Between the Lines Q&A

A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
posted Sept. 23, 2009

Home | Broadcast-Quality MP3s | Archives | Search BTL Archives
About | Broadcast Schedule | | Squeaky Wheel Productions

Haitian Workers and Students Struggle
for Minimum Wage Increase

 RealAudio  MP3

Interview with Kim Ives,
an editor with Haiti Liberte,
conducted by Scott Harris


Social unrest has struck Haiti again. In June, university students demonstrating for basic improvements in their classroom facilities were joined by thousands of other citizens in protests demanding an increase in the nation's daily minimum wage, which now stands at 70 gourdes or $1.75. In May, both chambers of the Haitian Parliament had voted to increase the daily minimum pay to 200 gourdes, or $5 in U.S. currency. But Haitian President Rene Preval rejected the wage hike and proposed instead an increase of the minimum wage to just 125 gourdes (equivalent to $3) a day. Eighty percent of the population in Haiti live in absolute poverty, making it the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

Reacting to Preval's decision -- and violent attacks on their protests by the Haitian Police and U.N. troops -- the university students are now demanding that President Preval resign. The struggle for an increase in the minimum wage battle is being played out against the backdrop of the long-running conflict between Haiti's poor majority and the nation's small wealthy class. Aware that certain sectors of the business class twice organized the overthrow of former President Jean Bertrand Aristide, Rene Preval has been attempting to walk a tight rope between assisting the poor who voted him into office and appeasing the rich.

Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Kim Ives, a documentary filmmaker and editor with the newspaper Haiti Liberte. He discusses the context of the minimum wage fight -- and the grievances many Haitians have against the United Nations Stabilization Force troops which have been deployed on the Island since March 2004.

KIM IVES:Two hundred gourdes a day would be about $5, which would still be the lowest minimum wage in the hemisphere. Next door in the Dominican Republic, they have $9 a day minimum wage in the free trade zones. But President Rene Preval, who was elected in February 2006 -- putting an end to the coup d'etat of 2004 -- put the kibosh on that, and said, 'No, the minimum wage should be set at 125 gourdes.' It went back to the Parliament, they tried to pass it at 150 gourdes; that was rejected because it violated all kinds of Parliamentary procedure. Then they asked for a revote and the parliamentarians put it at 125, this caused extreme outrage, as one can imagine, among the factory workers and above all the students. Students have been demanding this and protesting for this for some time, the past six or seven months, and those have been some fairly violent demonstrations. I should say violent, not on the students' part, but on the repressive force brought against them. When that vote went through, that caused all hell to break loose, and that's where we stand right now.

BETWEEN THE LINES:What's the scene on the ground in some of the cities in Haiti where these protests have occurred? I've read that the national Haitian police and the United Nations' occupation forces have dealt quite brutally with those protesters and the students.

KIM IVES: That's precisely it. It's been very severe repression against particularly the students, who have been a lot more vociferous in their support for the 200 gourde minimum wage. I should say the other principal demand is the call for an end to the foreign military occupation of Haiti, the U.N. occupation, which is now in its fifth year and the students are outraged and upset by this because of the daily humiliation and abuse -- brutalization -- that they experience at the hands of U.N. soldiers. So, the troops have shot students and the police have shot students. There's been tear gas almost on a daily basis. A lot of the schools essentially for the past four or five months, the university was all but shut down.

Right now, there was something of a lull, and then a high school kid was shot to death by a policeman. So, it's an extremely tense situation, Scott, particularly in Port-au-Prince, but also in some of the provincial cities like Gonaives, Jacmel and Aquin.

BETWEEN THE LINES:What are the pressures on Haitian President Rene Preval in his rejection of this rise in the minimum wage? What are the companies and industrialists doing to pressure him to really reduce the Parliament-approved rate of the minimum wage increase?

KIM IVES:Essentially the coup d'etat of 2004 was carried out by the -- what is often called the assembly industry bourgeoisie. Haiti traditionally had two ruling classes, one was the big landowners -- not because they owned big tracts of land as you see in Latin America, but they hold lots of little plots, those were called the "grandon" and they were more or less the rural-based ruling class. Francois Duvalier, (the former Haitian dictator) was an archetypal representative of this group. And the other class was the comprador bourgeoisie, which was really an import/export bourgeoisie. The past few decades, the import/export bourgeoisie role has diminished as the whole nature of shipping and commerce have changed, and really they've morphed into a more bourgeoisie which runs the factories which take advantage of Haiti's cheap labor.

So these are the people today putting the squeeze on Preval, and they went to Preval, and they said, "Listen, if that minimum wage goes to 200 gourde, we're going to close our factories and move to Miami" or whatever -- but all kinds threats were made. And Preval, rather than standing up to them or calling their bluff -- because it was pure bluff -- said "OK" and vetoed a vote of both houses of the Parliament, and now we're back to 125 gourde.

BETWEEN THE LINES:What's next in terms of confrontation between the Parliament and President Rene Preval over the minimum wage hike?

The House of Deputies has essentially passed it, and that was the key one. The senators will next vote on it, so, if they do pass the 125 rate, then it will become law. And that's where it will be. I think that essentially, Haiti is a tinder box, as it has generally been over the past two decades. And so I think the demonstrations will continue; I think the unrest will continue; and one of the principal flashpoints will be the minimum wage question as well as the continuation of the U.N. military occupation.

Read Ives' articles online at

Related Links: -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Scott Harriss is a producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 45 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending Oct. 2, 2009. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Anna Manzo and Scott Harris.

To donate to Between The Lines, please send your check made payable to "The Global Center" and mail to:
Squeaky Wheel Productions
P.O. Box 110176
Trumbull, CT 06611

To get details on subscribing to the radio program or to publish this column in print or online media, contact us at (203) 268-8446.

Home | Broadcast-Quality MP3s | Archives | Search BTL Archives
About | Broadcast Schedule | | Squeaky Wheel Productions

(c) Copyright 2009 Squeaky Wheel Productions. All rights reserved.