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Posted Monday, August 4, 2009

Haitian police clash with workers seeking to be better compensated for their hard labor hours

By Jonathan M. Katz, Associated Press Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Haitian police fired tear gas Tuesday at protesters who massed outside Parliament to demand an increase in the minimum wage, saying they are unable to feed and shelter their families on less than $2 a day.
wage protest
The Associated Press: Haitian police clash with workers seeking pay hike Protesters try to tear down a police barrier as they protest for higher wages outside parliament in Port-au-Prince, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2009. Protesters demanded an increase in the minimum wage, saying they are unable to feed and shelter their families on less than $2 a day. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)  More Images
As legislators prepared to vote on the issue, some of the 2,000 protesters threw rocks at police and began ripping down flags of U.N. member countries near the building.

Immediately after we went to press we learned that Haiti lawmakers increased the minimum wage, not to $5.00, as demanded by protesters, but $3.75 a day, suggesting that the minimum of $1.75 daily an employer can by law compensate an emplyee for his or hard labor hours is now a thing of the past.

Most of the crowd dispersed hours before the Parliament session began, with no arrests and only two reported injuries, including a cameraman who was hit in the head with a rock. But the issue remains inflammatory, and lawmakers debated the question into the night.

In May, Parliament approved a proposal to nearly triple the minimum wage, but President Rene Preval refused to publish it into law. He said the increase should omit workers at factories producing garments for export. Preval said those workers should receive an increase to about $3.

The debate has fueled unrest across the impoverished Caribbean nation, with some critics arguing that an increase would hurt plans to fight widespread unemployment by creating jobs in factories that produce clothing for export to the United States.

Many of the protesters were minimum-wage factory workers, such as Banel Jeune, a 29-year-old father who sews sleeves on shirts.

"Seventy gourdes, that doesn't do anything for me," he said, referring to his current minimum-wage salary. "I can't feed my kids, and I can't send them to school."

Lawmakers have pledged to resubmit the proposal without any changes, raising the minimum wage to about $5 a day.

Lesly Antoine, a 32-year-old who lost his job with the state-run telephone company, said Preval's "compromise offer is no compromise at all."

Former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown in 2004, in part after business owners angered by his approval of an increased minimum wage organized opposition against him.

Despite the heated debate, few people would be affected by the wage increase or anticipated job losses.

Most of Haiti's 9 million people who are employed work on small farms or sell basic goods on the street. Only some 250,000 people have jobs covered by the minimum salary law, said lawmaker Steven Benoit, who sponsored the bill.

Many in the international community who view garment factories as the way to boost Haiti's economic development oppose the wage increase.

With new trade advantages that allow for duty-free exports of clothing to the U.S., such factories could provide "several hundred thousand jobs to Haitians ... over a period of just a few years," according to a report submitted to the U.N. in January.

But it said that plan requires costs be kept down.

The report had been requested by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and prepared by Oxford University professor Paul Collier. It is now being promoted by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the new U.N. envoy for Haiti.

Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press
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