A Haitian Love Story
June 2, 2010
He became part of a small community of Haitians who worked for wages that, while negligible by Dominican standards, surpassed what he could make in Haiti. His was one of a number of such communities in the Dominican Republic. In the worst instances, Haitian peasants working on the Dominican batays are numbered among the slaves of the modern world. The descendants of Haitian peasants literally sold to Dominican landowners by Papa Doc Duvalier in the 1960s continue to live in slavery, deprived of education, remuneration, and dignity. While Haiti is just next door, they understand that anyone who tries to upset the system that keeps them subjugated to their Dominican masters will place himself in real danger.
Frederique, however, was part of a Haitian farm community whose members paid rent for their common sleeping quarters out of the small salary they made working the fields. After two years, he had managed to save enough to return to Port-au-Prince with a modest sum of money. It was, however, much more than he ever would have been able to accumulate working in the factories at the Sonapi Industrial Park. Then the earthquake struck. Immediately, he decided to return to Port-au-Prince out of concern for his family. He used part of his savings to buy essentials for his family, optimistic that he would find them alive.
All Haitians know to be cautious of the bands of thieves that operate along certain sections of the few roadways that connect Haitian cities and villages. Those who travel within Haiti are aware of the danger spots where there is an elevated risk of encountering gangs. At the border, Dominican and Haitian thieves cooperate to target vulnerable travellers. They are well-organized and commonly armed with machetes. Frederique fell victim along with a number of other Haitians as they waited for the bus to Port-au-Prince. Laden with the purchases that he had made for his family in Santo Domingo, he must have been an especially inviting target. He was left standing at the border with less than he had entered the Dominican Republic two years earlier. Nothing.
Fortunately, Frederique is well-known and well liked. A passing motorist recognized him and drove him to his mother’s home in Delmas 33 in Port-au-Prince. He found his mother and two younger brothers alive and the tiny house still standing, although the walls were badly fissured. Before the earthquake and after, his mother worked as a street vendor selling pepe: second-hand clothing. However, after the earthquake, she was sitting in the back of a tap-tap (public transport) when it accelerated brusquely, throwing her out of the back. She landed on the pavement and broke her leg. Fortunately, the tap-tap driver took her to one of the clinics treating people injured in the earthquake. They set her leg and she returned home where she is still convalescing, unable to resume her work as a street vendor for the moment. Her two young sons now search for food like the other victims of the earthquake deprived of their normal income. Frederique found himself unable to help his mother or his brothers after two years of sacrifice in the Dominican Republic. Jobless and penniless, he joined the ranks of the victims.
Manouchka had travelled in the opposite direction to Frederique, although they would meet in the rubble of Port-au-Prince. She had left her peasant life in the mountains of Haiti to try her luck in Port-au-Prince several months before the earthquake. Although he was raised in Port-au-Prince, Frederique was forced to assume the role of peasant field hand assigned to him in the Dominican Republic. Manouchka had left the peasant life behind but, in Port-au-Prince, had found equally constrictive roles available to her. Her dream had been to become a florist. However, uneducated, poor peasant women can choose between domestic service and sweatshop work. Her short stint in domestic service will last her a lifetime. Like many young peasant women, she was overworked, abused, and confined in a state of virtual slavery in a middle-class home. She quit and went to live with her cousin in Delmas 33. She found work in a sweatshop in the Sonapi Industrial Park.
For five months, she worked in Building Five. Her job was to press men’s sport jackets. She worked in a module: standard practice in the sweatshops of Haiti. A module is a small group of people, normally four or five, who work together to produce a certain product. They work towards a quota: a fixed number of the finished product. If they achieve the quota, then everyone in the module earns a certain sum; if they fail, then each member of the module receives approximately two-thirds of the quota salary. The quota is normally set at a level just out of reach, so it is rare that a module should achieve it. However, it is always within sight, so that everyone is motivated to prod the others so that each might attain the higher pay. Manouchka’s module had a daily quota of 400 jackets. If the final product wasn’t perfect, it didn’t count towards the total. If they attained the quota, they each earned forty Haitian dollars (6.67$US). In five months, she never made her quota. And so, she made twenty-five Haitian dollars (4.17$US) a day, as did every member of her module.
The module system is designed to make the workers police each other. If they aim for the quota, then they get angry at the weakest link in the chain who can’t keep up to the pace. Most of the people working in the clothing factories are women. Men are usually hired to work in the factories making luggage, another main product in the Sonapi Industrial Park. Manouchka says that the worst part of the job was the Dominican manager who was very mean and made her days unpleasant.
After the earthquake, Building Five was badly damaged. There were huge fissures in the walls and so her module was moved to another building. Like many others, she was told that she was no longer needed. She was told to go to Building Sixteen to receive the pay that was owed her. She kept going, day after day, but was always told to come back another time. She was not alone. She says that many people arrived everyday at Building Sixteen for their outstanding pay. Her impression was that only the most aggressive people were successful: those who got very angry and shouted the loudest received their pay, perhaps to get rid of them. However, Manouchka is timid. She is still new to Port-au-Prince and feels out of place there. She says that the managers were always trying to cheat her. Often, her pay envelope contained only half of what she had actually earned. She learned that she had to check it and complain immediately or she would never receive her proper salary. Given the fact that the salary was insufficient to survive decently, the outrages simply compounded.
After awhile, Manouchka gave up trying to get the pay that was owed to her. She took another job in a sweatshop in Delmas 33, near her cousin’s small house that had remained standing when the surrounding structures collapsed. Since her cousin’s house was inhabitable, a number of relatives came to stay there. In her new job, she sewed men’s shorts for a company from the Virgin Islands. However, the manager judged her too slow and fired her.
