Trade unions in Haiti

Two months ago, public and commercial transport drivers in Port au Prince went on strike for two days. Much of the city’s commercial and public services were shut down. The strike was a reminder to all that workers and peasants in this country are determined to struggle for better living standards and for a better society. They are also prepared to pressure the elected government harder to make this happen.

The strike shut down most commerce and public services in the city. The issue was the rising price of gasoline. Transport drivers were getting hit with rising gasoline prices. Transport companies as well as drivers, many of whom work on contract to private vehicle owners, tried to raise the price of their services, but the population balked at paying higher fees. Drivers and owner-operators were caught between rising prices, government refusal to stabilize or lower prices, and the people’s refusal to pay higher prices.

When President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela visited Haiti this past March, agreements were signed to provide low-cost gasoline and other oil products to Haiti. Transport owners and workers expected that this would stabilize the price of gasoline. But the government has allowed gas prices to rise, and no one seems to know where the lower-cost gasoline is. Has it entered the fuel system in the country, or is it still stored abroad?

The government has said that surplus money gained by lower prices from Venezuela will go towards the funding of social programs. But transport workers say they need a price reduction of fuel, and many do not trust the government’s promise that surplus money will go to social programs. So the two sides are at an impasse.

Today, members of our delegation met with representatives of the Association de proprietaires et chaffeurs d’Haiti (APCH) to hear first hand about the drivers struggle. I will write more about this lively and informative exchange in the coming days. Suffice to say that high fuel costs and the willingness of transport workers to struggle makes for an explosive mix.

In March, 2006, the Preval government established two working commissions to meet with trade unions and examine the current state of trade union organization and the labour provisions of Haiti’s constitution of 1986. There was much hope at the time that these commissions would influence government policy and that more such commissions could help resolve more contentious issues such as in the transport industry. But the commission sessions have not produced any meaningful policy to date. I have not talked with enough unionists to get a sense of whether the trade union movement as whole feels the commission process is worthy of further participation.

Many workers are disappointed with the 2006 government’s performance to date on many issues. There is deep opposition to the restructuring and intended privatisation of the state owned telecommunication company Teleco that has already produced more than 1,000 layoffs. And there are demands that the minimum wage be waged. Presently, it stands at 70 gourdes per day, US$2.

Another issue that is a hot topic of discussion is that of trade union unity. In the transport industry, for example, there is a multiplicity of unions that do not have a coordinating body. There is a growing feeling among many unionists that this must change and that unity is paramount. One of the few things for which the government commission process can perhaps be thanked is for producing a greater awareness of this need.