Foreign Policy Blogs

Labor rights and exploitation in Haiti

On my personal blog, I posted a piece about my interactions with exploitation and violations of workers rights in Haiti.

To see the full post go to:

Sometimes when the day, the week, the month, has been long, I take a stroll to some kind of stress release, to see friends or sneak into one of the expensive hotels to swim. I can saunter into these hotels with little more than a greeting to the guards, because access and wealth are imprinted in my skin. On days like this, when I feel weakened and worn down, I invariably stub my toe on the rubble, which honestly sometimes feels like its augmenting, as people gut their destroyed houses and create new piles in the street.

While walking, I am always kissed at and asked for money. I hate the daily reminder of the continuing imperialism and exploitation that means that finding a sympathetic blan is likely the best chance to get employment, opportunity, or spare change for a meal. Today I bought a Tampico for my noonday trek across the city. As I passed an intersection a nursing mother yelled at me for money, and a kid grabbed my juice. I am ashamed that I said “non ou pa ka pran ju mwen!” (no you can’t have my juice!) and scampered through a break in the traffic. I was feeling defensive and depressed and hot. But I didn’t need that juice, and the kid deserved it. I didn’t respond well to the aggression of the begging, against my defenseless exhaustion.

Of course, I know that begging is hard, an assault on one’s dignity; that my spare change will not make an impact on the fact that everyday people struggle to eat (just as charity and a massive aid community has not); that my spare change means infinitely more to those asking for it than to me; and that whether they buy a meal now, buy their kid a special bon bon, or tuck that 25 gourdes away to pay for school fees, that money won’t be wasted.

But bigger than the age-old question of whether to give money to the homeless, is my daily affirmation over the last months that this nation that was created through the empowered revolt of slaves, is still filled with people living in deeply exploitative work situations

The lady who works in the apartment next to mine has become a very special friend. We check in every day, she ran out of the house naked from the shower when I stupidly caught my gas valve on fire and screamed “Ede-mwen! Ede-mwen!” (I could remember my Kreyol for “help me!” but not that dumping water on fire would fix the situation), and sometimes we chat about her situation and Haiti. She told me that jesus must be coming soon, because everything is so bad. She is middle aged, and ashamed because she doesn’t have a house of her own. She works 24 hours a day from Sunday night to Friday, cleaning, taking care of her boss’ young daughter “ki fe anpil dezod” (who makes such chaos!), trekking to the Petionville markets then climbing the steep Pacot hills with bags full of vegetables on her head (“nou bouke!” (“we are worn out!”) she sighed to me as I walked with her sweatily up the hill, my own bag awfully heavy with camera and computer and these expensive tools). Every weekend she goes to stay with a son, daughter, or nephew. She is not paid by the hour, and sleeps short nights, waiting by the door to let in her boss who works until ten many nights, then up at five to make breakfast, then clean, scrub launder, and work all day.

Another friend is a driver for an influential political and press figure. He works anytime anything happens anywhere, which is to say all the time. I have been with him on Sundays when he picks me up at 5 am and we don’t get home until midnight. He lives in La Boule, above Petionville, so when he’s done he has to park the car and take a tap tap or moto taxi home, sometimes with change from his boss, and often with what he can scrounge from his pay. He can’t drive the car home, even though he may be working again four hours later, because the other car “could have a problem” and the mister must have access to both his cars if he needs them. He has worked with his boss for eight years, I asked him if he gets a raise each year. He acknowledged that would be normal, but working for a private individual doesn’t get you the same guarantees. “He has so many connections, I thought that could help me, but aside from some side work when foreign colleagues come to town, I’ve seen no real way to advance myself,” he explained. He is an extremely impressive individual; we spoke in French for the early months I was learning Kreyol. I asked him once what he studied, he said he didn’t really have good schooling because his parents died and he came to Port-au-Prince on his own when he was young. He only finished fourth grade, but he tried, and listened, and learned French. We’ve schemed about finding him work with one of the NGOs, but those positions are hard to find, and you never know how long the NGO will be in town. He can’t give up his position, exhausting, strenuous, and low paid as it is, because there’s no guarantee—at all—that he would find something equal or better if he quit, and working eighty plus hour weeks leaves no time for job searches.

