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Solidarity with workers at Coca-Cola subsidiary

Haiti Support Group backs Cap-Haïtien bottling plant union

by Charles Arthur [1]

Submitted to AlterPresse on February 13, 2006

In May 2006, the Batay Ouvriye May First Union Federation and the La Couronne-Northern Branch Labour Union issued a new
appeal calling for international solidarity, and denouncing the La Couronne Brewery-Coca-Cola Haiti company. As part of its continuing campaign in support of independent workers’ organisations in Haiti, the Haiti Support Group responded to the call, sending letters to the
company owner, Raymond Jaar, and to Haitian music star, Wyclef Jean, whose Yele Foundation lists Mr Jaar as one of its sponsors. We also made contact with the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), an international federation that has been pressurising Coca-Cola and its subsidiaries to respect workers’ rights in various countries.

In early 2006, the unionised workers at this company’s branch in the northern city of Cap-Haïtien had taken collective action several times to try and force the management to the management ignore the work stoppages and legal strikes, but even carried out
more dismissals of union members, further antagonising the workforce.

The Haiti Support Group wrote to Jaar and Jean in support the union’s basic demands :
- An increase in wages and an end to the illegal payment of just 50 gourdes a day (little more than US$1) for unskilled workers at the bottling plant. (The minimum daily wage in Haiti, as set by the government, is 70 gourdes per day.)
- Respect for the legal provisions for holidays and sick leave.
- Payment for overtime.
- The reinstatement of the union leader, Philomé Cémérant, who was dismissed without good reason a few days after the union formed in 2004.

We cannot say with any certainty what impact the Haiti Support Group’s intervention had, but, in late December 2006, we received news from the union’s leadership informing us that all workers are now paid more than the minimum daily wage, that loans to workers at
the beginning of the school year had been offered by the company, that cold drinking water is now available in the plant, and that the issue of Philomé Cémérant had been resolved in October 2006 when he received severance pay of approximately US$600.

Despite these moves in the right direction, the union has continued to agitate for the management to provide clean toilets, to install showers, to repair the delivery trucks that keep breaking down, and to pay per diems to deliverymen sent to far-flung areas of the country. Failure to resolve these issues, and the news that the Coca-Cola company headquarters had authorised bonus payments of
US$20 for each worker that the local management had not passed on, prompted a one-day strike on November 24th 2006. A second strike was called off when the government’s director of the local Labour Bureau (part of the Ministry of Social Affairs) intervened and promised to mediate. However, on December 4th, when the union executive committee went to see him, he pushed them out of the office, calling them a “bunch of union shit”, and saying he would no longer have anything to do with them. The struggle continues…..

The leaders of the La Couronne-Northern Branch Labour Union state, “We won’t back down ! Nor will the brewery management’s intimidation make us back off.”

[1Charles Arthur is the director of the Haiti Support Group, and this article is an extract from the Haiti Support Group newsletter - Haiti Briefing, No.60, February 2007.