Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, has promoted itself as a cheap and available destination for US clothing brands seeking low-cost suppliers that can take advantage of 2006 legislation that allows duty-free entry for goods made there by US companies.
The government has not raised the minimum wage since 2019, despite inflation of more than 15%. The country is experiencing catastrophic levels of insecurity and political instability after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse last year. As a result, food and fuel prices have escalated. Unions are fighting for an increase in the minimum daily wage of garment workers from 500 to 1,500 gourdes ($5-15).
About 60,000 Haitians work in one of the country’s 41 garment factories, producing clothes for more than 60 American companies.
Yet activists say conditions at the factories are akin to prison camps, with non-existent labour rights and where sexual abuse is rife.
“Workers are not considered as humans or as needing rights,” says Yannick Etienne, of the workers’ rights organisation Batay Ouvriye. “The pay is so low that it puts women in situations where they have to accept [forced] sex in order to pay their rent.”
Female garment factory workers the Guardian spoke to confirm that to get a job – which has become harder because so many people are looking for work – women are expected to have sex with a male manager.
“If you don’t accept to have sex with the manager, your application will be rejected,” one worker says, adding that she works on a line that produces 3,600 T-shirts a day. “You must oblige or you won’t have a job, and also if you want a promotion, you must have sex with your supervisor.”
Workers interviewed by the Guardian also spoke of having to use rags as sanitary towels because they could not afford to buy their own.
Rose-Myrtha Louis, a coordinator at the Haitian Workers’ Renovation Syndicate, said: “We are supposed to have access to pads, but we have to use waste from T-shirts [because] we don’t have enough money. It has given us infections. It’s just another way we are suffering.”
A 2021 report from Better Work Haiti, a labour compliance group backed by the International Labour Organization and the World Bank, found that 80% of workers and their families have had to cut down on meals. It also found that 96% of factories surveyed failed to comply with Haiti’s health insurance and social security contribution requirements, putting workers’ lives at risk.
“When you consider the price that the clothes are sold for, and the wages we receive, it’s as if we are selling our blood,” explained Marie, one of the workers.