‘A LABOUR REVOLUTION NEEDED’ – to save Haiti, says ILO leader

Haitians have been forced to sleep in makeshift tents or out in the open since the earthquake over a year ago
Haitians have been forced to sleep in makeshift tents or out in the open since the earthquake over a year ago

‘The decent work agenda is a primary need when we talk about reconstruction,’ Anthony Jones, the resident representative of the ITUC and the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA) in Haiti said.

In an interview, Jones was highlighting the urgency of placing decent work at the heart of the reconstruction programme and insisting on the importance of training in the strategy to support the Haitian trade union movement.

What has been so far the role of decent work in the reconstruction effort? he was asked.

‘The issue of decent work has not been discussed for reconstruction purposes. What has been discussed is creation of jobs, but not decent work,’ Jones said.

‘People are operating in the short term, and that is not taking into account standards needed to protect workers and ensure that their rights are also enforced.

‘So what we have is an attempt to recreate what Haiti had in the past.

‘The practices that existed before the earthquake are the same practices that are taking place.

‘So the decent work agenda is a primary need when we talk about reconstruction and creating a new Haiti,’ Jones said.

Are trade unions prepared to face this massive challenge?

Jones replied: ‘The trade unions here reflect in many ways the state of the economy. The formal economy of Haiti represents only two per cent of the total employment picture.

‘That has a serious impact on the unions’ ability to function. When you have a strong economy, and especially a formal economy, unions can act and be stronger.

‘So there is a great need to reorganise in Haiti and help unions to reach out to new members. So this is one of the major challenges for the international trade union movement.

‘This would be difficult to organise in any setting; this is not a problem unique to Haiti.

‘But over the course of time the role of the informal economy has been greatly diminished for the unions. They need additional support and resources to be able to meet this new challenge,’ the union leader said.

So is training one of the main necessities today in Haiti? he was asked.

‘Yes’ Jones replied, ‘On this one issue there are no disagreements amongst unions and amongst civil society partners.

‘Training is the only solution to help Haiti to get out of the situation in which it finds itself.

‘Unions are in need of training in a number of areas. First, because we need to start to replace the void created by years of a mass migration that drained people with good skills out of Haiti.

‘In addition, there are generations of people who don’t know about certain rights and practices that should be in place, why or how they are supposed to be, or what are the minimum standards, what are the protocols.

‘In construction, for instance, workers are walking round with no protection, no helmet and no gloves on.

‘The International Trade Union movement should be in this area. You would go to make the sector safer. It would create a class of workers that are skilled and who could work effectively and be a valuable part of the reconstruction process.’

What else can the international union movement could do to support workers in Haiti? he was asked.

‘International unions can lobby national donor countries to support decent work and worker education and training programmes.

‘There is little that the Haitian labour movement can do to convince government agencies and donors to honour their pledges.

‘International unions can encourage and support policy and strategic reforms to create decent employment and respect of human and workers’ rights.

‘This pressure can also lead to increased opportunities to expand programme outreach or provide improved services to workers and their families.

‘By merging international and national efforts into a uniformed strategic approach, workers across the globe will contribute to the reconstruction and rebuilding of the nation,’ Jones said.

Regarding the ‘historic problem of freedom of association and union busting in Haiti, what is the situation now?’

‘The laws only exist in the books. And so most unions do not have access to act’ Jones explained.

‘Furthermore, for workers there is a sense of fear and a plan of intimidation. They know that any noise or trouble trying to organise or trying to promote unions, their jobs would be at stake.

‘This has been seen on a number of occasions in a number of different factories, where people raise issues to try to promote change and are fired as a consequence.

‘With the shortage of jobs that exist, workers do not feel that they can in any way, shape or form, upset the employer.

‘And so it is not only unionism but a whole lot of actions that could improve workers lives that are not being discussed or addressed.

‘There needs to be serious and fundamental changes from a number of levels to better protect workers and to enforce the rules that exist.’

