Haitian workers’ rights violated as IFC decision looms

1 October 2003

The first factory in a new free trade zone along the Haitian-Dominican border opened in August. Three hundred workers have been hired to assemble Levi’s Jeans in the first of three factories to be built by the Dominican company Grupo M with support pending from the World Bank’s private-sector arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC).

During the recent World Bank Annual Meetings in Dubai, labour union representatives lobbied Peter Woicke, head of the IFC, for assurances that any support would be given on the condition that Grupo M agreed to protect core labour standards. Woicke committed to the application of the core labour standards to future IFC loans and would “consider” their application to the pending Grupo M case. Initially the IFC had expressed faith that the company’s declared intentions to respect employees’ freedom of association and consumer reluctance to buy “sweatshop” goods were sufficient guarantees.

Within weeks of the first factory opening, twenty workers have been fired for asking for improved conditions. The Haitian NGO, Groupe d’Appui aux Rapatries et Refugies, reports that employees have been forbidden to organise themselves or discuss politics while inside the zone. Concerns for workers’ rights have increased following the July 16th report in the Haiti Progres newspaper that Grupo M’s private security force for the new free zone is headed by a “renowned criminal”.

Villardouin Joseph, a member of a local peasant farmers association, was released from prison on 4 September. Joseph had been arrested by police on 22 May for supposed involvement with resistance to the seizure of farmland for the construction of the free trade zone. No paperwork relating to his arrest and detention was presented to him, and during his three and half months in prison he did not appear before any judge.