Insurrection in SONAPI
January 18, 2011
Joegodson and Paul
When last we left Frederique and Manouchka, in November, they were both working at the SONAPI Industrial Park in Port-au-Prince.
It was Baby Doc Duvalier who, in the 1970s, had offered the impoverished peasants, newly arrived from the countryside, to American industrialists looking for the cheapest labour in the hemisphere. While journalists recorded for us images of a few people cheering Duvalier’s arrival at the airport on Sunday, we think a more meaningful manifestation was taking place in the nearby assembly plants. It’s not clear how much the handful of Haitians were paid to cheer Duvalier’s arrival at Toussaint Louverture Airport (once named for his father), but we know to the gourd how much the workers make in the Industrial Park. That’s only part of their problem.
We hope the victims of Duvalier find the strength and the support to force Baby Doc to account for his actions. There appears to be such little life behind those eyes; perhaps only a comprehensive enquiry could light a spark in his soul. Meanwhile, we have to place the actions of the humble $3-a-day Frederique in juxtaposition to the $500,000,000 president-for-life Duvalier. We want to keep in the forefront those, like Frederique, who fight for justice and dignity, even as we are forced to deal with the architects of oppression like Duvalier. The trap is to spend so much time with evil that you forget where the hope lies. Moreover, Duvalier is only the most obvious case; he should not be allowed to displace those who have more effectively rationalized their avarice and contempt for the world.
Remember that Frederique had been having problems submitting to the philosophic underpinnings of the Haitian class system. Much as the evidence showed him that he was worth almost nothing in the marketplace, he demanded nevertheless to be treated with respect. That flaw in his character culminated last week in a significant – and totally unreported – workers’ revolt in Building 43 at the SONAPI Industrial Park. Let’s trace the education of a troublemaker.
His girlfriend Manouchka had saved ten dollars so that he could take a course to learn how to operate an industrial sewing machine. After he was fired from his first job for insubordination, she also found him work at Building 31 at SONAPI. There, he was assigned the job of pressing men’s pants. He had a quota of 1,000 pieces a day and he earned about 20$US a week. If he worked all the overtime hours, seven days a week, he earned 36$US.
After a month, he developed a very uncomfortable rash under his arms as a result of performing the same motion repeatedly in extreme heat. Port-au-Prince is hot. Building 31 is hotter. Now, imagine pressing pants at breakneck speed for ten hours a day. He sweated profusely. His moist arms rubbed constantly against his sides and caused, over time, an irritating rash. Finally, he couldn’t perform the motion because of the pain. He asked for a few days off so that his skin might heal. No. He asked for a bonus in recognition of his pain. No. And so Frederique decided to leave anyway in order to heal.
He stayed in the tent in Delmas 31 that he had erected for Manouchka and him. Manouchka continued to take the taptap each morning to SONAPI, without him. Soon, his skin was healed and he was well again. But he didn’t want to return to that job.
However, once healed, Frederique returned to SONAPI and stood in front of Kay Morisette (Morisette’s place). The locals name each building for the Haitian family that runs it. For instance, you may be sewing clothes for GAP or Gildan Activewear, but you know the sweatshop for the Haitian sub-contractors. Those are “the families” that run Haiti: the oligarchy.
Frederique was chosen to work in Kay Morisette. Like the other sweatshops, work started at 6:30 am. He worked in a small module to make pockets for men’s trousers. It was demanding. The module had to produce 1,000 pockets by 11 am. If not, it risked being sent home. The daily quota was 2,000 pockets. The members of the module worked hard to make sure they surpassed the quota. However, they got paid nothing extra when they did. They got paid nothing if they didn’t make the quota. At Kay Morisette, Frederique earned 80$US every two weeks. However, he hated the work. His experience was similar to that of Manouchka last year, described in our article A Haitian Love Story. The module system is designed to make workers police each other. If one member is slow, then the whole module suffers. And so, the workers can be cruel to the slowest worker. In SONAPI, a worker who is judged to be a drag on the module is called a kokoye: a coconut. It’s a bitter epithet to swallow.
After three months in Kay Morisette, Frederique got sick. He began to suffer from abdominal pains and couldn’t keep up. He told the boss he needed time off. The boss brought him a pill. He said he was serious, that he needed a real diagnosis for his stomach cramps. (Don’t forget, these overworked workers are living – like Frederique – in squalid conditions surrounded by malaria, diptheria, typhoid, cholera and other contagious diseases.) They told him to get to work. He asked the bosses why he was having ONA deducted from his miserable salary if there was no healthcare. (ONA is a mandatory deduction for employees in the formal economy. It is supposed to cover health insurance, but it is obviously a scam to line somebody’s pockets – the same pockets he was sewing while sick.) The bosses didn’t like his questions any more than Frederique liked their answers. They responded by mocking him. They aimed at his masculinity, calling him a wimp, a crybaby and, finally, when he weakened, a kokoye.
