support SOTA in its efforts to negotiate a compensation agreement. Not only should the workers be reinstated, they also have the right to be paid for the period of time that they were not working due to the illegal firings. Crucial to the continued success of the union—and to related labor organizing efforts in the country—are continued, and constructive relations between SOTA and employers. As supporters of worker justice, we have an important role to play in ensuring that apparel brands actively support (through continued and growing orders) factories that encourage and enter into dialogue with trade labor unions. Sustainable orders for factories that demonstrate compliance with labor rights will make Haitian factory owners take note, and serve to support union-organizing efforts nation-wide.
Lastly, should future similar cases arise, we must be ready to act swiftly to advocate for the prompt reinstatement of fired workers. In the case of the fired SOTA union leaders, the delay of the report by Better Work Haiti -- a labor rights project of the International Labour Organization and the International Finance Corporation -- was not completed until two months after the firings. It is troubling that Better Work initially requested that companies not launch corrective actions until their report was released. In the meantime, not only were the six union leaders jobless, but other factory workers were likely dissuaded from joining union efforts for fear of losing their jobs. While Better Work’s eventual report supported the WRC’s findings, the timing of the report was problematic.
The struggle continues… lit a kontinye!
Hanna Claeson is a Hampshire College student and an intern with SweatFree Communities at the International Labor Rights Forum.