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7900: Update on Haiti's Cointreau workers' strike (fwd)
Keywords; labor, unions, strike, Cointreau
Update on the situation at Guacimal-St. Raphaël - Batay Ouvriye, April 2001
At the beginning of October 2000, workers employed by the Haitian Guacimal
company to harvest and cut oranges used in the manufacture of the famous
Cointreau liqueur, registered as a union with the Haitian Ministry of Social
(The Ministry of Social Affairs is charged with dealing with labor issues and
regulating labor laws. The orange plantation is near the northern town of St.
Raphaël. Guacimal is part-owned by the French drinks giant, Rémy Cointreau.)
The Union of Guacimal-St. Raphaël Workers sent a list of its grievances and
requests for improvements in wages and working conditions to the Guacimal
management, but it was returned without even an acknowledgment of delivery.
The management stuck to its position of disputing the legitimacy of the union
on the grounds that some members of the union's executive committee were not
registered with the company.
In mid-November, the problem with the membership of the union's executive
committee was resolved by the union, yet the management still refused to meet
and negotiate. Furthermore, the Ministry of Social Affairs still refused to
recognise the union. (According to the Haitian workers' movement, Batay
Ouvriye, the then Minister of Social Affairs is a close associate of the wife
of the Guacimal owner, Nonce Zephir.)
At the end of November, the Union of Guacimal-St. Raphaël Workers notified
the Guacimal SA management of their intention to hold a work stoppage.
In mid-December, the union went on strike.
The Ministry of Social Affairs, to which notice to go on strike had been
communicated, responded with a letter that:
i) was addressed to the "so-called union";
ii) requested the union to enter into a process of negociation/conciliation;
iii) pointed out that 1995 decree had fixed the daily minimum wage at 36
gourdes (little more than one US dollar!).
The union retorted with an immediate response to these points, stating that:
a) the negligence and incompetence of the State was at fault because the
union had registered itself with the Ministry in early October (and
reconstituted its executive committee in November) and had thus complied with
Article 232 of the Labor Code (the obligation to register with the Ministry
within six months). Furthermore, as the law "encourages" the formation of
trade unions, when the Ministry addressed their legal association as a
"so-called union", it only betrayed its obvious bias;
b) the intention to begin a process of negociation/conciliation was precisely
the reason for the strike, and it was the management that opposed the process;
c) according to the Labor Code, the minimum wage is supposed to be linked to
the cost of living.
At this time, the plantation overseer, Jean-Marie St. Fleur, began to
increase his travels back and forth between Cap-Haïtien and St. Raphaël,
causing rumours to circulate among the plantation/factory guards that the
oranges would be harvested come what may, and that an attack on the union
members was being prepared.
At the end of December, when a guard climbed an orange tree to harvest the
fruit, the union members shouted out their disapproval. Coming down from the
tree, the guard drew his machete and attacked the group of union members,
wounding the union Secretary, Sintès Estimé. [A legal proceeding is currently
underway against those involved in this act, as well as the overseer St.
Fleur, who is regarded as the intellectual author of the attack because, only
that morning, he had declared that the guards should do the orange harvesting
'at any cost.' Furthermore, "on November 21 2000, the overseer Jean-Marie St.
Fleur had brought together eight guards (watchmen) at the plantation and
ordered them to beat, and mistreat the union members if they continued to
persist with their demands. This suggested imminent danger to the physical
integrity of the unionised workers." (extracted from the legal suit) ].
The strike continued despite pressure exerted by the local representative of
the Ministry of Social Affairs, and the recently elected Lavalas Family mayor
of St. Raphaël, Bernes Sévère.
In February, the orange trees were at the point where harvesting could no
longer be delayed, and the company management grew more impatient. The
overseer, St. Fleur, let it be known that a negotiation meeting between the
management and the union in Cap-Haïtien was envisaged. The union, as a
precaution, wrote to the management seeking confirmation. Nothing happened.
Then, in a gross act of interference, the Lavalas mayor, Sévère, announced
that he was "exasperated by the Guacimal workers' individual complaints at
his house," and ordered the resumption of the harvest during the last week of
February - the tenth week of the strike.
For his part, St. Fleur, announced that no union member would be allowed to
take part. The announcement stirred such a spirited response from the workers
that he was obliged to modify his position: at the most, the executive
committee of the union and ten additional workers would be allowed to take
part, but, in reprisal for the strike, all other union members were to be
excluded. Despite everything, the union continued to resist this offensive
until the end of the harvest, in March.
At the beginning of March, when a delegation of the British labour movement
organisation, War on Want, and the British GMB trade union arrived to meet
with the union, the mayor intervened to show he was violently opposed to any
meeting with the unionised workers. The visiting delegation and workers were
obliged to find another place to hold their meeting.
At the end of March, the harvest season had come to an end with a continuing
anti-union atmosphere, without any negotiations, even less any improvement in
the working conditions. To make matters worse, the Guacimal management is now
victimising union members by refusing to allocate parcels of plantation land
for them to farm during the summer 'dead season.' (see the Haiti Support
Group's forthcoming urgent action on the current situation at the St. Raphaël
(translated from French and edited by Charles Arthur for the Haiti Support
For background information on the orange workers' struggle see:
The Haiti Support Group web site campaigns section:
Multinational Monitor's Winning Campaigns:"Haiti's Thirst for Justice":
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