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#4750: Grand Marnier workers (fwd)
From: Haiti Support Group <email@example.com>
Keywords: labor, unions, oranges, Grand Marnier,
Grand Marnier workers toil for £2 a day on Haiti plantation
By Katherine Butler
of The Independent daily newspaper in the UK
16 July 2000
Grand Marnier, the liqueur with the distinctive tang of oranges, claims
bigger export sales than any other French digestif. But as the company's
French executives headed off for the Bastille holiday weekend they were
fending off allegations that conditions on their orange plantation in Haiti
were little better than those on the French-owned sugar plantations worked by
Haitian slave labourers in the 18th century.
On the 72-hectare plantation in the hills around Cap-Haïtien in the north of
the poorest country in the western hemisphere, hundreds of men and women are
employed to pick and peel the famous Grand Marnier oranges in conditions
which, it is claimed, violate even Haiti's flimsy labour code.
Yannick Etienne of Batay Ouvriye, the workers' rights group representing
plantation staff, says she has seen the raw and bleeding hands of the women
in the orange-cutting and grating room and the desperation of the men who
spend hours each day perched on ladders reaching into the rough thorny
branches with bare hands for 20 US cents a crate.
To earn anything approaching a living they have to work flat out at least 12
hours day. "It is worst in the rain," Ms Etienne said in London last week.
When the tropical downpours come sweeping in from the Atlantic to Cap-Haïtien
flash floods turn the soil in the orange groves to silt.
But even in the mud the pickers have to work at a furious pace because of the
piece-work regime. The workers do not wear gloves, masks or other protective
clothing. The plantation lacks even the most basic toilet or washing
Yet the pickers are better off than the women on "zestage" lines in filthy
sheds. Using their own kitchen knives none are supplied they quarter the
oranges and remove the flesh. The peels are then left to dry in the sun
before being shipped to Grand Marnier's château in Bourg-Chartentes.
Here the peels are macerated in cognac before blending. After ageing in oak
barrels the Grand Marnier is bottled near Versailles and the famous red
ribbon tied on by hand.
According to the label on the Grand Marnier bottle the exotic orange essence
comes from the "French West Indies". But Haiti had been independent for
nearly 80 years when in 1880 Louis Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle first
identified the green and bitter-tasting citrus that would give his family's
cognac its magic new ingredient. He bought land and began shipping the orange
peel back to the distillery near Versailles.
But the workers at CapHaïtien have little chance to admire the distinctive
dark glass bottles, red ribbons or cocktail recipes on the firm's website.
Working at the speed needed to make a living, cuts are a bigger worry. "The
women are always losing fingers," Ms Etienne said. But there is no first aid,
no sick leave or paid holiday. The women earn a little over 50 US cents for
cutting a crate of oranges. There are 152 oranges in a crate. Even the
fastest cutter and grater cannot cut up more than six crates a day that's
more than 900 oranges to make $3 (£2) a day. And the constant exposure to
citric acid causes coughing and long-term respiratory problems.
Labour agitation began at the plantation a year ago. Only after a lengthy
battle would the company's local managers agree to talk to the union. It took
six months to negotiate a deal on building toilets (which have yet to
materialise). But pay talks have broken down and with union leaders facing,
they allege, victimisation, the labourers have decided to take their campaign
direct to Grand Marnier customers in Europe.
"We are not seeking a boycott of Grand Marnier," said Ms Etienne. "We are not
even threatening a boycott of Marnier products. But we hope this company
which recorded a net income of around £10m in 1998 will feel the negative
publicity is more costly than a meagre pay increase for the Haitian workers."
A statement yesterday from Grand Marnier's headquarters in Paris said it
"strongly refuted" the allegations. But it went on to admit that "issues"
arising at the plantation had been brought to the attention of the company.
These were being "discussed in a constructive fashion with representatives of
the worker unions". It added: "Through mutual respect and understanding
ongoing steps are taken in order to ensure a constant improvement in wages
and working conditions."
Haiti Support Group (firstname.lastname@example.org)