Today’s Wage: Problems for Haiti’s Labor

In ‘Short Introduction to Economics,’ Partha Dasgupta describes the issue of family sharing within rural subsistence households, where the ‘market’ cannot provide an adequate medium for exchange. Once they’ve bartered or borrowed within the community, farmers and their families are left with the remainder of that years harvest. The result is a necessary prioritization of resources, and those whose strength is required most, are apportioned greater quantities of food as survival maximization.

While most economies no longer function this way, observation of widespread absolute poverty identifies a government’s inability to provide adequate social protection. Haiti’s general labor conditions suffer from under and unemployment in excess of 40-60%, minimum wages within formal jobs such as factory production are no more than $5 per day and labor standards are mostly a matter of community norms. With limited infrastructure, Haiti’s low wage factory garment production only produces $800mn per year totaling 90% of exports, and providing formal jobs for only 31,000 people.

Orphanages such as this one, along with other services such as adoption and child welfare services, have not been able to absorb the full burden of children in need. For those who aren’t provided for, child labor is often the result, as with many restavecs. (Image Courtesy: Katrina Gai/St Jean Family Missionaries)

As a result, the role of state labor protection is lacking. One example is child household laborers, also known as ‘restavecs’. Adopted into this position, they are understood within the context of the UN as a living example of modern day enslavement. However given the market conditions in Haiti, to simply declare this situation a human rights abuse forgoes consideration of the capacity of the society at large to support this function (adoption, orphanages, child welfare services, etc…). Secondly, the responsibility is on the role of the patron to allow for freedom of movement, health, education and a decent life to determine the validity of the issue on a cultural basis. Restavec freedom foundations and authors such as Jean Robert Cadet have closely observed this phenomenon; currently there are approximately a ¼ of a million of these children in Haiti. The difficulty exists that while small ground floor orphanages of missionary groups may try to absorb some of this burden, as an institution, they are unable to play a large enough social purpose.

Haiti’s laborers are also threatened by a different predatory condition. Much like the bonded labor condition of Bangladeshi construction workers in UAE or sex-trafficked Eastern European women in Istanbul and elsewhere, a slightly lesser known history of modern enslavement exists in the estates of the Amazonian regions of Brazil. In the 2010 ILO Brazil case study ‘Fighting Forced Labor’ details the means by which uneducated ‘rolling labor’ from the northern regions of Brazil are offered sharecropping opportunities; and then subjected to withheld identification, lack of medical attention, nor decent housing. In penalty for their back debts incurred in transportation and work permits, tools and equipment are then leased at exorbitant rates and/or the land they are offered is unsuitable for harvest.Brazil’s agro-exports include cane, corn, sugar, coffee and soy totaling $64 billion USD, there are an estimated 25,000 to 100,000 enslaved people working in agriculture, much of which services the US and EU.

Haiti’s low wage factory garment production only produces $800mn per year totaling 90% of exports, and providing formal jobs for only 31,000 people. (Image Courtesy: USAID)

This issue has been addressed in Brazil, by the establishment of statutory institutions to combat lawlessness in the remote regions and through applied campaigns for peer and social pressure on supply chains, subsequent to the formalization of international claims of corporate social responsibility. However, since the economic devastation of the 2010 earthquake, the Brazilian government in the face of inadequate oversight has allowed companies to increasingly petition Haitian workers to be permitted for work on the estates.

The undetermined fate of children at home or those who are extraordinarily indentured for export oriented production are not inherently the same thing. But the synergies they represent inform us of our own position on human rights. To Paraphrase Dasgupta from the introduction to his book Destitution and Wellbeing: The complexity of how utilitarian and rights-based theories interrelate is usually coined in terms of positive and negative rights, a plurality of ‘evaluative’ and ‘descriptive’ concepts that involve our worst issues. What make these unclear are people’s preferences, the role of welfare and freedom; or lack thereof that results in Well-being. So policies that should protect and promote Well-being are hard to identify, meanwhile we find what underlies them is a deeper problem. People’s needs and freedoms have different cultural norms and social practices that create unwanted conflicts. As a result of these motivations “markets allocate resources efficiently not equitably.” (Dasgupta, 1993)

Michael Lieberman | Infrastructure Coordinator; Saint-Marc, Haiti

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