Columbia Journalism Review
By Ryan Chittum
The Nation has a scoop—or had, actually—from Wikileaks cables showing that the Obama administration pressured Haiti not to raise its minimum wage to 61 cents an hour, or five bucks a day.
The magazine posted the story the other day and has now pulled it, saying it will repost it next Wednesday “To accord with the publishing schedule of Haiti Liberté,” its partner on the piece.
But you can’t stuff the news genie back in the bottle. They already put it in my browser and many others, so I’ll summarize what it said (and I’ll link to it once The Nation republishes it).
Two years ago, Haiti unanimously passed a law sharply raising its minimum wage to 61 cents an hour. That doesn’t sound like much (and it isn’t), but it was two and a half times the then-minimum of 24 cents an hour.
This infuriated contractors for (UPDATE: I originally wrote that the companies themselves did this here, but The Nation wrote that it was contractors for the companies, so I’ve added “contractors for” here) American corporations like Hanes and Levi Strauss that pay Haitians slave wages to sew their clothes. They said they would only fork over a seven-cent-an-hour increase, and they got the State Department involved. The U.S. ambassador put pressure on Haiti’s president, who duly carved out a $3 a day minimum wage for textile companies (the U.S. minimum wage, which itself is very low, works out to $58 a day).
Still the US Embassy wasn’t pleased. A deputy chief of mission, David E. Lindwall, said the $5 per day minimum “did not take economic reality into account” but was a populist measure aimed at appealing to “the unemployed and underpaid masses.”
Well, hey. Imagine Haitians doing things for their “unemployed and underpaid masses” rather than rich Yankee corporations. The outrage! No wonder we have 9.1 percent unemployment and 16 percent underemployment here while the folks who sent the economy in the tank are back making millions.
Let’s do a little math. Haiti has about 25,000 garment workers. If you paid each of them $2 a day more, it would cost their employers $50,000 per working day, or about $12.5 million a year.
Zooming in on specific companies helps clarify this even more. As of last year Hanes had 3,200 Haitians making t-shirts for it. Paying each of them two bucks a day more would cost it about $1.6 million a year. Hanesbrands Incorporated made $211 million on $4.3 billion in sales last year, and presumably it would pass on at least some of its higher labor costs to consumers.
Or better yet, Hanesbrands CEO Richard Noll could forego some of his rich compensation package. He could $10 million package last year He could pay for the raises for those 3,200 t-shirt makers with just one-sixth of the $10 million in salary and bonus he raked in last year.
And that five dollars a day? The Nation reports that a Haitian family of three (two kids) needed $12.50 a day in 2008 to make ends meet.
But, of course, the clothing companies are hardly America’s only imperial beneficiaries in Haiti, as The Nation reports in a story on the oil companies that it hasn’t pulled.