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.