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Haiti-Minimum wage : The Haiti Support Group stands firm with the student mobilisation

Haiti Support Group press release

Submitted to AlterPresse on June 9, 2009

The British soldiarity organisation, the Haiti Support Group (HSG), expresses it strong support for the student demonstrators who have mobilised in Port-au-Prince over the last week calling for President Preval to agree to the minimum wage law. The HSG also denounces in the strongest possible terms the violent repression of the student demonstrations by the Haitian National Police force (PNH) and the UN mission, the MINUSTAH.

Progressive students from the State University in Port-au-Prince began street demonstrations on 3rd June. The mobilisation has focused on President Preval’s refusal to sanction the National Assembly (Parliament) vote to increase the daily minimum wage. After months of delays, the Haitian Senate voted unanimously on 5th May to approve a measure raising the minimum wage to 200 gourdes a day (about US$4.90) from its current rate of 70 gourdes. The Chamber of Deputies approved the measure earlier in the year.

To become law, the raise needs to be approved by President Préval and published in the official gazette, Le Moniteur. However Preval has delayed taking this step following threats from the private sector. After the Senate vote in favour of the new law, owners of the country’s garment sector assembly operations went onto the offensive, stating that if the wage increase was implemented, they would be obliged to dismiss half of the 25,000 workers employed20in this sector.

The private sector’s disregard for democratic niceties such as legislation passed by the country’s elected representatives is sadly quite predictable. The most powerful elements of this sector have persistently blocked all attempts to move the country forward and to create a more equitable distribution of the income. It remains one of most destabilising influences in the country, and this latest cynical move to overturn a democratic process once again raises serious doubts about the international community’s insistence on making this sector its priority development partner.

President Preval’s prevarication is deeply disturbing in view of the fact that he was voted into office by voters from the urban and rural poor and progressive middle class. Rather than pass a law that would increase the standard of living of a significant part of the formal labour force, as well as having a major positive knock-on effect on the informal sector, he instead appears to have succumbed to the pressure exerted by the international community. Earlier this year UN SG Ban Ki-moon and former US president and new UN envoy to Haiti, Bill Clinton, made a high-profile visit to Haiti. During their visit they stressed the need for international donors to support measures to enlarge the garment assembly sector. Central to their proposal is Haiti’s comparative advantage over other garment assembly countries - its very low wages.

The student demonstrators are calling on Preval to pass the legisla tion into law. Their legitimate demand and their constitutional right to demonstrate on the streets have been met with fierce repression from the riot police and MINUSTAH soldiers. Students have been fiercely and repeatedly beaten, shrouded in tear-gas, and even shot at. One student received a bullet wound to the head. When his friends entered the main state hospital to find out about his condition, the security forces fired tear gas into the hospital - an act which, as everyone knows, is a clear violation of the Geneva Convention. According to one eye-witness, with the hospital wards filling with tear-gas, parents were forced to run out of the building carrying sick and injured children.

The Haiti Support Group stands firm with the student mobilisation that is, in turn, supporting a piece of legislation passed overwhelmingly by the democratically-elected parliament. The HSG calls for the arrested and detained students to be released, for victims of violence perpetrated by national and international ’security’ forces to be compensated, and for the 200 gourdes minimum daily wage to be passed into law. Anything less will be a major set-back for progressive change in Haiti, and another victory for those minority elements who for their own selfish reasons want the country to remain as it is.