Haitian Sweatshop Workers Speak: Sub-Poverty Wages and Sexual Coercion
Below, Haitian women workerstell of their experiences in sweatshops. These interviews, gathered over the past two years, are among many dozens that this writer has collected from Haitian sweatshop workers since the early 1980s. Not one has ever diverged from the narrative of miserable working conditions and the inability to feed, shelter, and educate their children on insufficient wages. Below, womentell of their experiences as sweatshop workers and offer their analysis on better types of jobs for Haiti.
Ghislene Deloné [her requested pseudonym, because of her fear of retribution from textile companies] spent eleven years as a seamstress in a plant in Port-au-Prince’s industrial park. Today she is employed as a health promoter with factory workers.
“The workers leave their houses at 5:00 in the morning; they can get home at 8:00 at night. Then when they get home, they have to go out to see if they can find water. They have to sweep, wash the dishes, help their children study, wash the children’s uniforms, make up the children’s lunch boxes. They race out to the market because here you live hand-to-mouth: you can only buy what you need for that day. They have to give their children some food if they can.
“They’re always struggling to see how they’re going to make ends meet. They might have to go to a loan shark. When they get paid each payday, they already owe all of it.
“We each need the other: bosses need workers, workers need bosses. We need the work they’re sending us from other countries because without it, this country can’t advance. So many people are looking for work and you know there’s not a lot.
“But the jobs there can’t be based on the exploitation of people. They need to respect the rights and human dignity of people and raise the wages. We need security and to be treated as human beings.
“We have to join forces, but it’s so hard. We need strong, courageous women to enter into the struggle, then things could change. That’s what’s going to get the bosses to respect the rights of workers.”
Since quitting her job as a seamstress, Ruth Jean-Pierre survives off her own sewing business. She has almost no buyers, however, thanks to Haiti’s growing second-hand clothes market. Ruth is the sole provider for her 14 children and grandchildren.
“In the factories, there’s a system that we call ‘give to me and I’ll give to you.’ It means that you have to agree to have sex with the supervisor or that person can blacklist you or get you fired. My supervisor was trying to seduce me, but I said no because I had a husband. So he fired me.
“What I was getting paid didn’t help me with my kids and the things we needed, anyway. All I could do with my salary was buy my food and pay for transportation to the factory.
“In 2009, I heard that people were protesting so the workers could have a salary of 200 gourdes [at the time, US$5]. I don’t know if it passed. [Ed. note: The raise only went into effect last year.]But the salary can’t do anything for people with their economic problems. People have to pay for transportation, they have to eat, they have to pay rent, if they have children they have to pay for school, which is very expensive.
“If they would think about this and give workers a salary that could respond to their needs, it would be better. If they had more factories in this country it would be better for poor people, but the salary they’re paying has to change.”
Aluta Marcelin worked in US- and Haitian-owned factories for three years. She has not found other work since, but says she will never return to the assembly industry.
“I had a child who didn’t have a father, and I didn’t have any family or anyone who could help me. I was starving, I couldn’t eat or sleep, and my child was hungry and crying all the time. When I asked a man for a job [in the factory], he said, ‘Okay, but you have to have sex with me.’ I told him, ‘If I was looking for sex, I wouldn’t be talking to you about this job.’
“He gave me the job even though I didn’t have sex with him. But once I was on the job, I wasn’t safe because there were a lot of men [supervisors] who were always looking to have sex with the women and do violence to them. Finally, so I wouldn’t lose my job, I had sex with one of the men. I had a child to feed, and I had no choice.
“I made do. They say the little people always get the worst and the bigger ones always get the best.
“Instead of factories, we could create businesses among ourselves. We could make products and go abroad to sell them. We could find patrons and show them the beautiful work that Haiti is doing and tell them that we want to work but we can’t. They could finance our work. If our products sell well, we could make profits.”
Suzette Pierre worked in a garment factory from 2003-2005, until being fired for refusing to continue sleeping with her supervisor. Though she has been unemployed since, she says she won’t work in a factory again. She has four children.
“The person who got me the job at the factory told me to have sex with him. Each time he wanted it, I was supposed to go along with it. I resigned myself to it, because I had to save the lives of my two children. I got pregnant, but I still worked every day, every day. He didn’t fire me because I never refused to give him what he demanded.
“What I did at the factory was pull the stray threads from the shirts and then fold and pack them properly. Each packet had 32 shirts. To meet quota, I had to clean [pull threads] and pack seven packets each day [0.5 cents per shirt]. But I couldn’t do that, to be honest. I could never meet the quota, so I only made 450 gourdes [US $10.71] every two weeks. I couldn’t take care of my children any more and I took them out of school.
“The reason I left the factory was because another man, the supervisor, demanded that I sleep with him, too. If you had a complaint, like you need more hours to work, he got you the hours. But then you had to pay him. Any time he wanted to use you, he could. We would arrange a rendez-vous in his bedroom, or sometimes I would meet him at a hotel. I went because I wanted my children to go to school. And every time he passed me in the factory, he would grope me.
“It was like being pressed in a vise, like every person could demand that I sleep with him. I couldn’t take it any longer. I resigned myself, I spoke to the children, I said, “Misery for more misery, surviving just to survive… nothing is going to change this way.”
“I wouldn’t go along with it anymore. So they fired me.
“If the U.N. wants to put more factories in Haiti, it could be good, because there are a lot of people who don’t have work. But me, if someone who runs a factory wanted me to go there, I wouldn’t go. I already did two jobs at once. I’ve already been through that. If they’re really going to establish more factories, there needs to be a pledge that women doing factory work don’t have to do the other kind of work.”
Many thanks to Lynn Selby for translating Suzette Pierre’s interview, to Jean Julienfor translating Aluta Marcelin’s, and to Joseph Alain Charles for translating Ghislene Deloné’s. For previous articles in this series on sweatshops, see A Hard Day’s Labor for $4.76: The Offshore Assembly Industry in Haiti and “Mrs. Clinton Can Have Her Factories”: A Haitian Sweatshop Worker Speaks.