I took a ride with one of the NGO chauffeurs one night. We also got to chatting, and I asked him how his work was. Exhausting, and underpaid, he said. He works six days a week, and was excited because his birthday fell on his day off this year, but he thought he might take the next day off so he could actually party—he doesn’t like to work after going out. He works the night shift, meaning until ten or eleven. He says the morning shift is better, because even if you start at five, you get replaced by the night shift at a reasonable hour. The night shifters, though, can be called to come in early if something happens, so he can work from seven or eight in the morning until eleven at night. The pay is not enough, but he also can’t find another job because he’s working all the time and there’s really not much else better. He wants to get his own house, his own life, but he said now people are living with their parents, unemployed into middle age, unable to get a job, to make an independent existence. “Everyone wants to leave, it’s sad, I hate to say it, but it’s true,” he said, “I would too, if I could get a visa I would go. There’s no hope here.”

Artists struggle everywhere, I relate to that, as I etch a living from assignment to assignment, but of course, it’s harder in Haiti. Before the earthquake there were exhibits at galleries, museums and embassies. But many of these institutions were destroyed in the earthquake, along with the state arts university which houses a thriving and beautiful community, that is nonetheless made up of displaced artists, living in tents, with nowhere to go. The university’s issues are bigger though, politics has prohibited new classes from forming for the past two years, and it has stopped hosting exhibits. My artist friends all pull me aside, and ask if I can help them show their work in the states. Over and over I have to explain that I don’t have art connections, that the galleries I know aren’t official enough for a letter, and certainly couldn’t finance their flights, housing, food and transportation in expensive New York. Helping them translate their CV and send applications to artist calls I see has yet to prove fruitful. They all think they could represent Haitian art on the international stage. I agree, their work is fantastic, dynamic, detailed, layered, insightful, unique. Talking about their paintings or sculptures helps me understand Haiti better. But getting out of Haiti requires both extensive documentation from organizations on the other side, and excessive bureaucratic wrangling to get approval from the ministry of culture and to get a passport and visa. The local art business has decayed with the economy, and these artists don’t want to make cheap artisanal paintings to sell to the NGO workers that have replaced tourists as the expat market.

Haiti has an unemployment rate of over sixty percent. Most people work in the informal sector, which has no insurance or guarantee against catastrophe, or legal means to report exploitation or labor rights violations—even if there were a functioning judicial system to follow cases through. New international contracts have lowered the minimum wage in factories[1] to 150 gourdes ($3.70) per day, where lunch typically costs 75 gourdes on the street, and the freest market in the hemisphere means health and education are private industries and families have to buy these essential services. In a recent editorial Nicholas Kristof said ‘”Sweatshops,” Americans may be thinking. “Jobs,” Haitians are thinking.’ Well, in my experience Haitians have more to say (and much more to think, Mr. Kristof, since when are journalists mind readers?) than “I want a job.” Haitians want fair jobs, rights, and wages that reflect their contributions and can support their families.

It feels silly to cry “injustice!” anymore. The world is not fair. But I’m a writer, so I say, this is unjust, and I’m uncomfortable with it. And you can have my juice next time.

[1] For more on factories and labor rights see Alexis Erkert Depp’s excellent piece here



Allyn Gaestel
Allyn Gaestel

Allyn Gaestel is a journalist focused on international affairs and human rights. She is currently in the United States finishing documentaries from India and the Caribbean. Previously she was based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and earlier worked as a United Nations correspondent in New York. Her background is in political science, public health, women's issues, and development. She has worked in Haiti, India, Senegal, Mali, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mauritania and the Bahamas. You can follow Allyn on twitter @AllynGaestel

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