Haitian Police Clash With Workers Seeking Pay Hike

Published August 4, 2009

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) -- Haitian police fired tear gas at protesters outside Parliament Tuesday who demanded an increase in the minimum wage, saying they are unable to feed and shelter their families on less than $2 a day.

As legislators prepared to vote on the issue Tuesday, some of the 2,000 protesters threw rocks at police and began ripping down flags of U.N. member countries near the building.

Most of the crowd dispersed hours before lawmakers were scheduled to meet, with no arrests and only one reported injury. But the issue remains inflammatory.

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 rampant 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 regulated 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 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 the U.N. report said that plan requires costs must be kept down.

Written by Associated Press

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