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June 22, 2011
WikiLeaks Cable Describes US State Department Efforts to Undermine Minimum Wage in Haiti
    by Robert Kropp

After Haitian Parliament passed a law increasing minimum wage for textile workers to five dollars a day, US Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission David Lindwall wrote that it "appealed to the unemployed and underpaid masses."


A cornerstone of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, endorsed last week by the United Nations Human Rights Council, addresses the issue of corporate responsibility for activities in their supply chains.

The Principles state, "Business enterprises should identify general areas where the risk of adverse human rights impacts is most significant, whether due to certain suppliers' or clients' operating context, the particular operations, products or services involved, or other relevant considerations, and prioritize these for human rights due diligence."

Corporate responsibility for supply chains—and indeed the behavior of the Obama administration itself—came under question recently, when a WikiLeaks Cable revealed that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the US Embassy collaborated with contractors for US-based apparel manufacturers to pressure the government of Haiti into rescinding a minimum wage increase that had been passed unanimously by the Haitian parliament.

Following the vote in favor of raising the minimum wage in Haiti to five dollars a day, contractors for Levi's, Hanes, and Fruit of the Loom refused to pay the additional 61 cents per hour, instead offering to increase the minimum wage by nine cents per hour. A 2008 study by the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), found that a family of three would require $12.50 a day to survive in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

According to a report on the cable published in The Nation, "Factory owners lobbied heavily against the increase." They did so with the support of the US Embassy, whose chargé d’affaires, Thomas Tighe, wrote in a confidential cable, "Studies on the impact of near tripling of the minimum wage on the textile sector found that an HTG 200 Haitian gourde ($5 a day) minimum wage would make the sector economically unviable and consequently force factories to shut down."

The pressure led Haitian President René Préval to negotiate a two-tiered minimum wage increase, "one for the textile industry at about $3 per day and one for all other industrial and commercial sectors at about $5 per day," according to The Nation.

Even after the capitulation, US Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission David Lindwall wrote, "Parliamentarians are tempted to promote increasingly relevant populist proposals as launching pads for creating a national image for themselves… Deputy Steven Benoit garnered popularity when he proposed a minimum wage law that did not take economic reality into account but that appealed to the unemployed and underpaid masses."

"In keeping with the industry's usual practice," The Nation reported, "The brand name US companies kept their own hands clean, letting their contractors do the work of making Haiti safe for the sweatshops from which they derive their profits—with help from US officials."

 

 
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