Meanwhile, she met Frederique, newly arrived from the Dominican Republic. They were fond of each other. Manouchka helped Frederique’s temporarily handicapped mother by doing her laundry and cleaning. For some reason, her growing intimacy with Frederique and his family did not sit well with her female relatives. They said that Frederique had no money or prospects and was not a good catch. (Some observers think that Manoucka’s female relatives were jealous; Frederique is cute.) She became uncomfortable in her cousin’s home and accepted Frederique’s suggestion that they set out on their own. Frederique borrowed money from friends to buy one of the tarpaulins labelled USAID that are for sale all over Port-au-Prince for 100$Haitian (20$US). He found a small empty plot in Delmas 33 where he fixed four posts in the ground to support the tarpaulin: their first home.
Frederique could not find a job. In the middle of April, Manouchka decided to go back to Sonapi and present herself once again for work. A peasant woman does not have to wait long to be picked by the manager to take the place of his weakest employee. This time, she entered Building Ten and sewed pajamas for an American company for the same miserable salary as before. Moreover, this time she was required to work seven days a week, although she was paid double time for Sunday: twice the daily salary of 4.17$US. After six weeks, she was physically exhausted while making just enough money to stay alive to return the following day.
On Tuesday, May 25, Manouchka started to feel unwell. She asked the manager if she could take a couple of days off. He scoffed. She had only started the job a month earlier. There was no way that she could keep her job if she chose to not show up. So, she continued to work until she became so sick that she could not keep from fainting over her sewing machine. Her fever rose and aches in her back and head became unbearable.
On Saturday, she was unable to walk on her own. She leaned upon Frederique who took her to the Doctors Without Borders clinic at Saint Louis de Gonzague. However, they were told that that clinic specialized in pregnant women and handicapped patients. Frederique would have to find another option. He decided to carry Manouchka to the CICIMED clinic in Delmas 19, where his cousin had once been treated. CICIMED is an established local clinic, not a foreign NGO. The staff allowed her to stay in a miserable concrete room, about three metres squared. It is a concrete box, stifling hot with no air circulation. However, it is from here that she will be sent to another hospital for the tests that the medical staff at CICIMED says she needs. Those tests, however, will cost money. Until she can pay for the tests, she remains imprisoned in her tiny cell at CICIMED.
So, Frederique asked Joegodson to help him visit Sonapi to retrieve Manouchka’s outstanding pay that she might use to get the tests she needs. In both his life and research, Joegodson has immunized himself against the heavy-handed tactics of the Haitian authorities who exploit the fears that poor Haitians harbour towards the wealthy and powerful. Joegodson, familiar with Sonapi, led Frederique to the office in Building Ten that dealt with administrative issues. Each building is organized similarly; once you understand the system, you know where to address your questions. The organization of the sweatshops in the Industrial Parks is not a function of the foreign company whose products are assembled and stitched there. Haitian subcontractors manage the plants with uniform callousness. The mostly North American companies are happy to ask no questions about the practices that assure them the cheapest labour costs in the Hemisphere. Sometimes, they pretend to monitor the situation for the benefit of the North American public that seems to accept the corporations’ word concerning their labour practices.
Frederique presented Manouchka’s work card to the female clerk, explaining her urgent need for medical tests and the gravity of her state of health. Her outstanding pay would go towards the treatment. The clerk replied that Manouchka would need to present herself in person in order to receive her pay. Joegodson argued that that was impossible. There must be another way: a note from Manouchka, a signature for the pay? The clerk would not budge: only Manouchka could receive her pay. That Sonapi did not provide medical care and, moreover, had forced her to work until she fainted was irrelevant. Manouchka was responsible for her own health and her own pay.
Manouchka remains in her hospital bed gravely ill. Frederique and Joegodson look for ways to pay for her diagnosis and treatment.
Canadian and Haitian societies have something in common. They are both held in place by fear. However, while recognizable, it is not the same fear. And always, behind the fear is anger and defiance. The Haitian poor know that, bad as things may be, the powerful can make them worse. The only way for poor Haitians to advance – in fact, to not regress – is to appear to submit to a system that doesn’t even pretend to respect them. They know upon entry that they will be exploited ruthlessly. Their welfare will not be protected by the powers that control the formal economy. The state is not theirs, whatever nonsense is spouted about democracy. A foreign man, who cannot speak either of Haiti’s languages, and who has been a leading author of Haiti’s democratic undoing, is now honoured with the control of billions of dollars of ‘reconstruction’ funds. Those funds envisage a major expansion of the system of assembly plants for the North American market that has left Manouchka in a filthy corner of a clinic that cannot transfer her for vital tests until she can pay. No matter how hard Manouchka works, she will not be able to pay. No one but her friends will care for her. Her friends are struggling in the same situation. The Reconstruction plan that inspires Bill Clinton acknowledges that Manouchka’s predicament is what makes Haiti attractive as a source of labour. In fact, were she treated decently, the foreign corporations would need to look elsewhere for their ‘competitive’ workforce. It is not Manouchka who chooses to compete with North American workers. Who has chosen, in her place, that she should compete with all other workers in the world when winning that ‘competition’ has led her to death’s door in an ignoble concrete box of a room tenously standing in a Haitian slum?
Certain economic interests in North America profit from the pain and suffering of the poor of Haiti and, more broadly, all the exploited workers and ecologies of the world. As we know, the secret services of the dominant countries, like the United States and Canada, keep in view the threats to our current system of domination. Those who profit the most have enormous resources at hand to undo any real challenge to the system. As Haitians are afraid of the powerful who exploit them, Canadians are frightened of challenging the even-more-powerful interests that control the system of domination and exploitation that leads, inevitably and predictably, to the tragic situation that Manouchka and Frederique are confronting.
They haven’t fallen through the cracks. They are not overlooked. They are exactly where our economy has put them. This is what Canadians and Americans support.