Columns

Trupin ’13: Justice for Haitian workers

By
Opinions Columnist

When Johnny Joseph went to work at his factory, Genesis S.A., Friday, Sept. 23, he had only been the treasurer of Sendika Ouvriye Takstil ak Abiman — a newly recognized union of Haitian garment workers — for a week. That day at work, he began to feel sick and asked his boss for leave to return home. His boss refused, so Joseph continued working, though he felt steadily worse throughout the day. His boss then told him that he had to work overtime, and that if he returned home, he would have to give up his employee badge and resign on the way out. When he felt that he could not endure working any longer, Joseph signed his resignation and went home to rest.

He was only the first. In the following days, six of seven leading members of the union were fired or forced to resign from their factory jobs.

This attack on workers advocating for their own rights is particularly disturbing in Haiti, which is widely recognized as one of the worst places in the world to be a garment industry worker, with the lowest wages in the western hemisphere. In the Port-au-Prince factories where Joseph’s union formed, sweatshop abuses like forced overtime are the norm.

The Haitian workers showed inspiring courage when they organized, but the loss of their coworkers has understandably demoralized them. The efforts they had already begun in the few short days before their leaders were taken down, which included negotiating for fairer wages and better working conditions, have been seriously stalled. But all the damage could be reversed if the six union leaders are simply reinstated to their positions.

Targeting and firing union leaders is illegal under international and Haitian labor law, but the factory managers and the brands they work for, Gildan and Hanes, evidently think they are above the law. And they might be, unless advocates can stand with the Haitian workers and tell them they are not.

This is where the international community, including Brown, comes in. Hanes and Gildan are major global corporations that value their image among consumers. From the prominent and elaborate corporate social responsibility pages on their websites, it is evident that they want the general public to think of them at least as friendly giants. When consumers are unhappy with the way workers are treated in their supply chain, the giants take notice. They have a lot of power over these factories, and if they so much as lift a finger, these workers will be rehired.

Brown could wield major influence in bringing this about. Our administration could write letters to the CEOs of Hanes and Gildan, as the Canadian Federation of Students did just last week, asking them to ensure that the six workers are reinstated. And the brands would listen. Among other things, Gildan is a major producer of T-shirt blanks for collegiate consumers, while Hanes made a grand entry into the collegiate apparel business only last year when it purchased Gear for Sports, a major collegiate apparel licensee with which Brown has a significant business relationship.

Given Hanes’ lack of experience with collegiate licensing, they may not be aware that many colleges and universities, including Brown, have codes of conduct requiring respect and fair treatment for workers at the factories where their apparel is made. In the past, Brown has defended its code, righteously cutting its contract with Nike in the summer of 2010 when that brand refused to pay severance packages to its Honduran workers.

Now is the time to once again defend our values and our written policies by asking these corporations to behave responsibly and ethically. And it would be only fitting, given our institution’s strong bonds with Haiti, and given the level of concern we have shown in the past for the dignity and well-being of Haiti’s people.

The Haitian textile union may be in serious trouble if these workers do not get justice. They have already been out of work for two months, and with each passing day, their employer’s message sinks in more deeply. As one Haitian police officer reportedly said as he escorted a union leader out of his former workplace, “Poor people don’t have any justice.” Time is running short, but we can still prove him wrong.

Ian Trupin ’13 is concentrating in commerce, organizations and entrepreneurship.