Antonio Cruciani, International Labour Organisation (ILO)-Haiti the resident representative of the ILO working on the issue of reconstruction has also said: ‘We have to change the system. This would be the labour revolution.’

With 93 per cent of workers dependent on the informal economy, Cruciani, a reconstruction specialist, sees promoting a culture of decent work and the provision of social protection as top priorities.

How do you start to press for the agenda of Decent Work in a country like Haiti? he was asked.

‘What you have to do is not the usual way we normally do things.

‘If we go to Nigeria, Uruguay, Guadalupe, we start talking about decent work, salaries, freedom of association, conditions at work, etc.

‘But here the method is to start creating the culture of decent work.

‘The difficulty of starting talking about labour rights is that there is no work. If you talk about salaries, there is no money to share.

‘What we are trying to do together, with the ITUC and the ILO, are various things.

‘If you want, you can visualise three main pillars of the strategy to achieve decent work.

‘First of all, the pillar of employment.

‘We must facilitate the creation of work in reconstruction with the creation of employment in the public and private sector.

‘Don’t forget the private sector here means the formal sector, which is a very small group. Because 93 per cent of workers are in the informal economy.

‘So you have to think of what do you do with them. For that you need to be creative and inventive.

‘Then you have the limits of economic growth. You don’t have many skilled people because the vocational training system practically doesn’t exist.

‘In any case, even when there was an education system 20 years ago, the people didn’t find jobs after leaving school, so they migrated to Europe, Canada or the US.

‘This is another obstacle to the reconstruction.’

Cruciani added: ‘We need to work on institutional building, political reform and policy reform. You have to change the system. This would be the labour revolution.

‘This must be the second pillar.

‘Yes, it’s creating the conditions of work.

‘How do you improve the level of institutions, the culture of decent work, and then if there are some contentious issues, have a labour tribunal that can be an arbitrator. All these things exist on paper but they don’t work.

‘Then the third pillar is the social protection.

‘Social protection here is only for formal workers, namely, the public employees, the textile factories and other industries. No more than seven per cent of the active population.

‘So you have 93 per cent of workers that don’t have any social protection. This is our problem. As the ILO we have to work on it.

‘So again this is a problem related to the question of the informal economy.

‘Yes, we need to find solutions not just for the workers of the formal sector, but particularly for the 93 per cent of the people that are in the informal economy.

‘But when you think in terms of social protection, also the employers will be very keen to have a system that in some way the public sector transfers some money to do the social protection, for workers.

‘They would like to have an education that is free, a health system that is more or less subsidised.

‘Therefore, they would be prepared to have a social protection system, a public sector that helps the workers. So their salaries would be spent on consumption.

‘What I’m saying is very important for us because we found out that there is an identity of vision that is the same among workers and employers. This is where we are working. Trying to work on a common ground.’

What about the third member of the tripartite dialogue?

Cruciani said: ‘The problem here is that you don’t have visionary people in government.

‘They couldn’t drive the international community to what could be done in this country.

‘Don’t forget. We are talking about the international community like it was one entity. But it’s made up of eight or ten major governments, the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, the EU, and thousands of NGOs. That is also a problem, because you have a lot of shooting strength, but it is not going to the same objective.

‘This diversity is also a source of problems, as it encompasses a multitude of standpoints geared towards different objectives.

‘If there were a government that could drive these several forces, you would have the possibility of consensus over some key areas.

‘During the next weeks we are trying to do a thematic round table, bringing together government, different ministries, trade unions, employers, to have a discussion about this.

‘You don’t read about labour issues and employment in the newspaper, on the radio or TV that there is a debate on this. But what we are doing is to put the labour issues on the table.

‘The authorities have not hitherto managed to channel the aid towards clear priorities.

‘An authority is needed that could direct these different aims to ensure that a consensus is reached on a number of key matters. We are, in fact, trying to get the issue of decent work firmly on the agenda,’ the ILO leader concluded.