That was the final straw. He walked out on the job and to recuperate in his tent in Delmas 31.
Last month, Manouchka persuaded him to try again. This time, he stood outside Building 43 to work for The Well Best. There, the manager is a harsh Korean woman named Jessica. He was hired as part of a module of thirty workers to begin production of a new product the company was launching: women’s slacks. Jessica told them that the quota was 1,200 units per day. Pay was 80$US every two weeks. The workers responded that the quota was unreasonable. They said that their module could manufacture a maximum of 600.
Jessica made two modules of fifteen workers each. Each was responsible for 500 pieces. She offered a bonus of 4$ if they achieved the quota. The workers had seen this before; Jessica was testing them to see how much they could achieve if they worked hard. Once that was established, the bonus would be eliminated and the module would be responsible for the maximum.
The personnel officer has much power inside the SONAPI factories. He harasses, humiliates, and fires workers from time to time to control the group. The personnel officer needs to demonstrate to the owners that he or she is ruthless in order to be considered for advancement. They have to be seen to be contemptuous of the workers. In this case, the Well Best workers were finding the quota impossible to attain. They were working at breakneck speed. If they had to use the toilets, they rushed in, took care of business, and then rushed back so fast that they left the paper towels on the floor. They knew that there was a janitor whose job was to clean the washroom. However, the personnel officer – a Haitian – came by to humiliate the workers very publicly. He called them animals – kabrit (goats) – for the way they left the washroom.
Those kinds of words are meant to humiliate the workers. The personnel officer needed to be as loud and insulting as possible in order that his bosses register his contempt for the poor workers. Frederique was supposed to recoil in the face of the insult. However, Frederique responded in the tone that the personnel officer had chosen. He said that if they were indeed animals and coconuts, then there would be no question of them operating the machines, since everyone knows that goats can’t sew. He said that all thirty workers were going to work like actual goats until the personnel officer and Jessica admitted they were human beings. Spontaneously, every one of the workers stood with Frederique.
The apology not forthcoming, they all walked out of Kay Morisette and loudly made known their insurrection. Other workers from the other sweatshops of SONAPI began to join them. They all threw stones at Kay Morisette, breaking the windows and terrifying Jessica and the personnel officer.
Jessica called the SONAPI guards. However, they were not strong enough to confront the growing crowd. Then, Jessica called the PNH (national police). They arrived and asked the workers why they were striking. The workers responded that they were underpaid and treated like animals. The police told Jessica that it wasn’t their business. They left.
The insurgents remained well past closing time, holding Jessica and the personnel officer hostage since they were afraid to present themselves to the crowd that the security guards and the police had decided were outside of their jurisdiction.
Jessica then called out to the workers using a loudspeaker. She said that they should choose three people to negotiate their grievances. The crowd began to calm down. They chose three people to speak for the whole module. The crowd then disbanded, deciding that they would withhold their decision until the following day. However, as soon as the crowd dispersed, Jessica left the building to go home, without exchanging as much as a word with the representatives. It had been a tactic to disperse the crowd. She had no interest in negotiations.
The next day, when Frederique and the others arrived for work, they first learned of Jessica’s treachery. Frederique said that he had had enough. He handed in his badge and turned around for Delmas 31.
Manouchka called Frederique later in the day, worried. She stopped by Kay Morisette after work as usual to ride home with him. He explained that he had given up on the place. She said that there was a big crowd out front. She was afraid for what might have become of him.
Later, she joined him at their humble tent up in Delmas 31. He was worried that she would be angry that he had lost another job. But she understood his frustration and his action. She said that she couldn’t stand working there either. They decided that they would find a way to realize their dreams together and that they would not include SONAPI. Manouchka spoke once again of her dream to be a florist or to sell flowers as a street merchant. It has been slipping away. Both working together at SONAPI can’t make enough money to live in more than a tent.
We suggested months ago that the industrialists have no interests in the earthquake victims improving their living conditions. Frederique and Manouchka are living under a tarp stretched across two by fours, each working over sixty hours a week, and cannot save enough to improve even that shelter. Even the humanitarian NGOs who help the victims of the earthquake underwrite an inhumane system of exploitation.