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a765: Unions take on liqueur maker (fwd)
Latinamerica Press - http://www.lapress.org
Article's Date: Tuesday, February 12, 2002
Haiti: Unions take on liqueur maker
by Charles Arthur
Workers seek pay raises and better working conditions from the maker of a
Workers who harvest and process oranges used to make Cointreau, a luxury
cognac-based liqueur, have been involved in a long and sometimes violent
struggle for union rights, better pay and improved conditions.
At two workplaces in northern Haiti, about 330 workers employed by Guacimal,
a local company, have had to contend with management’s delaying tactics,
intimidation and aggression by company foremen.
The workers at an orange-tree plantation near the northern town of St.
Raphael and a processing plant outside Cap-Haïtien, the island’s
second-largest city, labor for long hours for wages that are a pittance, even
by Haitian standards. Paid according to how many cases they fill or empty
each day, the orange pickers and cutters work non-stop to make the equivalent
of several US dollars. If the harvest is poor, they earn even less.
Orange pickers are stung by wasps and bitten by flies. Cutters suffer skin
irritation from the citric acid in the juice, and constant exposure to the
acid spray causes respiratory and digestive problems. The workplaces lack
basic toilet and washing facilities, and the workers do not receive the sick
pay and pensions to which they are legally entitled.
Inspired by the success of the union at the nearby Marnier-Lapostolle
plantation, which in mid-2000 negotiated a pay increase and better conditions
with the maker of Grand Marnier liqueur, in October 2000 the Guacimal workers
announced they were forming their own unions.
Batay Ouvriye (Workers’ Struggle), an organization that has assisted new
unions in garment-assembly factories in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince,
encouraged the Guacimal unions to contact solidarity organizations in the
United States, France and Britain.
When Guacimal’s Haitian managers refused to recognize the unions, the workers
went on strike and called for an international campaign to put pressure on
Rémy Cointreau, the French-based multinational that owns a minority share in
In 2000, the giant Rémy Cointreau company, whose portfolio includes such
prestigious brands as Rémy Martin cognac, Mount Gay rum and Piper Heidsieck
champagne, acquired the Dutch firm, Bols, for US$460 million.
In fiscal year 1999-2000, it recorded a net operating profit of $61 million,
a 163-percent increase over the previous year.
Despite a repeat of the international letter and electronic mail campaigns
that had succeeded with Marnier-Lapostolle, the much larger Rémy Cointreau
proved a harder nut to crack.
"We reiterate that everywhere the Rémy Cointreau Group operates, whether
directly or indirectly, we are committed to the respect of fundamental
humanitarian principles. We also want to conform to the laws and social norms
that apply in each local context," Rémy Cointreau sales director Christian
Morineau said in November 2000.
In February 2001, in response to letters and appeals from around the world,
the company published a glossy brochure claiming that although workers had
been on strike, the local management had resolved the problem by raising
wages and providing boots and gloves.
According to the union, however, this was far from the truth. The 30 workers
at the processing plant had been on strike for a $0.75 increase in the amount
they received per case. But management raised the amount by only $0.05 and
ordered them back to work under threat of dismissal.
The brochure did not mention the striking workers at the St. Raphael
plantation, but the union there reported that management had gone on the
offensive and that union leaders had been threatened and attacked by company
foreman and hired thugs.
The dispute spread in April, when the plantation manager discriminated
against union members in the allocation of land plots for use during the
"dead" season, when there is no work.
Local peasant farmers, who in 1958 had been promised new infrastructure in
return for leasing their land to the company, joined union members in
occupying the plantation in an effort to force managers to negotiate.
In June, Guacimal managers sent police to arrest four union leaders on
trumped-up charges. Quick action by Batay Ouvriye’s legal advisers gained
their release on grounds of lack of evidence and arrest warrants.
In November, with orange season approaching and no sign of change in
management’s hard-line tactics, the unions authorized a Batay Ouvriye
representative to travel to Paris to meet with Olivier Charraud, Rémy
Cointreau’s international director. Charraud, who earlier had claimed
ignorance of local anti-union tactics, agreed that the unions were legitimate
and had the right to negotiate.
He said the company believed in adhering to international labor norms and
promised to respond to Batay Ouvriye’s proposal that independent monitors
assess the situation. No formal reply has yet been issued.
Meanwhile, the unions are facing renewed intimidation. Managers at the
processing plant are attempting to turn the workers against the orange
pickers’ union, blaming strikes and work stoppages at the plantation for the
lack of work at the plant.
At the plantation, a union meeting in late November was broken up by foremen
and thugs who threatened to burn down the house where Batay Ouvriye activists
The Cointreau workers’ unions have responded by uniting with other new
workers’ organizations in northern Haiti. With no sign of a negotiated
settlement, the new federation has begun to explore the possibility of taking
over the retailing of the orange extract to the European market.
The international campaign to try to force Rémy Cointreau to protect union
rights has also been renewed, with new letter-writing appeals in France and
Britain and weekly sit-ins outside the company’s New York office.
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