Double Crossed

December 21, 2010

Joegodson and Paul

As Canadians were donating to the Red Cross in order to help the victims of the Haitian earthquake, one of its ex-employees, Virgil Grandfield, was refusing to allow the labour abuses he witnessed in Indonesia after the tsunami of 2004 to fade into history. He resigned from the Red Cross when it refused to address his evidence that the Red Cross subcontractors were not paying the Javanese workers they had brought to remote areas of Aceh province. Stranded, the men found out too late that they were victims of human trafficking. You can read Grandfield’s account of his struggle to seek justice for the Javanese wokers here. Radio-Canada, acting on his information, verified the systemic use of human trafficking by the Red Cross subcontractors. Young business graduates searching for a career in the current global market might want to watch how a Red Cross spokesperson earns her keep by filling in the moments until the interviewer has exhausted his stunted curiosity.

In the age of global neoliberalism, subcontracting is standard procedure for burying unethical business practices. We have shown how multinational corporations use it to protect themselves from allegations of worker abuse. There is much more to say. While basking in the light of goodness, NGOs are in fact corporate structures that ruthlessly protect their reputations and their ability to raise huge amounts of capital.

On the Wednesday before the election, Joegodson went to explore a project that the Red Cross is sponsoring in Cite Soleil. He was raised in another part of Cite Soleil, so, once he disembarked from the taptap, he had to ask the local people for directions to the worksite.

Once there, he saw a truck marked International Red Cross coming from a construction zone. He entered the area. It was a large camp with many shoddy tents. A section of it was under construction.

He saw a number of groups of men constructing shelters. He was drawn to one of the groups where an argument was taking place. The argument was about money, but they stopped as he arrived. The men dispersed.

Joegodson spoke with the boss who remained behind. He was a young man and the foreman of the group. Each group had one boss and five workers.

Joegodson told the boss he was a carpenter and asked if there was any chance in finding a job on the site. The boss told him that the training sessions had already taken place some time ago. Each worker and boss attended the training sessions. Then they had begun the actual work. However, the boss advised Joegodson that if he checked in each morning, very early, he might be able to take the place of anyone who quit. Joegodson asked why people quit. The boss answered that sometimes they find better jobs elsewhere. Joegodson asked how much money the workers earn. He told the boss that he had been to the USAID-CHF worksite where the workers worked but didn’t receive their pay. The boss wouldn’t say how much the men earned, but he said they were paid. The boss went away.

Joegodson hung about and approached a couple of the five men – the workers – who had been talking with the boss earlier. Joegodson asked about the working conditions and salary. The guys said that the group has to make one house every six days. They start very early in the morning. The houses aren’t prefabricated and the ground has to be prepared, so there is considerable work involved. The bosses wanted to pay them 300 Haitian dollars for each house, but the workers forced them to agree to 400, which is 80$US. So, in principle, each worker would make 13$US a day. However, no one had yet been paid anything at all. They said that they are supposed to be paid when the whole project is finished. No one knows when that will be.

These men are the victims of the earthquake. They are homeless, except for their tents. They have families that they can’t feed. The workers are afraid that, like the CHF men, they won’t be paid. So, now Joegodson could understand why they might look for work elsewhere – work that paid.

The men told Joegodson that they thought the Red Cross were thieves for withholding their salary. Question: “Why do you work here then?” Answer: “There’s nothing else.”

Joegodson left to poke around the shelters that had been completed. He was amazed at the apparent lack of foresight in regards to the planning. The shelters were simple affairs. They were each three sheets of plywood by four, or twelve by sixteen feet. They were crowded together; there was not a metre between them. The most disturbing thing was that in the middle of the group of shelters was the community latrine. It was central so that the shelters actually butted up against it. In some cases, he could measure 50 centimetres between the latrines and the shelter. No one was living in them yet, but Joegodson couldn’t see how they could ever be inhabitable. In the Haitian heat, fecal matter makes its decomposition quite public. No one can stand the smell of the latrines even from a hundred metres away. When the trucks come to empty them, the smell is unbearable. And so it is unimaginable that people would accept living in such proximity to the community latrines.

There was a solitary young woman sitting in front of the shelters. She appeared dejected. Joegodson went to sit on a rock next to her and struck up a conversation. He asked her what she thought of the shelters. Why did she think they would put the toilets in the middle of the shelters? She was trying to understand the same thing. She said that even when you’re a distance from the latrines, the odour is unbearable. How could people possibly live here? She told Joegodson that she lived in this neighbourhood. Like everyone else, she was now under a tent. But she was not going to live in these things. So, she was trying to figure out what to do. She had a family.

She said that the Red Cross had a program that she didn’t like any better. If you found a room somewhere else, like Delmas, and you brought a lease from the prospective landlord to the Red Cross, they would check it out and go to see the landlord. They would pay the landlord for six months rent. Then after six months, they would give you 2,000$H (400$US) to start a business. (That’s what they say; no one believes anything.) But then they would have to leave their neighbourhood – their community – and they would have nothing to live on.

Staring at the little development in front of her, she said that the mud was going to be a critical problem when it rained. In Port-au-Prince, the people in the poor districts are very sensitive to mud. There is no pavement or grass and the torrential rains turn the common areas into disaster zones of mud. (People sometimes just leave their shoes in the mud and carry on without them when they get stuck too deep.) The shelters were in a little depression and nothing had been done to assure that the entrances would be protected from the rain and mud. The planning was disastrous.

He left her to ruminate over her family’s future. He didn’t see either choice as attractive either.


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